This weekend, The Farrelly Brothers’ theatrical release The Three Stooges, which is the very first undertaking of a film of the nonsensical, slapstick trio to not have at least ONE original member in it, opens in theaters nationwide.
This upcoming film, which at heart seems like a harmless, innocuous nod to the legendary comedy team, has created a ripple in today’s society. Fans are divided with the release of this film, which in itself is ludicrous. Purists are crying “fake,” “sell out,” and “it can’t be as good as the original,” when ultimately, at least to my eye, the choreography in the new film of the classic slapstick antics looks pretty convincing, the imitations of the three men look pretty spot on, and the lines I’ve heard in the trailer are as faithful to the inane, ridiculously effective bottom dollar scripting as in all of their classic shorts. This isn’t a remake of A Streetcar Named Desire or The Grapes of Wrath for sure, which arguably should cause this kind of public debate among cinefiles and at best, it will bring a new generation more of a consciousness of what this great, memorable, guilty pleasure, male-dominated fan base comedy team these three guys were. And to digress, I’ve always thought that any woman who likes these guys is the coolest gal in the room actually!
The original trio (consisting of Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Jerome “Curly” Howard) made 97 shorts for Columbia Pictures, spanning from 1934 – 1947. Those shorts are considered the “golden years” of the Stooges, since the team continued afterwards until 1959, and released another 93, with 3 different other “Stooges” replacing Curly (who grew ill from a stroke suffered in the late 1940s, eventually passing away in 1952). The replacements were Moe and Curly’s other brother Shemp Howard and followed by Curly lookalikes (but certainly not even close to the originals rubber limbed, wacky, zany personality) Joe Besser and “Curly Joe” Derita. By the time the Stooges theatrical shorts run ended in 1959, television, which was still a new medium just over a decade old at the time, aired reruns of the classic Curly shorts on syndicated stations, and a new audience discovered them for the first time. This led to the trio making personal appearances nationwide and even shot new theatrical films into the 1960s, which were tepid at best, ventures in space (The Three Stooges in Orbit), a Western vehicle (The Outlaws is Coming), and even a fantasy fairytale excursion (Snow White and The Three Stooges) which satisfied the youngest generation who loved these lovable knuckleheads, but the films were plenty devoid of and far from the belly laughs and wild slapstick physical comedy that was so prevalent in their golden era with its original members.
The trio of Moe, Larry, and Curly Joe finally called it quits in 1970, after filming a wacky travelogue called “Kook’s Tour” which was going to be an ongoing series for them (even though Moe and Larry started to advance into their seventieth year as men) until Larry Fine suffered a stroke, firmly ending the trio for good. He lived until 1975, and Moe Howard the only living remaining member of the trio, also died that year, ending an era and thrusting The Three Stooges into now legendary status. Since then, time has been kind to the trio, they have never been critically revered, however, they made Columbia Pictures a fortune and continue to do so, are influential to slapstick comedy to this very day, and even received a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the 1980s. Their likenesses are owned by their surviving family members and are marketed on everything from calendars to T-shirts to mugs, just about every form of physical minutiae one’s imagination can conjure up.
And now, in 2012, comes this new theatrical release. But no matter how the film is reviewed, revered, and dissected by all who view it, nothing can ever hold up to those first 97 shorts with Moe, Larry, and the original Curly. While most of them are genuine classics, and there some clunkers, the overall package stands up with some of the best comedy ever committed to celluloid. Most importantly, the ENTIRE collection of ALL their Columbia shorts have been released on individual DVD sets with The Three Stooges: The Ultimate Collection mega box set coming out on June 5, 2012.
Here’s my breakdown of the top ten best Three Stooges shorts from that bunch. A quick note, I am only including the Curly shorts here; I know there are good Shemp shorts, but to create a lineage to the theatrical Farrelly Brothers film, I felt it best to just focus on the Curly episodes. The list is below, including the DVD set it appears on, and in chronological order.
Top 10 Best Three Stooges Shorts
1) WOMAN HATERS (Short #1 – originally released May 5th, 1934; Vol. 1 DVD): This is the very first Stooges short for Columbia Pictures, after the boys released a few prior to this for other companies, some solo and some paired with mostly forgotten about in today’s climate jokester Ted Healy, who they got their start with. But this short starts to put the team into the proper zany perspective that shaped their style. The entire episode is done in song rhymes, and focused on the boys being in The Woman Haters Club, swearing off females, which of course doesn’t last long, and is slightly subdued to a fault. There’s actually not a lot of slapstick mirth going on here, but the short is included here on this list for historical purposes, as being the first one to set the Stooge ship sailing. (Released on the DVD “The Three Stooges Collection Volume One”: 1934 -1936)
2) PUNCH DRUNKS (Short #2 – originally released July 13th, 1934; Vol. 1 DVD): One of the few shorts where the three boys aren’t together in it (Moe plays a boxing manager, Larry a violinist, and Curly a restaurant worker cum aspiring boxer), it finds Curly becoming a powerful pugilist able to knock out an opponent cold whenever he hears “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Funny and hysterical, this one sets the tone for the rest of the series. Curly has a field day here with his jolly, jumbled physicality and even Larry, who usually winds up playing second fiddle (no pun intended) to Moe and Curly, has some nice moments here also. (Released on the DVD “The Three Stooges Collection Volume One”: 1934 -1936)
3) MEN IN BLACK (Short #3 – originally released September 28th, 1934; Vol. 1 DVD): One of the most memorable shorts of the entire Stooges oeuvre, this time the boys are let loose in a hospital and the slaphappy hi-jinks ensue. Nominated for an Academy Award, this out of control dizzyingly fast-paced short is possibly best remembered for the constant droning of the calling for “Doctor Howard, Doctor Fine, Doctor Howard!” blaring out of the hospital PA system. One of their best for sure. (Released on the DVD “The Three Stooges Collection Volume One” 1934-1936)
4) UNCIVIL WARRIORS (Short #8 – originally released April 26th, 1935; Vol. 1 DVD): The trio finds themselves in the United States Civil War, hapless as ever. They are spies (their names in this are Lieutenant Duck, Captain Dodge, and Major Hyde) looking to get information from their enemies with the predictable, inane hilarious results. Great sight gags abound in this one, replete with a great quota of face slapping, windmill fists to the head and eye poking, and the highlight being where Curly has to bake a cake (he says he used to work in a bakery as a pilot, and when pressed about that, he exclaims that used to take bread from one side and “pilot” on the other), and accidentally mistakes a feather pillow for a piece of cake, frosts it, and when the boys eat it, throw up feathers all over the place, a gag that was recycled in many other shorts and comedy films. (Abbott and Costello did it in “The Naughty Nineties” for example) This is also marks the first of their shorts to tackle the “war” setting. (Released on the DVD “The Three Stooges Collection Volume One”: 1934-1936)
5) DISORDER IN THE COURT (Short #15 – May 30th 1936; Vol. 1 DVD): The only short of theirs to fall into the public domain, which is why you may have seen it on mediocre low ball DVDs and old VHS tapes, this one finds the Stooges as witnesses for a murder case in court. Great funny stuff of course, good verbal and visual gags here, (especially Curly taking the oath before he takes the stand and a memorable back and forth exchange between him and the judge and the prosecutor about Curly taking off his hat and raising his right hand cause side-splitting results), a nice little dancing number even, and of course the usual slapdash, shebang ending, where all hell breaks loose. Yet another in a long of line of their shorts which pokes fun and absolutely decimates authority and straight-laced society. (Released on the DVD “The Three Stooges Collection Volume One”: 1934-1936)
6) VIOLENT IS THE WORD FOR CURLY (Short #32 – July 2nd 1938; Vol. 2 DVD): The trio accidentally winds up becoming professors at an All-Girl college (by weird “soicumstance” as Curly might put it). Some of their most adventurous and creative visual gags are in this one, one of them being Curly tied to a spit and being roasted over a fire, and typical shenanigans as the boys work at a gas station. This short is also best remembered for their fun and catchy sing-a-simple-song “Swinging the Alphabet,” which becomes a jazzy mess by song’s end. (Released on the DVD “The Three Stooges Collection Volume Two”: 1937-1939)
