Archive for comedian

In Which We Celebrate Valerie Harper and “Rhoda”

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 22, 2017 by travsd

Happy Birthday, Valerie Harper, born this day in 1939.

The most surprising thing one learns about Harper, given her long association with Jewish characters, is that she is not Jewish. She was raised Catholic and is a totally white bread ethnic mix of English/Scottish/Irish/Welsh and French. Rather, Harper is a mistress of comedy accents. In addition to Jews, she has played Latinas, Italians, midwesterners, Southern belles, whatever a script calls for. Her father was a salesman; the family moved all over the country, although the majority of her youth was spent in the greater New York City area. She undoubtedly spent a lot of time hearing many different regional dialects.

As a young person she studied dance and her early stage and screen credits are as a dancer. She dances in the 1956 movie Rock Rock Rock! starring Tuesday Weld, with whom she went to high school in New York. She also has a bit part in the film Li’l Abner (1959) and danced in the Broadway musicals Take Me Along (1959-1960), Wildcat (1960-61), and Subways Are for Sleeping (1961-62).

Harper and Schaal

During these years her room-mate was Arlene Golonka (also a familiar character actress), who initiated her into Second City, which became her springboard to success. Trained in improv in the Second City house style, she also met her first husband and frequent creative partner Dick Schaal while working with the company. She and Schaal married in 1964. Schaal’s career took off first, he began appearing regularly on television as early as 1964. (Later, after Harper broke through, he was to be seen frequently on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show and Phyllis.)

In the late sixties,  Harper worked constantly as a sketch comedian, appearing on the comedy album When You’re in Love, the Whole World is Jewish (1966), touring with Paul Sills’ Story Theatre, which made it to  Broadway (1970-1971), and appearing on the television shows Playboy After Dark (1969) and Love American Style (1970-1971 — she cowrote one episode with Schaal, then appeared in another episode the following year).

Through all her sketch comedy experience, she had already mastered her “New York type” character by the time she was cast as Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970. Her role as the wisecracking neighbor brought color and flair to the show’s somewhat bleak Midwestern setting and became one of the show’s most popular features. It was not the hugest shock when she was given her own spinoff series Rhoda in 1974.

I was a huge fan of the show; I have to add it to that long list of 70s tv sitcoms that made me want to move to New York. I went and re-watched some episodes recently and it all came flooding back. The premise is that Rhoda comes back to New York on a visit and falls in love with a guy whose son her sister is babysitting, so she just moves back. The sister is played by Julie Kavner, best known nowadays from several Woody Allen movies and for being the voice of Marge Simpson and her sisters on The Simpsons. The boyfriend, Joe, whom she married in a record-setting episode a few weeks into the first season, was played by David Groh, a rugged James Caan type, which was very popular in that era. Among the joys of the series were her stereotypical Jewish mother, played by the 4′ 11″ Nancy Walker, who’d been a familiar character actress of stage, film, tv, and commercials for over a quarter century by that point. For me, as a kid, Walker was the star of the show. Equally welcome was Harold Gould, another familiar character actor, as her dashing, much milder father. Lorenzo Music, who also wrote for the show, was the voice of Carlton the Doorman (Music would later voice Garfield the cat in the animated series, and a crash test dummy in a popular highway safety PSA).

My wife has expressed her consternation about Rhoda’s body issues. Rhoda’s constantly fretting about her weight and claiming that she’s ugly, whereas she is so clearly thin and beautiful (the bone structure of her face, and her deep-set pale blue eyes remind me a bit of Marlene Dietrich). When I was a kid I noticed none of this. I didn’t notice either that she was beautiful or that she thought she was ugly, only that she was extremely funny. She has amazing theatrical presence and timing. Study her. Study Valerie Harper for how to deliver a one liner. She’s great at acting dramatic moments too, but when she’s joking she has this amazing way of talking to her scene partner but including the audience as well that’s kind of what theatre is all about (for me). She’s simply masterful.

Returning to the subject of beauty, though, one has to mention the show’s unique aesthetics. There is the distinctive Rhoda “look”, characterized by gypsy-like head scarves, peasant skirts, and other eye-catching, colorful and flowing hippie accoutrement. She tends to look fabulous in every scene.

