Three cheers for Shemp Howard! What didn’t really get covered in my earlier Three Stooges post is Shemp’s awesome solo career from 1932 through 1946. In my not-even-remotely-humble opinion Shemp was by far the most talented of the three Howard Brothers. He possessed genuine acting chops (a claim I hardly think could ever be made on behalf of Moe or Curly). And, though perhaps his persona was not as outlandishly weird as Curly’s, his comic chops were second to none either as a physical comedian or as an improviser. The fact that he is more subdued than Curly has dimmed his reputation among dilettente Stooges fans. But just watch Shemp’s own starring shorts for Columbia, or….
OR (and this is more to the moment)….get these recent DVD releases!
The Vitaphone Comedy Collection (Volume One, 1932-1934). The Vitaphone studios were in Flatbush, Brooklyn, a natural place for Shemp to have gone looking for work after his original break with the Stooges in 1930 (the Howards were Brooklyn natives). He immediately got boatloads of work supporting the likes of Fatty Arbuckle, Jack Haley, Ben Blue, Gus Shy and Harry Gribbon. And I am here to tell ya — the highlight of all of these movies is Shemp. He outshines whomever he is supposed to be supporting. While Arbuckle and Haley are quite good, Shemp is even better in their films. And the other guys (Ben Blue, etc) are just terrible, making Shemp look like a genius, essentially making the supposed stars of these little movies seem completely boring and incompetent, which they were. But Shemp is just a force of nature. Ad libbing funny lines left and right. He is often paired with familiar character actor Lionel Stander (later seen in many classic movies by the likes of Capra and Sturges) and they make a great deal of sense as a sort of loose team, with their vaguely criminal, street-wise personas, a sort of an early (better) version of Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall. The wildest thing in these early pictures is Shemp’s hippie haircut. It’s not the one we know from The Three Stooges films, which was outrageous enough. In the 20s and early 30s, Shemp had really long hair, a sort of Beatles and Stones circa 1965 kind of look that must have blown a lot of minds in 1932. Anyway, this indispensible set is available here.
Meantime, here he is in his solo short Mr. Noisy:
For more on classic comedy including Shemp Howard and the Three Stooges see my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube