Let this be a law of criticism: context is key to appreciation. When you don’t have enough information to make a proper evaluation, your ability to judge is incomplete. And yet in our arrogance, most humans by default will assume they have sufficient knowledge to be the arbiters of all that goes on around them. In a certain sense, they have to; it is the only way to navigate the world we live in. But it is also true that most of us, were we to take the attitude of Socrates, might admit that we could know more — that we don’t know enough. America has become a kind of nightmare scenario in that regard. Awash in the information revolution, we are surrounded by armchair experts on science, politics, religion and culture. But few, maybe none, know as much as they think they do. Far from owning up to their own ignorance, most will contend that they know everything. I am no better or worse than the people around me in that regard.
And, so — ha ha ha! — I have been slow in developing an appreciation for Joe “Curly Joe” DeRita (Joseph Wardell, 1909-1993). DeRita, of course, was the “Sixth Stooge”, or put another way, the Fourth “Third Stooge”, the last man to join Moe Howard and Larry Fine in the long-running comedy team known as the Three Stooges. DeRita, to put it mildly, gets little respect, insofar as anyone thinks of him at all. When I was a kid, I’m sure I had the prevailing opinion on the team. The golden line-up was the version that included Curly Howard as the third member, an iteration that encompassed the team’s first dozen years making shorts for Columbia, 1934-46. When their shorts turned up on television from the later years, ones that featured Shemp Howard or Joe Besser in the third spot, we howled in horror and disappointment, as though it were a betrayal or swindle of some sort. It was because we loved Curly so much — and because we didn’t know enough. As an adult I learned a lot more about both Shemp and Besser, I saw them in other movies (and in Besser’s case, tv shows), and I read about them, and I learned to appreciate their own qualities and could see what they were bringing, or attempting to bring, to the work. And now I see the people who dismiss Shemp or Besser as newbies, dilettantes in the realm of Stoogedom.
But I never bothered to make that effort with Joe DeRita. Why? I dunno. As with the other two, I guess I assumed that I knew everything. I had seen all the late career Three Stooges features on tv as a kid, so I knew his work, and found it bland and unamusing by contrast with his predecessors. And there was a palpable lameness about calling him “Curly Joe”. It just made him seem like a stand-in, one who wasn’t bringing much to the table. But having spent some time reacquainting myself with his work, and learning some new things about him, I’ll never dismiss him out of hand again. I simply didn’t have the tools to see him properly before.
Interestingly, like Abbott and Costello, DeRita came out of burlesque. This gave him a different, but similar background to his fellow Stooges. What truly opened my eyes (and I’m sure this is true of others) is the fact that DeRita had made four starring solo shorts for Columbia in 1946 and 1947, The Good Bad Egg, Wedlock Deadlock, Slappily Married, and Jitter Bughouse. These are not masterpieces, in fact they are all remakes of previous Columbia shorts, and so steeped in the trademark Jules White style that the experience is very much like watching a Three Stooges short. In fact the supporting players are often the same people (Vernon Dent, Emil Sitka, Christine McIntyre). But what makes the films valuable is you can see what DeRita was really like when not shoe-horned into the team. He has his own style, a bit more Lou Costello than Stooges-like. He’s a snazzy dresser, and he has a slick mane of hair, greased up in the 40s style. Sometimes he even wears a derby like Costello. And you get to see a bunch of his skills, which include dancing and some acrobatic slapstick. His character is somewhat ill-defined. Pushy? Mild-mannered? He seems to see-saw between both. They couldn’t figure out to do with him and so he was released after only four shorts. But DeRita was skilled enough that he was approached in 1946 to be the replacement for Curly. He demurred because he wanted to do his own thing.
By the late ’50s things changed. The burlesque circuits were dead, and the Three Stooges were hot again due to their exposure on television. When DeRita was approached this time to replace the departing Joe Besser, it was a no-brainer: he’d take it, no matter what the compromises were. And they were pretty substantial. He ended up shaving off all his hair, and had to change his name to Curly Joe. Basically, he was being made over into another performer, but in sort of a half-assed way. No one could actually replace Curly Howard, or even satisfactorily imitate him. So a sort of third way was pursued, one that only had to be sophisticated enough to satisfy children, for that was to be the team’s new audience.
Granted, kids (and child-like adults) had always been the Three Stooges core audience. But by the late 1950s, movie studios were becoming scientific about these things, with (I think) unfortunate results. They began to bear down and target specific markets. Another good example of this is Walt Disney. If you watch his cartoons from the 30s and 40s, most of them are laugh-out-loud funny, just like those of Warner Brothers or other studios. They were for general audiences. In the 50s, he and his company decided to target children and families, and all the teeth and sophistication were ironed out of the Disney product. This identical thing happened with the Stooges. It is also interesting to observe the fact that this new incarnation of the Stooges was born just as Abbott and Costello, who had also evolved into a kiddie act, had left the scene. Originally from burlesque, Abbott aand Costello had started out making comedies for general audiences, but the product devolved into B movie product strictly for kid’s matinees. The last Abbott and Costello comedy had been made in 1956. Costello made one solo comedy in 1959 before being felled by a heart attack. So now there was a market void, and the Three Stooges jumped in to fill it. The strategizing couldn’t have been any better if it were conscious and it probably was. I’d be hard put to believe a great deal of thought wasn’t put into the conception of the vehicles. After all, Have Rocket, Will Travel (1959) and The Three Stooges in Orbit (1962) do seem an awful like Abbott and Costello go to Mars (1953), and Snow White and The Three Stooges (1961) isn’t VERY far away from Abbott and Costello’s Jack and the Beanstalk (1952). One MIGHT say that The Outlaws is Coming borrows from Abbott and Costello’s comedy westerns — except for the fact that the Stooges had already made countless comedy westerns of their own as shorts. The Three Stooges Meet Hercules (1962) seems to hearken further back for something to rip off: the concept bears more than a passing resemblance to Eddie Cantor’s Roman Scandals. Which leaves The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze (1963), an obvious parody of Mike Todd’s 1956 movie of the Jules Verne classic.
Like I said, I watched all these movies on tv as a kid, but really hadn’t looked at them in many decades, because why wouldja? But they played Have Rocket, Will Travel on TCM a few months back and out of curiosity (and because I’m supposed to know about these things) I watched it and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it (or that I enjoyed it at all). “Less violence”, I found, didn’t translate into NO violence. There are still some of the trademark face slaps and eye gouges in the equation. A new element is the boring romantic sub-plots, also borrowed from Abbott and Costello comedies, but you have to suffer through that in a lot of movies. There are still plenty of laughs and weirdness to be had.
I also watched some of The New Three Stooges cartoons (1965-66) in recent years and found them diverting in a campy sort of way, though the animation couldn’t be cruder. Their 1970 tv pilot Kook’s Tour was a sad ending to a long career though.
Ironically if DeRita had joined the team in 1946 when Jules White first asked him, he might have been seen in another light today, much as we now see Shemp or Besser, for his own shorts were as gritty and lowdown as the Stooges product of the ’40s, and DeRita wouldn’t have had to become the huggable stuffed animal he is made to be in the features of the 1960s. But now at least we can see that.
For more on slapstick comedy film history, including the work of The Three Stooges, don’t miss my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, available from amazon.com etc etc etc