Brenda and her apartment

Similarly the sets brought the era back to me. Her sister Brenda’s apartment has that neo-Victorian-fin de siecle kitsch style that was so popular at the time, and influenced me immensely as a kid. And there is the bizarre credit sequence, with her voice over narration setting up the show’s premise, over wah-wah guitar music, and psychedelic neon collages depicting her life and relationship with New York City. It is definitely of its time.

Rhoda ran until 1978; there was a Mary and Rhoda reunion tv movie in 2000. But she did a lot else. Originally this was to strictly be a piece about Rhoda, but then I was reminded of her extensive credits before and after the series. She’s in the movies Freebie and the Bean (1974), Chapter Two (1979), The Last Married Couple in America (1980), and Blame it on Rio (1984). And THEN she had ANOTHER hit sit-com, and this show became a show biz legend of a different kind.

Debuting in 1986, the show was called Valerie. Harper played a mom struggling to raise three sons while her airplane pilot husband was away from home most of the time. One of the sons was played by the popular Jason Bateman. By the end of the second season, the show was so popular that Harper demanded a large raise. The producers of the show balked, but Harper stood firm…and lost the showdown. This event is huge in show biz annals because something unprecedented followed. Rather than cancel the series, they fired the star (Harper), killed off the character, and changed the name of the show. For one season it was Valerie’s Family (without Valerie) and for the remaining seasons it was The Hogan Family. Sandy Duncan was hired to play the deceased Valerie’s sister-in-law who moves in to help with the kids. This whole development outraged me at the time. To me Valerie Harper was a star, to be respected. There was something kind of cold-blooded about the whole chain of events.

Harper never lacked for work thereafter, despite all. Most of it has been on television, in tv movies and guest shots on various series. She replaced her old Second City pal Linda Lavin in the original Broadway production of Charles Busch’s The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife (2000-2002). She played Golda Meier in a one woman show (2005-2006) which was made into a 2007 film. From 2008 through 2010 she played Tallulah Bankhead in the play Looped, which premiered at the Pasadena Playhouse and moved to Broadway.

Since 2009, Harper has been battling a cancer that was diagnosed to be incurable. Despite long bouts of illness and chemotherapy she has worked constantly right down to the present day, and even appeared on Dancing with the Stars in 2013! Today we salute her for being the very definition of a trouper.

The Codgers of Comedy: Several Comedians Who Lived into their 90s and Beyond

Posted in Bob Hope, Comedians, Comedy, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 21, 2017 by travsd

It’s Senior Citizens Day, a fitting time I think to briefly examine a peculiar phenomenon I have long observed: the longevity of comedians. Something about being in the laugh business (and in many cases cigar smoking, scotch drinking, and eating pastrami sandwiches) is clearly conducive to a long life. And that has only been increasing. When I was a kid, I thought Chaplin and Groucho (at 88 and 87 respectively) were old when they passed away. Today, that’s nothing, it seems like everybody lives to those ages. Here are some notable Mirth-Making Methusalahs and the ages they reached (some are still with us). Just click on links to learn more about each comedian!:

Professor Irwin Corey (1914-2017): 102

Bob Hope (1903-2003): 100

George Burns (1896-1996): 100

Alan Young (1919-2016): 96

Carl Reiner (b. 1922) : 95

Phyllis Diller (1917-2012): 95

Marty Allen (b. 1922) : 95

Larry Storch (b. 1923): 94

Milton Berle (1908-2002): 93

Jack Carter (1922-2015): 93

Bob Elliott (1923-2016): 92

Bill Dana (1924-2017): 92

Sid Caesar (1922-2014): 91

Jerry Lewis (1926-2017): 91

Mel Brooks (b. 1926): 91

Dick Van Dyke (b. 1925): 91 

Don Rickles (1926-2017): 90 

 

 

Ten Tramp Comedians

Posted in Clown, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2017 by travsd

