For a 1934 short titled
Three Little Pigskins, the Stooges found themselves starring
alongside a new Columbia contract player named Lucille Ball. Ball,
who would later become a comedy legend in her own right, was once
asked what she learned from working with the formidable comedy team.
"How to duck," she replied.
THE THREE STOOGES
The Three Stooges were an American
vaudeville and comedy team active from 1922 until 1970, best known
for their 190 short subject films by Columbia Pictures that have been
regularly airing on television since 1958. Their hallmark was
physical farce and slapstick. Six stooges appeared over the act's run
(with only three active at any given time): Moe Howard and Larry Fine
were mainstays throughout the ensemble's nearly fifty-year run and
the pivotal "third stooge" was played by (in order of
appearance) Shemp Howard, Curly Howard, Shemp Howard again, Joe
Besser and "Curly" Joe DeRita.
act began in the early 1920s as part of a vaudeville comedy act
billed as "Ted Healy and His Stooges", consisting
originally of Healy and Moe Howard. Over time, they were joined by
Moe's brother Shemp Howard, and then Larry Fine. The four appeared in
one feature film, Soup to Nuts, before Shemp left to pursue a solo
career. He was replaced by his and Moe's younger brother, Jerome
"Curly" Howard, in 1932. Two years later, after appearing
in several movies, the trio left Healy and signed on to appear in
their own short-subject comedies for Columbia Pictures, now billed as
"The Three Stooges". From 1934 to 1946, Moe, Larry and
Curly produced over 90 short films for Columbia. It was during this
period that the three were at their peak popularity.
Curly suffered a debilitating stroke in
May 1946, and Shemp returned, reconstituting the original lineup,
until his death of a heart attack on November 22nd, 1955. Film actor
Joe Palma was used as a stand-in to complete four Shemp-era shorts
under contract (thereafter, the maneuver became known as the
"fake Shemp"). Columbia contract player Joe Besser joined
as the third Stooge for two years (195657), departing in 1958
to nurse his ailing wife after Columbia terminated its shorts
division. The studio then released all the shorts via Screen Gems,
Columbia's television studio and distribution unit. Screen Gems then
syndicated the shorts to television, whereupon the Stooges became one
of the most popular comedy acts of the early 1960s.
Comic actor Joe DeRita became "Curly
Joe" in 1958, replacing Besser for a new series of full-length
theatrical films. With intense television exposure, the act regained
momentum throughout the 1960s as popular kids' fare, until Fine's
paralyzing stroke in the midst of filming a pilot for a Three Stooges
TV series in January 1970. Fine died in 1975 after a further series
of strokes. Attempts were made to revive the Stooges with longtime
supporting actor Emil Sitka in Fine's role in 1970, and again in
1975, but this attempt was cut short by Moe Howard's death on May
4th, 1975. The R-rated movie called The Jet Set was later produced
with the surviving members of the Ritz Brothers and released as
Blazing Stewardesses (cashing in on the popularity of Blazing Saddles).
Ted Healy and His
The Three Stooges began in 1922 as part of
a raucous vaudeville act called "Ted Healy and His Stooges"
(also known as "Ted Healy and His Southern Gentlemen" and
"Ted Healy and His Racketeers"). Moe Howard (born Moses
Harry Horwitz and billed as "Harry Howard"), joined Healy's
act in 1922, and his brother Shemp Howard (Samuel Horwitz) came
aboard a few months later.
several shifts and changes in the Stooges membership, in 1928, violinist-comedian
Larry Fine (Louis Feinberg) also joined the group. In the act, lead
comedian Healy would attempt to sing or tell jokes while his noisy
assistants would keep "interrupting" him, causing Healy to
retaliate with verbal and physical abuse.
Ted Healy and His Stooges (plus comedian
Fred Sanborn) appeared in their first Hollywood feature film, Soup to
Nuts (1930), released by Fox Film Corporation. The film was not a
critical success, but the Stooges' performances were singled out as
memorable, leading Fox to offer the trio a contract, minus Healy.
