Archive for the Three Stooges Category

300 Other Stooges

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, Three Stooges, TV variety, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on September 21, 2015 by travsd

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What with TCM showing Meet the Baron today, I thought it might do to share this little post that will provide a little context for the Three Stooges (who appear in the film)

Think ya know what a stooge is, do ya? I’ll lay dollars to donuts that when you hear that word two definitions or associations will occur to you, and both of them are admittedly correct. But I am going to tell you about a third.

The meanings of “stooge” you already know I imagine are these 1) the dictionary definition: a fall guy, chump or idiot; 2) a well known comedy act, consisting of 3 such idiots, which made comedy shorts for Columbia Pictures between 1934 and 1959 and a few features here and there before and after.

All true. My third definition of the word lies somewhere in between the other two and will perhaps illuminate both. In vaudeville, the word had a generic use — a stooge was a comedy performer who would pretend to be a member of the audience, or an usher, or stagehand or such like and thus enliven a comedy act by making a surprise appearance from an unexpected part of the theatre. Stooges weren’t the only vaudeville performers with at least one foot in the audience. Vaudeville acts lived or died by novelty and surprise. Many different kinds of acts employed surreptitious surrogates. For example, very often famous vocalists would employ “balcony singers”, apprentice warblers who would surprise the audience by joining in on a song from a place in the seats. Al Jolson  (among scores or hundreds) got his start in this way. And, as I’m sure you know magicians and mind readers often employ confederates or audience plants who assist them in various ways to create their supernatural illusions. So the stooge is a subset of this larger group. A stooge is a comedian who pretends to be one of the public, and interrupts the comedy act on stage by heckling or causing some other disturbance.

That’s the genesis of the Three Stooges. Moe and Shemp Howard and later Larry Fine were hired to cause such commotions during Ted Healy’s act.  The Howard brothers’ first dates with Healy happened right down the street from my house; the theatre where that historic occasion transpired is now a C-Town Supermarket. So these guys became “Ted Healy’s Stooges.” And Healy had many other ones, by the way. Sometimes he used more than just the well-known three. At other times he fired those three and hired others. Mousie Garner and Fred Sanborn were some of Healy’s other stooges. When the famous three finally broke with Healy for good they become something unprecedented — stooges without a lead comedian — and branded themselves The Three Stooges. And in time the world found itself thinking those three were the original and only three.

But the universe of stooges was and is much wider. There were scores of them in vaudeville, probably hundreds in the history of modern show business if we include night clubs, Broadway, burlesque and so forth.

For example, Frank Fay employed Patsy Kelly in such a role. Joe Cook had Dave Chasen. Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin was practically ALL Stooges (Joe Besser, among many others was one of them). Paul McCullough of Clark and McCullough, originally the lead comedian of the act, was gradually demoted to JUST the stooge. Jerry Lewis was Dean Martin’s stooge in nightclubs, and you can see their act re-created in their earliest films (and their 1952 comedy The Stooge paints a nice picture of what a vaudeville stooge did.) And comedians continue to use stooges, especially on television (I think particularly of Chris Elliott on the David Letterman show, although this is already decades ago, but comedy shows still use this technique).

Just some more news you can’t use!

To learn out more about vaudeville consult No Applause, Just Throw oney: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Several Sad Swan Songs: Unworthy Final Films by Great Comedians

Posted in Abbott and Costello, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Comedy Teams, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Mae West, Marx Brothers, Ritz Brothers, Three Stooges with tags , , , , , , on August 21, 2015 by travsd

Happy Friday! Because people love nothing more than comedy that depresses them, I thought I would do a little post today about the sad exits of several classic comedy stars. By sad, I mean sad, in the literal sense. Most of these comedians are my heroes, who achieved the very highest heights of what it is possible to achieve in the comedy field. Their last films…well, they just kind of bring down their batting average.

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The Heat’s On (1943)

Mae West’s last picture of the original Hollywood studio era (i.e. when she was relatively in her prime) although she would come back in the 1970s to do two more pictures, which we’ll get to. If you are a Mae West fan, The Heat’s On is disappointing; she’s only in about a quarter of the movie. In a normal Mae West movie Mae is the only important person, she is onscreen almost every minute, and she gets all the funny lines. In this one she is horribly upstaged by Victor Moore, William Gaxton and Xavier Cugat and a million musicians and singers in a crummy conventional plot about putting on a show. Ironically, West was the one whose name director/producer Gregory Ratoff relied upon to raise the financing to make the film. It plays with Mae’s image some, but has nothing like the normal ratio of Westian witticisms. A pale reflection of her earliest Paramount work.

