Ted Healy teamed with family friends Moe and Shemp Howard in a vaudeville act where he, Healy, would attempt to sing or tell stories, only to be interrupted by the antics of his “Stooges”. He would then, in the vaudeville tradition of the time, physically abuse them, to the amusement of the audience. The act became popular enough so the group, now five people, made it into a feature film, written by the cartoonist/inventor Rube Goldberg, called Soup to Nuts.
Although the film was quite mediocre, the act got good reviews; good enough so Fox Studios expressed an interest in signing some of the five to a contract. When Healy felt slighted because he was not included, he protested and the offer was withdrawn. The group reorganized into what would be known as The Three Stooges with characters whose actual names were Moe and Shemp Howard and Larry Fine. Not too long after, Healy reconnected with the group and for reasons that are conflicting; Shemp left the group to go solo. Moe’s brother, Jerry was recruited and shaved his head to get the part. Hence “Curly” was born.
It’s easy to imagine why they became so popular that they made more than 200 films, albeit many were two-reel short films, in their career together. In 1932 and 1933 when they were still with Healy the country was in the depths of the Great Depression. Movies were a cheap means of escape and the broad-based slapstick of The Stooges was perfect for escapism. The next five years were hardly better economically and they quickly became more and more popular.
It is a little more difficult to explain why they remained so until their film contracts ended in the mid-1950s. Possibly there was a nostalgia factor as their audience aged and became more affluent. In any event, they were indeed fortunate that they had so much archived material at a time when television was hungry for content. When Screen Gems packaged 78 of their almost 200 short films and syndicated them nationally, a whole new generation of fans was born. My grown son confesses that he was in that group. When asked what he found appealing he responded that it was the predictable physical farce that caught his attention.
Whatever it was, it fueled their attraction for another thirty-five years and made a new generation nostalgic about their antics. Mel Gibson was so attracted that he made a rather unsuccessful feature film about their lives. Australian released, it received little attention in this country but is occasionally available on AMC Classic Movies. And somebody at Hanna-Barbera must have been a fan as they were featured as cartoon characters in the New Scooby-Doo Movies in 1972.
The newest generation is being exposed to them as this goes to print. In 2007 Sony packaged The Three Stooges Collection, Volume 1 and quickly followed up with Volume 2 the next year. Although the personnel changed through their career, the recognizablity of the characters is phenomenal. Who among us could not recognize Curly, or for that matter, Moe. And that leaves all of us knowing the one remaining must be Larry.
The newest film, set in current time and with three new actors, is due out in early April. Will it be as popular? My guess is yes. Partly because these times economically are tough. Partly because films now are designed to appeal to the age group that finds slapstick farce truly funny. But mostly because the cast is solid and the Producers are the Farrelly brothers. They were said to have originally wanted to cast Sean Penn, Jim Carey and Benicio Del Toro, but eventually settled on Chris Diamontopoulus, Will Masso, and Sean Hayes.
The Farrelly brothers have a solid track record including: The Trouble with Mary, Dumb and Dumber, Me, Myself and Irene, and Shallow Hal. The trailers are out and what we see seems to indicate a hit. The blessing, from my point of view, is that, best I can tell, it’s not in 3-D.
An interesting article in Parade Magazine the other day titled “Your Body Explained” struck a chord with me. Next post I’ll explain why.