7) WE WANT OUR MUMMY (Short #37 – February 24, 1939; Vol. 2 DVD): The men are detectives, hot on the trail of the Egyptian tomb of King “Rootin-Tootin” and the disappearance of Professor Tuttle, who is schooled in Egyptology and knows the whereabouts of the tomb. They wind up in Cairo (Curly says he knows someone who dwells there, a “Cairo-practor”) and get chased by mummies and thugs who have kidnapped Tuttle, to the hilarious usual Stooge-style results. Curly swimming a lake that is really just a mirage showcases his wonderfully comedic timing and choreography, one of his career highlights. A great short for the comic ages. (Released on the DVD “The Three Stooges Collection Volume Two”: 1937-1939)
8) YOU NAZTY SPY! (Short #44 – January 19th, 1940; Vol. 3 DVD): Months before the cinema world hailed Charlie Chaplin’s satirization of Adolf Hitler and World War II with The Great Dictator, Moe Howard did his own equally memorable and hysterical turn as well. Taking place in fictional Moronica, three munitions officers decide their country is need of a serious change, and begin to implement a dictatorship, hence the inclusion of our favorite trio. Funny, satirical, farcical, and smart, this short is one of their few to actual poke fun at an “actual event” during their history. (Released on the DVD “The Three Stooges Collection Volume Three”: 1940-1942)
9) A PLUMBING WE WILL GO (Short #46 – April 19th, 1940; Vol. 3 DVD): The Stooges three thumb their noses at authority and the rich elite in a major way with this great two reeler. They wind up as plumbers (they always somehow accidentally wind up in their positions in these shorts) and are let loose to fix a mansion which is experiencing questionable plumbing. Left to their own devices, they of course cause more destruction than problem solving. By short’s end, the entire house is full of rivers of water. Great sequences with Curly trying to fix a faulty leak and winds up in a labyrinth ala a Tinkertoy construction with metal pipes, and a cook who works at the mansion who is the victim of the boys’ screw ups, having water cascade out of his oven and overhead light bulb, dousing him with buckets of water, forcing him to exclaim, “This house has sure gone crazy!” Uninhibited, wild crazy stuff, full of high energy, and plenty of gags. (Released on the DVD “The Three Stooges Collection Volume Three”: 1940-1942)
10) MICRO-PHONIES (Short #87 – November 15th, 1945; Vol. 4 DVD): By this point, Curly was starting to get sick, a stroke would force him to slow his paces, and the frantic pace of the shorts, some of which were uncharacteristically unfunny and ultimately sad to watch. But with “Micro-Phonies” the magic was still there. This one finds Curly being mistaken for a female (!) opera singer, who is caught miming to a record, Strauss’ “Voices of Spring,”, by a radio host, who is delighted as she hears the song wafting through speakers. When she wants to find out who it is, Curly is forced to dress in drag and pretend he’s the singer of the tune. A great farce ensues thereafter, with sight gags and clever puns aplomb. One of their last classics, before Curly left due to the stroke and illness and although the team soldiered on with the aforementioned replacements, of course things were never the same again. (Released on the DVD “The Three Stooges Collection Volume Four”: 1943-1945).
So there you have it. Stoogeypedia’s Selection Of The Top Ten Best Three Stooges Shorts. Of course I’m sure I have omitted plenty of other favorites, but to me, these represent some of the best comedy, timing, slapstick choreography, and classic comedy direction that represented the zenith of this unique comedy trio, on par with The Marx Brothers, Martin and Lewis, Abbott and Costello, and other great Hollywood comedy teams. All are encouraged to check out each of these superbly memorable classically funny films; they are readily available on DVD, and the fact that they have lasted so long in the consciousness of the American public is a true testament to their immense and well deserved popularity. Calling “Doctor Howard, Doctor Fine, Doctor Howard!” indeed, for now and forever, and also as they put it ever so succinctly in that Men in Black short, “For Duty and Humanity!”