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Love Happy (1950)

Love Happy by some measures is the Marx Brothers’ last movie as a team, although Groucho’s turn is essentially a cameo, and Chico’s is somewhat underwritten. It was originally devised as a starring vehicle for Harpo. The other two got involved because Chico, a problem gambler,  needed the money.

The movie also has the reputation for being the “worst” Marx Brothers movie, although I don’t happen to agree. Love Happy is a relatively bad movie; it is weird, and it has problems, but personally I wouldn’t call it their worst picture by a long shot.  For various reasons, I would give that dubious honor to either Room Service, Go West or The Big StorePerhaps it is a three way tie.

The plot of Love Happy (co-written by Frank Tashlin)  is the usual contemptible claptrap about a troupe of actors desperate to put on a Broadway show. It is manifestly impossible to care whether they succeed or not.  Doubly so, in light of the undistinguished musical numbers we are obliged to sit through. On the other hand, the cast of the show is literally starving for food and that IS an interesting plot. Harpo, the inexplicable mute who appears to be part of the company, although I’m not sure in what capacity, goes to the basement of a grocery store to steal food for them and wanders away with several cans of sardines. Little does he know that one of the cans contains…stolen diamonds! Such plot as there is involves several wicked crooks trying to recover the jewels, which Harpo doesn’t even know they have. Which is ironic, because they could finance a Broadway show and several groceries if they could just fence these rocks, get me?

What is Chico’s role in all of this? Chico plays Harpo’s Italian friend.

And Groucho? He is a detective who narrates the story and shows up at the end. By now he was a solo movie star (Copacabana1947) and a game show host and had taken to wearing a real mustache and glasses rather than the fake ones that had been his previous trademarks. He is almost literally phoning it in here.

Most memorably, when financing for the film ran out the producers struck product placement deals, giving us the unusual spectacle in the big chase scene at the climax where the Marx Brothers run across rooftops past billboards for Mobil, Bulova, Kool and General Electric. Why, it’s just like watching television!

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Utopia a.k.a Atoll K a.k.a Robinson Crusoeland (released in the U.S. in 1954, but released in Europe three years earlier)

Laurel and Hardy’s last film. The team’s last previous Hollywood film had been in 1945. In the meantime they had been touring with live shows. This being their only film offer, they took it. The film was a French/ Italian co-production. Both Laurel and Hardy suffered a wide variety of health problems as they were filming (see photo above). And the film is almost unwatchably bad. It concerns Laurel inheriting a private island. He and Hardy, and some friends go there in a shabby, broken-down boat. When they arrive, uranium is discovered. That’s the extent of the plot. The script is not funny, and the performances are painful. It’s one of the saddest exits in film history.

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The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959)

This is Lou Costello’s last film, released posthumously. He had broken up with Bud Abbott two years earlier. In this spoof of the typical drive-in movie fare of the day, he plays a schlub who is forced to marry a girl who has been exposed to radiation and has grown to the size of, well, Grape Ape. This is the only film on this list I have not seen, although I’ll trust the conventional wisdom that it’s a stinkeroo. Which only makes me want to see it all the more.

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A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)

Charlie Chaplin’s last film and first foray into color and widescreen casts Sophia Loren as a White Russian aristocrat who is now a taxi dancer and prostitute in Hong Kong. She stows away in conservative diplomat Marlon Brando’s state room. After much resistance on Brando’s part, they fall in love.

Unfortunately, despite the involvement of these stellar artists the film veers way off course in amazingly basic ways for so major a filmmaker. For starters, when does it take place? Originally written in the ‘30s, it has now been tweaked to be “sometime after World War II” (as an opening title tells us), but the fashions and some of the music and dancing seem to tell us it is contemporary (1966). Certainly there is nothing in the film to tell us that it’s a period piece, set in an earlier time. That being the case, our White Russian taxi dancer must be substantially older than Sophia Loren, even if she was a child at the time of the Revolution. And if it is 1966, why on earth is Marlon Brando’s character taking an ocean liner to travel to an important diplomatic post, needlessly taking several days as opposed to several hours by airplane? And if it is supposed to be set in an earlier decade, why do we have a scene in which Angela Scoular dances a Watusi as though she were in an episode of Shindig?