This enraged Healy, who told studio executives the Stooges were his
employees, whereupon the offer was withdrawn. Howard, Fine and Howard
learned of the offer and subsequent withdrawal, and left Healy to
form their own act (billed as "Howard, Fine & Howard"
or "Three Lost Souls"). The act quickly took off with a
tour of the theater circuit. Healy attempted to stop the new act with
legal action, claiming that they were using his copyrighted material.
There are accounts of Healy threatening to bomb theaters if Howard,
Fine and Howard ever performed there, which worried Shemp so much
that he almost left the act; reportedly, only a pay raise kept him on board.
Healy tried to save his act by hiring
replacement stooges, but they were inexperienced and not as
well-received as their predecessors. Healy reached a new agreement
with his former Stooges in 1932, with Moe now acting as business
manager, and they were booked in a production of Jacob J. Shubert's
The Passing Show of 1932. During rehearsals, Healy received a more
lucrative offer and found a loophole in his contract allowing him to
leave the production. Shemp, fed up with Healy's abrasiveness, bad
temper, and heavy drinking, decided to quit the act and toured in his
own comedy revue for several months, and then landed at Vitaphone
Studios in May 1933, appearing in movie comedies produced in
Brooklyn, New York, for the next four years.
Shemp gone, Healy and the two remaining stooges (Moe and Larry)
needed a replacement, so Moe suggested his younger brother Jerome
("Babe" to Moe and Shemp). Healy reportedly took one look
at Jerry, who had long chestnut-red hair and a handlebar mustache,
and remarked that he did not look like he was funny. Jerry left the
room and returned a few moments later with his head shaved (though
his mustache remained for a time), and then quipped "Boy, do I
look girly." Healy heard "Curly", and the name stuck.
(There are varying accounts as to how the Curly character actually
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) signed Healy and
his Stooges to a movie contract in 1933. They appeared in feature
films and short subjects, either together, individually, or with
various combinations of actors. The trio was featured in a series of
musical comedy shorts, beginning with Nertsery Rhymes. The short was
one of a few shorts to be made with an early two-strip Technicolor
process, including one featuring Curly without Healy or the other
Stooges, Roast Beef and Movies (1934). The shorts themselves were
built around recycled Technicolor film footage of production numbers
cut from MGM musicals, such as Children of Pleasure, Lord Byron of
Broadway and the unfinished March of Time (all 1930). Soon,
additional shorts followed (sans the experimental Technicolor),
including Beer and Pretzels (1933 below), Plane Nuts (1933), Hello
Pop! (1933), Jail Birds of Paradise (1934) and The Big Idea (1934).
Healy and company also appeared in several
MGM feature films as comic relief, such as Turn Back the Clock
(1933), Meet the Baron (1933), Dancing Lady (1933) (with Joan
Crawford, Clark Gable, Fred Astaire and Robert Benchley), Fugitive
Lovers (1934) and Hollywood Party (1934). Healy and the Stooges also
appeared together in Myrt and Marge for Universal Pictures.
In 1934, the team's contract expired with
MGM, and the Stooges parted professional company with Healy.
According to Moe Howard's autobiography, the split was precipitated
by Healy's alcoholism and abrasiveness. Their final film with Healy
was MGM's Hollywood Party (1934). Both Healy and the Stooges went on
to separate successes. Healy appeared in both comedic films
(including briefly co-starring with a group of new
"stooges") and dramatic roles. He was 41 and under contract
to MGM at the time of his death on December 21st, 1937, a few hours
after preview audiences had acclaimed his work in the Warner Brothers
film Hollywood Hotel.
mysterious circumstances of Healy's still death still remain
unresolved. Newspaper accounts at the time attributed it to serious
head injuries sustained in a nightclub brawl while celebrating the
birth of his first child. Conflicting reports claimed the comedian
died of a heart attack at his Los Angeles home.