This weekend is the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa. I have always been partial both to the hobo ethic itself (I’ve been working on an essay about that very thing for a while now) and the image of the Tramp Comedian or Clown. The first costume I can recall ever wearing was a tramp/clown get-up for a Halloween parade when I was about four years old. It captures the imagination — the rootless wanderer, riding the rails, hitting the road, no ties, bindlestiff on his shoulder. Samuel Beckett put a core of such characters at the center of his masterpiece Waiting for Godot, the first non-children’s show I ever saw in a theatre. And it’s the theme of one of my favorite terrifically strange movie musicals Hallelujah I’m a Bum

The theme is romantic, sentimental. And, in the hands of the right comedian, it is funny. Here’s a handful of some prominent ones from vaudeville, circus and films (there were scores, maybe hundreds of others besides these). Just click the links below to learn more about the performers.

Charlie Chaplin

Tramp comedians had long been popular in vaudeville and music hall when Chaplin decided to take his screen character in that direction, thus becoming the most popular tramp in the entire world. Not only were there other tramp comics in the world, but there were several that looked like Charlie’s. Chaplin was said (by some) to have taken his took from Billie Ritchie ; in turn Billy West stole his look and act from Chaplin.

Nat M. Wills

Billed as “The Happy Tramp”, Wills may well have been America’s most popular stage tramp from the turn of the century to his untimely death in 1917. He was a star of vaudeville, Broadway, and some of the very first comedy albums.

Harrigan

Harrigan was widely emulated in vaudeville from the late 19th century through the early 20th as the first tramp juggler. 

W.C. Fields

One of the many to emulate Harrigan early in his career was the young W.C. Fields, shown here in his tramp get-up around the turn of the century

Emmett Kelly a.k.a Wearie Willie

Circus performer Emmett Kelly’s sad clown make-up and costume were so much imitated it became a cliche.

Red Skelton as Freddie the Freeloader

Stage and screen Skelton had a repertoire of many characters; his clown “bum” Freddie may have been the most beloved.

Lew Bloom

Bloom was the first of the tramp comedians, preceding even Wills or Harrigan. He was known as “The Society Tramp”.

George Dewey Washington 

African American comedian George Dewey Washington affected a tramp look in Broadway and in films.

To learn more about vaudeville, including specialties like tramp comedians, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

 

 

 

Glenn Tryon: Forgotten Silent Screen Comedian

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 2, 2017 by travsd

Idaho-born Glenn Tryon (Glenn Monroe Kunkel, 1898-1970) had worked in vaudeville and the regional melodrama stage when Hal Roach hired him in 1923 to fill the void at his studio left by Harold Lloyd, who had departed to make features. He was a good looking leading man type, on the small side, and was adept at playing romantic light comedies with a bit of slapstick. He starred in Roach two-reelers for four years, and early on, backed Stan Laurel in shorts like The Soilers (1923) and Smithy (1924). Lloyd was to remake Tryon’s The White Sheep (1924) at feature length as The Kid Brother (1927). Tryon has a cameo as himself in Harry Langdon’s Long Pants (1927). 

From 1927 through 1932 he starred in features, often comedies at first, but increasingly westerns and B movies adventures in the sound era.  He co-starred with Merna Kennedy in three features in 1929 (Broadway, Barnum Was Right and Skinner Steps Out), immediately after she had co-starred with Charlie Chaplin in The Circus (1928). 

From 1933 through the end of the 1940s he amassed credits as a screenwriter, director and producer, contributing to many notable projects. He contributed to the screenplay for Laurel and Hardy’s Sons of the Desert (1933), the musical Roberta (1935), George M. Cohan’s Seven Keys to Baldpate (1935), and the Marx Brothers Room Service (1938), and was associate producer on Abbott and Costello’s Hold That Ghost (1941) and Keep ’em Flying (1941) and Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin’ (1941). On the latter picture he met Jane Frazee, to whom he was married from 1942 through 1947. (His previous wife was stage and silent screen actress Lillian Hall, who ended her career in 1924 when she married Tryon, then a rising star).