So Chaplin (then 77) was showing signs of being woefully out of touch. Further, the attitudes in his sex comedy are perplexing to say the least. The key to such comedies is to keep them light, fast, and ribald. The tone of A Countess is dark, plodding, and prudish. In My Autobiography, Chaplin reveals himself to be surprisingly Victorian on the subject of sex for someone who had apparently had so much of it, and with so many partners. Brando’s character is a kind of mouthpiece for that perspective in this film, and the movie sort of oddly takes his point of view rather than (as most such comedies do) making him a figure of fun. Since this is a film by the world’s greatest comedian, fun is just what we would expect a lot more of in such a film. Door slamming, for example. Farces are predicated on the hilarious choreography of such comic business. Such had been the case with his early films. For a more recent example of how it’s done, see Noises Off (1992). Chaplin does stage some of this kind of business in the film, but it is amazingly flaccid and perfunctory, it never ignites.

While Sophia Loren is actually great in it (and could potentially have been even better), Brando almost single-handedly sinks the whole movie. As we have said, Chaplin’s cinematic style is passive —it depends entirely on the performances within the frame to achieve its effects. But though Chaplin’s style is set up to support a performance, Brando steadfastly refuses to give one. As we know, while Chaplin was laissez-faire on the photographic side, he micromanaged his actors right down to demonstrating to them every gesture to make. Brando, a method actor, couldn’t stand this, and rebelled. In A Countess from Hong Kong his body is moving through a performance according to Chaplin’s instructions, but his interior life has checked out. You can see his hostility and unhappiness right there on the screen. He doesn’t seem to want to be in Chaplin’s movie. And since Chaplin’s entire film depends on Brando’s performance, A Countess from Hong Kong becomes a turkey.

This production brought to you through the courtesy of Kiwi Shoe Polish

This production brought to you through the courtesy of Kiwi Shoe Polish

Skidoo (1968)

After a lifetime of reading about it (being as it was Groucho Marx’s last film, among other things) I finally got to see this cult classic on TCM about five years ago. They played it in the pre-dawn hours, much where it belongs. The film is almost impossible to describe, so I’ll just try to hit it in fragments. Directed by the great Otto Preminger at a time in his career when he was desperately trying to remain au courant, this nutty film stars the Great One Mr. Jackie Gleason as a retired mobster, whom with his wife Carol Channing, is worried about his hippie daughter and her hippie boyfriend.

Forced by the top mobster “God” (Groucho) to do one last hit, he goes undercover into a jail so he can bump off fellow gangster Mickey Rooney before he can testify before a Senate commission. While in jail, Gleason does LSD. His trip is enjoyable in just the way you would imagine (“I can see MATHEMATICS!” he screams at one point).

Along the way, we meet just about every character actor in Hollywood, a mishmash of old and young: Austin Pendleton (in his first Hollywood role — and bald!), Frankie Avalon, Burgess MeredithCesar RomeroGeorge RaftPeter Lawford, Fred Clark, Frank Gorshin, etc etc etc. Harry Nilsson, who also wrote the soundtrack and its several songs (including the famous musical closing credits), also has a small role as a prison guard.

At the time, when there was a lot of this kind of stuff going on, it no doubt seemed less than the sum of its parts, and it bombed with both press and public. Now however, it has the added value of being a historical curiosity, and I highly recommend seeing it at least once in your life just to say you did.

And how does Groucho come off? Well…oddly, Grouchy. He’s not too funny in this, though we are sort of conditioned to laugh at things he says in a deadpan voice, even when they aren’t jokes, and it can be hard to turn that reaction off. He’s kind of mean and scary in this movie, a pool playing, homicidal gangster. He never leaves the tiny confines of his yacht, an undeniable reflection of the fact that the actor was 78 years old.

We’re lucky to see him standing at all. Believe me, Groucho was capable of doing shows where he DIDN’T stand. In 1976, not long before he died, I saw him on this Bob Hope special, where, in the aftermath of several strokes, he sat in a chair and uttered quips that were difficult to understand because his diction had gone. It was a sad spectacle, and to me as an 11 year old, a confusing one. Was I supposed to get this? No, son, the grown-ups have just done something very ill-advised. Get used to that!

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Kook’s Tour (1970) 

The Three Stooges’ final product may be the saddest of all. Intended as the pilot for a tv series, it’s essentially a lot of MOS film footage of the three elderly men pretending to goof around on vacation, with Moe Howard providing travelogue style voice over narration. There is no plot, and the slapstick is almost nonexistent. Really Kook’s Tour looks like it exists just to give the old guys something to do. Sadly, Larry Fine’s stroke right after filming spoiled the prospects of a series. As awful as this program is, it’s still got to better than the movie Moe was trying to get off the ground in 1975 undoubtedly would have been.

