The Three Stooges: Cops and Robbers (2002)

“I‘m tryin’ to think, but nothin’ happens.” Curly’s lamentation in Calling All Curs, one of six 20-minute shorts that comprise The Three Stooges: Cops and Robbers, neatly sums up the Stooges’ philosophy and appeal, and their enduring influence. Perfecting the art of stupidity for stupidity’s sake, the Stooges played dumb for yuks long before the Farrelly brothers were cracking jokes about hair gel.

Not only have the Howard brothers (Moe, Curly, Shemp, with Larry Fine) passed on their brand of entertainment to the Farrellys (in films like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary); their stamp can also be found, coincidentally, on the work of another successful team of siblings: the Zucker brothers, whose Airplane!, the Naked Gun series, the Police Squad! TV show, Kentucky Fried Movie, etc. all reveal Stooges influences. Most obviously, the Farrellys and Zuckers showcase the kind of physical tomfoolery and gleeful idiocy the Stooges practiced, reminding us that the oft-maligned popularity of lowbrow humor in recent films has a lengthy pedigree.

Bringing together material from two decades (the earliest film first appeared in 1936), Cops and Robbers reminds us just how delightfully idiotic the Stooges could be. As always, the storylines only provide a backdrop against which the trio’s mindless antics can play for full effect. All six shorts — Calling All Curs and Dizzy Detectives (both produced and directed by Jules White); Disorder in the Court (directed by Preston Black); Flat Foot Stooges (directed by Charley Chase); and Crime on Their Hands and Who Done It? (both directed by Edward Bernds and produced by Hugh McCollum) — deal loosely with “criminal” activities and pursuits, placing the Stooges on various “sides” of the law.

Calling All Curs (1939), for example, makes them veterinarians-cum-detectives attempting to locate a dog stolen from their animal hospital. After bungling their way through the investigation (poking and punching one another along the way), they glue black mattress stuffing onto a stray dog to pass it off as the stolen poodle: mayhem ensues. In Disorder in the Court (1936), Larry, Curly, and Moe are called to testify at a murder trial. Rather than merely narrate what they witnessed, they decide to reenact events, but of course, it all goes terribly awry — Curly ends up braining several unfortunate jury members over the head with a hammer.

In the rest of the episodes, the Stooges are dim-witted cops (The Dizzy Detectives, 1943), bungling detectives (Who Done It?, 1949), inept reporters-turned investigators (Crime on Their Hands, 1948), and incompetent firemen (Flat Foot Stooges, 1938). Each episode highlights the buffoonery and chicanery of the Stooges by placing them in varying positions of authority. The sharper the contrast between the Stooges’ ridiculous actions and their officious trappings, the funnier their shenanigans become.

These shenanigans will, of course, be well known to most audiences, even before actually watching The Three Stooges: Cops and Robbers. Their eye poking, skull bonking, face slapping, and substance squirting have been admired and copied for decades. The Stooges practiced a “pure” and consistent (some would say relentless) sort of preposterous behavior that made them stars in the 1930s and ’40s.

You might say that it’s because of this purity that they remain stars today. Each in turn a victim of the other two’s idiocy, the Stooges perform a kind of visceral comedy that is as effective as it is unsophisticated. Upping the antes set by previous physical comedians, who played alone (Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin) or teamed a straight man with a goof (Laurel and Hardy), the Stooges tripled the pratfalls and eliminated the plot. Or maybe, reduced the plot to essentials — rising action and resolution in a most corporeal, immediate form. The result is a constant stream of stumbles, assaults, and gags that, nearly eight years later, continue to be funny, not dated.

If Columbia’s DVD, or the many successful emulations of the Stooges’ work by subsequent filmmakers, are not enough evidence of their staying power, consider their syndication by the American Movie Classics channel. The same brand of slapstick that is being branded cinematic blasphemy today can, in fact, be found on a venue devoted to the most well respected American films.

This “classic” status afforded (at least by some) to the Stooges brings up an interesting question whose answer will not arrive until next summer. Given the influence of the Stooges on the Farrellys’ comedies, it should not surprise anyone to learn that the brothers are slated to release an updated version of “The Three Stooges” in the summer of 2003. Until the (as yet unnamed) film’s release, we are left to wonder if this project will be grouped with rest of the brothers’ cinematic “swill,” or instead with the classic films that now air almost daily on AMC. The Stooges’ syndication suggests that, perhaps, 80 years from now, even the Farrelly films will be classics in their own right — their canonization based not on the film’s artistic “merit,” but on their unceasing ability to entertain.