Among Tryon’s more interesting projects from the 40s were a couple of anti-Hitler comedies, made as “streamliners” for Hal Roach. He produced The Devil with Hitler in 1942; and That Nazty Nuisance in 1943.

Late in his career, he went before the camera three more times. He played George White in George White’s Scandals (1945), appeared in the musical Variety Girl (1947), and has a small role in Home Town Story (1951). Sometime after this he appears to have retired to Florida, which is where he passed away in 1970.

For more on early silent and slapstick film comedy consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

Charles Butterworth: Hilarious Hoosier, Sad Suicide?

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), MEDIA, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2017 by travsd

Charles Butterworth (1896-1946) was born on this day. This low-key, subtle comic actor was sort of the quintessential screen Hoosier, playing dry, mild-mannered, vaguely distracted midwesterners at a time when that was very much in vogue in the writings of guys like George Ade, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and countless others. Originally from South Bend, Indiana, he got a law degree from Notre Dame, but immediately dropped the law to become a newspaper reporter. His circle of friends would come to include a large number of important humor writers, including Heywood Broun, Robert Benchley, Cord Ford, and Frank Sullivan.

In 1924 he turned his own talents as a humor writer to the stage, becoming a comedy monologist in vaudeville. Within two years he was on Broadway, performing his act in the revue Americana. This was followed by Allez-Oop (1927) and Good Boy (1928-1929). In 1929, he performed one of his vaudeville monologues in an early Paramount comedy short called Vital Subjects, his first film.

For the rest of his career Butterworth would divide his time between Broadway and Hollywood. He appeared in Sweet Adeline on Broadway from 1929 through 1930. Then it was back to the movies. He’s little more than an extra or bit player in a couple of Barbara Stanwyck precode pictures Ladies of Leisure (1930) and Illicit (1931), but he’s used to much better effect supporting fellow vaudevillian Winnie Lightner in The Life of the Party (1930) and Side Show (1931). He’s in the John Barrymore horror picture The Mad Genius (1931), and in a killer ensemble in the highly entertaining Lee Tracy vehicle The Nuisance (1933) along with Frank Morgan, Virginia Cherrill and David Landau. From 1932 to 1933 he appeared in the Broadway revue Flying Colors with Patsy Kelly, Clifton Webb, Buddy and Vilma Ebsen and others. But mostly Butterworth worked in film constantly throughout the 30s. Directors especially prized him because, due to his writing ability, he was able to ad lib better lines than had been written for him, enriching the script.

One of his few starring vehicles (and many think his crowning achievement) is Baby Face Harrington (1935), in which he plays an easy-going, irresolute small town book-keeper, who through a series of misunderstandings, gets mistaken for being a hardened gangster. A cast that includes Una Merkel, Eugene Pallette, Nat Pendleton and Donald Meek keep the comedy moving. That same year he was 3rd billed in the classic melodrama Magnificent Obsession with Robert Taylor and Irene Dunn. He’s in the 1937 Mae West vehicle Every Day’s a Holiday (that’s the first movie I ever noted him in). Other notable films included The Boys from Syracuse (1940), the old barnstorming classic Sis Hopkins (1941), This is the Army (1943) with George Murphy, The Sultan’s Daughter (1943) with Ann Corio, and many others. His last film was Dixie Jamboree (1944).

He appears to have hit a dry spell here. In late 1945 he returned to Broadway to appear in Brighten the Corner, which ran until early 1946. Six months later, he died in a car crash on Sunset Boulevard; he’d skidded off the road and smashed into a lamp post. Some have speculated that it was a suicide, either because of his faltering career, or because he was blue over the death of his close friend Robert Benchley. I find the latter idea tough to credit. The men weren’t romantically involved; neither was gay. Butterworth had been married before and at the time was seeing Natalie Schafer (best today as Mrs. Howell from Gilligan’s Island). On the other hand, if he was a close friend of Benchley’s there’s a good chance alcohol was involved, although that’s just speculation on my part. He was not yet 50 when he died.