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Blazing Stewardesses (1975)

This bizarre film concerns three porn-refugee stewardesses who help a bordello madam (Yvonne De Carlo) and two cow pokes (B movie western stars Bob Livingston and Red Barry) save their dude ranch.

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Along the way they are helped (hindered) by the two surviving Ritz Brothers, Harry and Jimmy (Al had died in 1965). Their roles were originally to have been played by the remaining Three Stooges, but Larry Fine and Moe Howard both died in 1975, and no one wants Curly Joe de Rita. The film’s title was a craven and rather pathetic attempt to capitalize on the recent success of Blazing Saddles, which is as a Himalaya next to this ant hill of a comedy. Naughty Stewardesses, which features some of the same creative personnel, had come out a few months earlier, though this is technically not a sequel. Seeing two Ritz Brothers in their mid 70s cut up as though they were still in their 30s is quite a spectacle.

“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”

Sextette (1978)

Mae West was a pro — she had been in show business for several decades. In fact, it would be technically accurate to say that she had been a professional actress and performer since the 19th century.

Thus, Mae knew that the key to success is: whatever happens, you gotta keep hustling. Keep your mind on your goals, and keep hustling to realize them. Sometimes there may be layoffs. There may be some down time between projects. But always keep a hand in, because the wheel will eventually turn around again.

And so it was that in 1978 — 35 years after her last starring vehicle and over 40 years since starring in a vehicle that could be called her own — Mae West finally got the chance to make her next script, Sextette. She’d written the script in the early 1950s, when she was already a shade long in the tooth, but roughly age appropriate. Then she’d starred in a stage version of the play about ten years later. And now here she was…not 50, not 60, not 70, not 80, but 85 years old, starring in this picture. The iffiness springs not from the fact she was elderly. Hey, look at The Whales of August and On Golden Pond. Nor does chagrin emerge even from the fact that her character is 85 years old and SEXUAL. Hey, look at Cocoon. But what is strange (uncanny? Halloween-like?) about Sextette is that West insisted on playing her character as though the 40 years hadn’t passed at all. The idea was that she was STILL the same sex symbol (a notion that had already become questionable among audiences in the late 1930s). And so in this movie her character gets married to her sixth husband (hence the title), a young Timothy Dalton who was some six decades her junior.

An to prove that she Got By With a Little Help From Her Friends, there was also Ringo Starr! Dom Deluise! Tony Curtis! George Hamilton! Alice Cooper! Keith Moon! All flirting with her (and presumably doing it with her on a large canopy bed with silver, space-age pillows) just as though she were half a century younger. Hey, what the hell. It was the 70s. Sex was in. Even gross sex was in. And not only that, it’s a musical! With crazy disco numbers! Some of which Mae sings herself!

How did this even happen? you may well ask. Well in 1970, Mae had appeared in another of the era’s more notorious films, Myra Breckenridge, an x rated adaptation of the Gore Vidal novel about a transsexual, which despite the adventurous subject matter was a critical and popular flop. Still, Mae was back in the game again and presumably bankable on some level, and so financial backing was found.

At this stage of her life, Mae’s hearing, sight and memory were all gone, so throughout the picture her lines were fed to her through a special ear piece, and you generally see handsome young gents leading her around by the arm. Which a gentleman should do anyway. None of the major studios would distribute the film, so its initial release wasn’t the huge splash one might expect given this major star’s emergence from forced retirement. But over time it has become a cult favorite among, oh, people like me. Everyone should see this film at least once. No one should ever see the film more than once.

But there’s an up side to all this. West passed away two years after Sextette’s release. I think it’s really nice that she passed at a moment when she felt like she was back in the game.

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Cracking Up (1983)

Okay, Jerry Lewis is still with us, but he is 89 years old, and I think it safe to say that Cracking Up will prove to have been his last comedy film as both director and star. In every case we’ve discussed in this blogpost the movie occurred because the artist didn’t know how to quit while they were ahead. And we have to bring some humanity to the contemplation of that. Because that is obviously a hard thing to know how to do. Now Jerry, like many of the folks above (Groucho, Mae West) had more than one “last film”, but kept coming back to the well.  First there was his previous last film as comedy auteur Which Way to the Front (1970), set in Nazi Germany during World War Two. And then there his was aborted Holocaust movie The Day the Clown Cried (1972). (I like to refer to the years 1970-72 as Jerry’s “Third Reich Period”.) After which he ostensibly and perhaps wisely retired.

But…no, eight years later he returned to the big screen for his big “come back” film Hardly Working (1980). The interesting thing about this phase is what he didn’t do. In the last phase of his previous career, Jerry had been trying to “grow”. From around 1965 through 1972, you can see him trying to adjust his previous screen character to account for the fact that he was now a middle aged man. But when he returned in 1980, it was as though he had said “to hell with that.” He just returned to doing what he always did, only much worse. Audiences had grown more sophisticated on some level since Jerry had left the screen. The big stars were SNL alum who made satirical, daring and hip comedies. Jerry ignored what was going on around him at the time and made a film where he just fell down a lot (at the age of 54). Moderate audiences checked out Hardly Working out of curiosity, and I guess Jerry took that as positive reinforcement for his bad behavior.

So…in 1983 he went back to the well yet again with Smorgasbord , which he renamed Cracking Up. Co-written with his old screenwriting partner Bill Richmond the film does everything it can to ignore the commercial will of audiences in 1983, by phoning in Lewis’s own 2o and 30 year old screen behavior, and populating the rest of the movie with over-exposed tv comedians like Foster Brooks and Milton Berle and football player Dick Butkus. After a single preview, it was decided not to distribute the film to theatres. It went straight to cable tv. (Fortunately, Jerry has had many chances to redeem himself as an actor since 1983. This is his last hurrah as actor/director).

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And check out my other book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Stars of Slapstick #194: Jules White

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Three Stooges with tags , , , , on September 17, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great comedy film producer and director Jules White (1900-1985).

White is alternately revered and reviled among comedy and film fans; I am unabashed in my admiration for him (we’ll get to his flaws anon). His mark on comedy history was as the head of Columbia’s short subject division from 1933 to 1959, a period during which all the other big and small studios were closing their doors or simply phasing out comedy shorts: (Mack Sennett, Hal Roach, Educational Pictures, RKO, Warner Brothers, MGM, etc) giving White for a time a virtual monopoly. White was not just the production chief for this division, but kept his hand in as director and producer.

I think it’s telling that  he learned the movie trade first as an editor working for his brother Jack White, a producer at Educational Pictures. Comedy is about rhythm and timing, and one of the things I love about the house style during his reign at Columbia is the way the comedies are cut. From editing, he graduated to directing the likes of Lige Conley and Cliff Bowes. In 1930 he launched a series of hokey all-dog comedies called “Dogville” at MGM, in which trained pooches dressed in clothes enacted parodies of hit films, with offscreen actors supplying voices. While at MGM, he and his colleague Zion Myers also co-directed the 1931 Buster Keaton talking feature Sidewalks of New York. 

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Then in 1933, the opportunity at Columbia, where White was responsible for turning out hundreds of comedy shorts starring the Three Stooges (nearly half his output), Hugh Herbert, Harry Langdon, Buster Keaton, Andy Clyde and dozens of others. Some may be appalled but I would list Jules White among my favorite comedy film directors, possible among my top ten, but definitely among my top 20 or 25. Broad and fast-paced, and invariably violent (sometimes admittedly too violent), it’s the closest live action slapstick has gotten to the energy of animated cartoons (with the exception of Frank Tashlin’s work, and of course Tashlin started in animation). White’s style is unmistakable at every level: how it is shot, how the actors are directed to behave, how it is edited, and how it is scored (often with cartoonish sound effects). White has a STYLE. How many directors of comedy — in fact, how many directors can you say that about? Furthermore, he achieves clarity: clarity of vision, clarity of intention and clarity of result. Again, how many can you really say this about?

It isn’t for all audiences, nor was it for all performers. Buster Keaton, who liked to take his time on a bit, was a fish out of water in White’s universe, and his Columbia comedies came out terrible. And towards the end of his tenure, White grew lazy, and in the name of expedience he would re-use gags, plots and even footage from old films. Some of the critical scorn White has earned has to do with this later period.

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White dabbled in tv after Columbia closed its shorts division and then retired in 1961. His last film short was Sappy Bull Fighters (1959).