To learn more about vaudeville, including monologists like Charles Butterworth, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

Jack Gilford: A Cracker Jack Performer

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2017 by travsd

Happy birthday to Jack Gilford (Jacob Aaron Gellman, 1908-1990). This universally beloved pop culture figure was perhaps more present than ever on the American landscape during his last years, between the Crackerjack commercials and the Cocoon movies. His was a quiet, gentle presence, and I realize in retrospect that he was a pathway in for my appreciation of Harpo Marx. When I read about his early career, it sounds like his live act was even more Harpo-esque.

One reason I haven’t yet written about Gilford is that it has always been a little unclear to me whether he’d literally performed in vaudeville or not. That was my original impetus for writing performer biographies and I was originally fairly strict about my definition of vaudeville as consisting of the actual circuits, which had passed from the scene by the early 1930s. Gilford was definitely old enough to have performed in the literal vaudeville. Many obituaries and capsule biographies speak of Gilford as having been in vaudeville, but this was frequently done in such squibs. But it is at best an assumption. Until I see some specifics, i.e., what theatre, what city, what year, which will require more research, I will have to keep the idea of Gilford in vaudeville what it is: vague and uncertain. (The biggest irony of all this, I actually knew and briefly worked with one of Gilford’s sons at Theater for the New City, but, as often happens when I meet relatives of famous people, I erred on the side of not peppering him with questions about his dad. I may reach out to him now to try to get a better handle on the story).

You can definitely say that in STYLE Gifford was vaudevillian, and certainly was greatly influenced by vaudeville. He has much in common with Zero Mostel, with whom he was later to work so wonderfully in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Born on the Lower East Side, raised in Williamsburg, the son of Jewish immigrants, he was later to live in Greenwich Village — and lived there until he died. And though he did lots of film and tv, he really made his biggest mark on Broadway. He really was a cradle to grave New Yorker. Like Mostel, he cut his comedy teeth working in the Catskills and in New York City night clubs and cabarets. It is said that he competed in amateur nights against the likes of Jackie Gleason, and that Milton Berle was an early mentor. His act was a blend of monologue, impressions, and pantomime. His repertoire included imitations of Harry Langdon, George Jessel, Rudy Vallee, and many others. In 1936,  he got to do a version of his act in a movie short called Midnight Melodies. By 1938 he was the emcee at a club called Cafe Society, a high profile engagement.  In 1940, he was booked in the Broadway revue Meet the People with Jack Albertson, Nanette Fabares, and Doodles Weaver. The Broadway play They Should Have Stood in Bed (1942) may have been his first straight acting gig.

If this isn’t a Harpo moment, I don’t know what is

Throughout the ’50s his time seemed about equally divided between doing his comedy specialty in clubs, revues, and on tv; and acting in roles in Broadway, tv, and films. Again, like Zero Mostel, his devotion to left wing causes is thought to have hindered his career for a time due to the blacklist. But by the mid 1950s, his Broadway career was dazzling. Just a few highlights: the original productions of The Diary of Anne Frank (1955-1957), Once Upon a Mattress (1959-1960),  Paddy Chayefsky’s The Tenth Man (1959-1961), A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum (1962-1964), Cabaret (1966-1969), and Sly Fox (1976-1978), as well as the smash revival of No, No, Nanette (1971-1973) with Ruby Keeler. His last Broadway show was an adaptation of The World of Sholom Aleicheim (1982), which he’d originally done on television in 1959. He also did tv versions of many musicals, and guest shots on almost every tv show known to man. Some of his notable films include the movie version of Forum (1966), The Incident (1967), They Might be Giants (1973), Save the Tiger (1973 — for which he was nominated for an Oscar), Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976), Ringo Starr’s Caveman (1981), the Cocoon films (1985 and 1988), and Arthur 2: On the Rocks (1988). In 1988, he was on Golden Girls which brings us full circle to the person we began blogging about this morning, Estelle Getty. It is a synchronicitous morning.

To learn about vaudeville history,  see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

Of Curly Joe and the Three Stooges’ Final Phase

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, Three Stooges with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2017 by travsd

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.

See? They’re ARTISTS!

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.

So now they do fairy tales yet

 

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 the origins of the Three Stooges go here.

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

 

 

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