To learn more about slapstick comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Stars of Slapstick #3: Ted Healy and the Three Stooges

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Irish, Jews/ Show Biz, Movies, Television, Three Stooges with tags , , , , on October 1, 2013 by travsd

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Measured in terms of popularity and longevity, one can safely say that this is the most successful act in the history of show business. Over the past 80 years, their popularity has only grown, never flagging for an instant, and their act has been known and understood in every country in the world by hundreds of millions of people for generations. And yet the name of the man who not only founded the act, but created it, who taught Moe, Curly, Larry and Shemp the slaps and eye-pokes they became famous for, and generated the whole format for their interrelationship, is today only a show business footnote, while his underlings and plants, or “stooges”, to use the vaudeville term, continue to be known and loved (alright, known) throughout the globe.

Say, just who was this Ted Healy, anyway?

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Actually, his true name was Clarence Earnest Lee Nash, and he was born in Kaufman Texas on this day in 1896. He moved to New York with his family in 1908, which is where he first met Moses “Moe” Howard (b.1897) and his brothers Samuel “Shemp” (b. 1895) and Jerome – later known as “Curly” —  (b.1903) while bumming around the Coney Island boardwalk in the nineteen-teens.

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Healy broke into burlesque while still a teenager, doing minstrel routines in blackface. With partner Betty Brown (who became his wife), he broke into vaudeville, telling jokes in his loose conversational style, and singing a couple of songs. He first hit it big at the Keith Theatre in Jersey City, and was big time act after that. He began writing sketches that called for interruptions by stooges, or plants from the audience, who would seem to be hecklers at first, or stage hands, or messenger boys, or something similar but whom Healy would cut down to size with a humorous ballet of slapstick. Right from the first a dumb line from a stooge would earn him an instant slap across the face. Thus, the role we commonly think of as Moe’s, was Healy’s.

Back in the day, though, Moe was just “he who gets slapped”. He’d left home as a teenager to be a serious actor in melodramas on a Mississippi riverboat. After this, he worked with a stock company in Pennsylvania for a time. His first vaudeville experience came in a team with Shemp, who’d previously gained experience as a straightman to a “Hebrew” comic. They changed their name to the more commercial “Howard” but that still didn’t help them get bookings. They were apparently atrocious.

In 1924, Healy had an emergency vacancy in his act, and called on Moe, who was acting in a show across the street, to step in and receive a dousing with ice water. In the world of comedy, an actor who will take a dunking in ice water (not to mention the limitless other abuse a Healy stooge was expected to take) is worth his weight in gold. Moe was hired for the act on a permanent basis. A few months later, Shemp happened to be in the audience at a performance. When Healy started egging him on to come on stage, Shemp instinctively jumped into the role of a heckler. Their improvised mayhem was a hit. So Shemp stayed on as well.

Then , in 1925, Healy and the Howards were at Chicago’s Marigold Gardens where they witnessed a bizarre curly haired man in top hat and tails doing a Russian dance and playing the fiddle. He was of course Larry Fine (or, as I like to call him, “the luckiest man in show business”). Fine happened to be the requisite height of 5’4”, making him a perfect match for Moe and Shemp, so he was offered the job of stooge, which he took. Born Lawrence Fineberg in 1906, Fine, like Jack Benny, started out as a serious violinist, but had gradually introduced eccentric comedy into the act. Earlier he had been in Gus Edwards “Newsboy Sextette” with Eddie CantorWalter Winchell and George Jessell, and numerous other acts subsequently, so he, too, was a vaudeville veteran.

Healy, standing over six feet tall, towered over the stooges. He was never the straight man, as might be assumed  — he was the star of the act. The bald-headed, shiny faced, red-nosed and genial Irishman would come out and sing songs as a solo, until interrupted by the stooges, whereupon he would start to get violent. The act, one imagines, relied on shock and surprise a good deal for its humor. The sound of the slaps in the theatre must have been something. Healy invented much that one associates with the stooges; the whole rhythm of slapping, the whole audacious trope of slapping as a form of “communication” is his, as is even the vaunted “triple slap.” Credit for the finger poke, not to mention their own bizarre characterizations must be given to Messers Howard and Fine, however.

This style of comedy, so universally abhorred by the mothers of boys for generations, was actually quite common in vaudeville. Called “knockabout” or “slapstick” , it has a rich tradition stretching back through the centuries. Weber and Fields were doing it before the stooges were even born, so , moms, DON’T BLAME THE STOOGES!

Healy and the Stooges were Big Time. In addition to bookings at the top vaudeville halls, by the late 20s, they were starring in the big league revues such as Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1925 and The Passing Show of 1927.

But trouble was brewing. Healy’s face was shiny and his nose was red for a reason. By all reports, he was a drunk – and a mean drunk. Contrary to commonly accepted practice in slapstick, Healy pulled no punches, and the boys wore no padding. (Besides, how do you pad your face?) When he was drunk, he got sloppy and careless, and his stooges got hurt. In addition to this, as the star of the act, he took the lion’s share of his rather large salary and payed the boys, who were becoming an ever-more important part of the act, peanuts.

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But the tide was beginning to turn. Following their 1930 feature film debut Soup to Nuts (20th Century Fox), the Stooges got all the raves, and no one noticed Healy. When Fox offered the Stooges a film deal without him, he used his influence to sabotage their deal. Furious at Healy, his former stooges began to work vaudeville on their own without him. Meanwhile, Healy hired his own new replacement stooges, and began to tour as well. (One of these, Paul “Mousie” Garner, went on to a busy career in night clubs and television, was a member of Spike Jones’ band, and was Larry and Moe’s first choice for a replacement when Shemp died in 1955. Jones wouldn’t let Garner out of his contract, however, thus enabling the public to become acquainted with the prodigious talents of Joe Besser and Curly Joe De Rita, the fifth and sixth stooges, respectively.

In the months away from Healy, Moe, Shemp and Larry began to develop their own personalities, and come up with original material. Healy sued them to prevent them from performing, and while the stooges won their case, bookers continued not to hire them out of fear that legal proceedings would prevent them from honoring their contracts. Out of frustration,. Shemp quit the act at this point and worked as a bit player in films (where he can be seen as the bartender in W.C. Fields’ 1940 The Bank Dick, as well as Olsen and Johnson’s 1941 Hellzapoppin’). To replace Shemp, Moe tapped his younger brother Jerome, a handsome young ladies’ man with a full head of wavy hair and a moustache. The sacrifice this flashy young dude made to break into show business was to shave his entire head as clean as a cue ball, becoming “Curly”, and — one would imagine — substantially reducing his sex appeal. Though he had never been in show business before, Curly turned out to be far more original, inventive and uninhibited than any of them. Today it is impossible to think of the The Three Stooges without thinking of Curly’s dog barks, “nyuk nyuk nyuk” and “woob-woob-woob” sounds. Ahem.

Meanwhile, Healy had three dud stooges on his hands. He realized that the magic was gone without his old crew, so he hired Moe, Curly and Larry back at a raise and they started working together in vaudeville again. A new film contract with MGM resulted in several shorts and features for that studio, but Healy got cocky again, and dumped the Stooges so he could work in films solo, which he did, until his violent death in a drunken brawl in 1937.

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In 1934, the Three Stooges inked a deal at Columbia Pictures where they went on to make 190 classic comedy shorts and six features. A second, even greater burst of fame occurred when the shorts began to be shown regularly on television in the 1950s, after Curly and Shemp had already passed away.

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An animated Saturday morning cartoon came out in the 1960s, as did a 1970s Hannah-Barbara cartoon called Jabberjaw, the characterization of which was clearly based on Curly. Moe was still trying to get a new feature film off the ground, when he and then Larry, both passed away in 1975. In the 1980s, a song called “The Curly Shuffle” with Curly’s sampled voice calling “Hey, Moe! Hey, Moe! Hey, Moe!” was at the top of the Billboard charts. And in 2000, their lives were the subject of an ABC TV movie executive produced by Mel Gibson.

The evergreen success of the 3 Stooges is a testament above all to the power of television. Ted Healy was no slouch in his day. He was as well known as anyone in vaudeville in his salad days. He was a familiar face in films. He was there along with Ken Murray to give encouragement to the neophyte Bob Hope when he made his Palace debut. Billy Rose considered him his favorite comedian. Yet today he is a footnote.

His fate is analogous that of Brian Jones, who founded the Rolling Stones only to have the group stolen out from under him by the more aggressive and charismatic team of Jagger and Richards, and then taken to heights of phenomenal success. What is there to do but self-destruct at that point?

Despite their phenomenal success, I’ve always felt there is a missing ingredient in the act known as Three Stooges. One suspects that it is the presence of Ted Healy–a link to reality.

To find out more about show business past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Stars of Slapstick #142: Joe Besser

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Stars of Slapstick, Television, Three Stooges, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on August 12, 2013 by travsd

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Easily one of the most bizarre comedians to infiltrate the annals of comedy, Joe (“Ooooooo, cut it out!) Besser (born this day in 1907) is also (though many people don’t know his name) one of the most recognizable. Short and rotund, with a whiny effeminate manner and petulant, infantile disposition he was a natural for one-offs and guest shots on tv sit-coms and variety shows in the 1950s and 60s, which I imagine is where most people have seen him. Comedy fans know him from his two major recurring comedy gigs: 1) as the third-tier Stooge who replaced Shemp after Shemp replaced Curly (who had earlier replaced Shemp) in the Three Stooges; 2) and as “Stinky” the exceptionally weird middle-age, lollipop-licking brat in the Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit in the Abbott and Costello tv show. But for somebody who never managed to crack the highest levels of  stardom he certainly made enviable success in practically every branch of show business — vaudeville, Broadway, movies, radio, and television.

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He grew up in St. Louis, with eight older siblings who all but guaranteed his career choice. His brother Manny was a burlesque comic. His seven older sisters were…well, seven older sisters. At 13, he ran away and became an audience plant for magic acts, first Thurston for three years, then Madam Herrman for two more. But he clearly had a knack for comedy. In 1926, he went to work as a stooge for the comedy team of Alexander and Olsen, the latter of whom was the brother of Olsen and Johnson’s Ole Olsen (a relationship that would stand him in good stead in later years). Soon he began working with a succession of partners in his own teams, during which time he developed the comic character he became known for. This led to voice work on the top comedy shows of the radio era, Fred AllenJack Benny, Milton BerleBurns and AllenEddie Cantor, and many others. He became part of Olsen and Johnson’s crazy Broadway stock company; the show he was in, Sons o’ Fun ran from 1941 through 1943. The following year, he went out to Hollywood to work as a contract player for Columbia Pictures. With the exception of 1949’s Africa Screams with Abbott and Costello, most of the pictures were forgettable. TV called next with a regular spot on Ken Murray’s variety series in 1950, followed by his 1952 stint on The Abbott and Costello Show. 

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In 1956,he was hired on to replace the recently deceased Shemp Howard (whom he’d worked with in the past) in several Three Stooges shorts. (Most casual viewers hate these late films, feeling shortchanged by the absence of Curly or Shemp. I’m of the opposite opinion. At this stage, the presence of Joe Besser is the most interesting thing in those films, which are generally remakes of earlier shorts made by the team when they were younger, fresher  and better budgeted). Besser continued to do guest spots on tv, with diminishing frequency, through the 1970s. He also became a familiar voice on children’s cartoons. He passed away in 1988 — and gave St. Peter such a pinch!

Here he is in the role of Stinky on The Abbott and Costello Show:

To learn more about slapstick comedy, please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Stars of Slapstick #89: Christine McIntyre

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Singers, Stars of Slapstick, Three Stooges, Women with tags , , , , on April 16, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the head-turning Christine McIntyre (1911-1984). Trained as an opera singer, her film career began in 1937, for the next seven years appearing in RKO musicals and B-movie westerns with the likes of Buck Jones and Crash Corrigan. In 1944 she got a ten year contract with the Columbia shorts department. Over the next decade, she appeared in scores of slapstick comedy shorts with the likes of Hugh Herbert, Bert Wheeler, Andy Clyde, Joe Besser, Shemp Howard (solo), and above all the act she is indelibly associated with: The Three Stooges.

The classy, gorgeous McIntyre was the source of many a burlesque inspired gag, often causing the boys to walk into walls or screw up whatever they were doing because they couldn’t take their eyes off her. Sometimes she played an innocent damsel in distress who needed to be rescued; at other times she was a femme fatale. Scenes of her singing in that wonderful soprano are a highlight of many a Stooges picture. Contrasting such scenes with the equally memorable sight of her giving the boys a triple slap is what made her an invaluable part of the ensemble. Still and all, when her contract ran out, so did she. She was tired of getting hit in the face with pies. She married radio producer J. Donald Wilson (a different guy from Jack Benny’s Don Wilson) and retired.

Here is a great scene from Bubble Trouble (1947) where she is an old lady who takes a youth elixir invented by the boys and transforms into her own vivacious self — but not before some hilarious Shempian ticks:

To find out about  the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Shemp Like You’ve Never Seen Him!

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies, Three Stooges with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2013 by travsd

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Shemp Howard’s birthday! For more on his involvement with the Three Stooges see my article here. What didn’t really get covered in that 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….

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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.

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And the all-Shemp Volume two is available here! 

Meantime, here he is in his solo short Mr. Noisy:

To find out more about the variety arts past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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