Two days before his death, Healy had
visited Moe Howard's wife, Helen, at their Hollywood apartment with
the exciting news that his wife Betty was pregnant. Howard later
stated in an interview that Healy had always wanted children, "He
was nuts about kids. He used to visit our homes and envied the fact
that we were all married and had children. Healy always loved kids
and often gave Christmas parties for underprivileged youngsters and
spent hundreds of dollars on toys."
At the time of Healy's death, the Stooges
(consisting of Moe, Larry, and Curly) were at Grand Central Terminal
in New York City preparing to leave for a personal appearance in
Boston. Before their departure, Howard called Rube Jackter, head of
Columbia Pictures' sales department, to confirm their benefit
performance at Boston's Children's Hospital. During the conversation,
Jackter told Howard that the night editor of The New York Times
wanted to talk to him. Howard phoned The Times. The editor, without
even a greeting, queried curtly, "Is this Moe?" Howard said
it was. The editor then asked, "Would you like to make a
statement on the death of Ted Healy?" Howard was stunned. He
dropped the phone. Folding his arms over his head, Howard started to
sob. Curly and Larry rushed into the phone booth to warn Howard that
their train was about to leave. They found him crumpled over, crying.
Since Howard seldom openly showed his emotions, Larry cracked to
Curly, "Your brother's nuts. He is actually crying." Howard
did not explain the reason for his emotional breakdown until he
boarded the train. When they arrived back in Hollywood, they learned
the details of Healy's death from a writer friend, Henry Taylor.
Taylor told Howard that Healy had been out drinking at the Trocadero
nightclub on the Sunset Strip, and an argument broke out with three
college boys. Healy called them vile names and offered to go outside
the club to take care of them one at a time. Once outside, Ted did
not have a chance to raise his fists. The three men jumped him,
knocked him to the ground and kicked him in the head, ribs and
stomach. Healy's friend actor Joe Frisco came on the scene, picked
him up from the sidewalk and took him to his apartment, where Ted
died of what medical officials initially called a brain concussion.
a very different account asserts that Healy was beaten to death by
screen legend Wallace Beery, Albert R. Broccoli (later producer of
James Bond films), and notorious gangster (and Broccoli's cousin) Pat
DiCicco. This account appears in E. J. Fleming's book The Fixers:
Eddie Mannix (a fictionalized version of Eddie Mannix is played by
James Brolin in the Coen brothers 2016 comedy, Hail, Caesar!), Howard
Strickling, and the MGM Publicity Machine (2004) about legendary MGM
"fixers" Mannix and Strickling. Under orders from studio
head Louis B. Mayer, MGM sent Beery, one of their most valuable
properties, to Europe for several months, while the story of the
"three college boys" was fabricated to conceal the truth.
(Immigration records confirm a four-month trip to Europe on Beery's
part immediately after Healy's death, ending April 17th, 1938)
Despite his sizable salary, Ted Healy died
penniless. MGM's staff members started a fund to pay for his burial.
Moe Howard later mentioned that producer Bryan Foy of the famed Foy
family of vaudevillians footed a sizeable portion of the bill for the
funeral. According to Howard, even in the heyday of his stage career,
Ted refused to save money, spending every dime of his salary as fast
as he earned it and loved betting on horses.
The Columbia Years
In 1934, the trio, now officially named
"The Three Stooges", signed on to appear in two-reel comedy
short subjects for Columbia Pictures. Moe wrote in his autobiography
that they each received $600 per week on a one-year contract with a
renewable option; in the Ted OkudaEdward Watz book The Columbia
Comedy Shorts, the Stooges are said to have received $1,000 among
them for their first Columbia effort, Woman Haters (1934), and then
signed a term contract for $7,500 per film, to be divided among the trio.
their first year at Columbia, the Stooges became very popular.
Realizing this, Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn (right) used
the Stooges as leverage, as the demand for their films was so great
that he eventually refused to supply exhibitors with the trio's
shorts unless they also agreed to book some of the studio's mediocre
B movies. Cohn also saw to it that the Stooges remained ignorant of
their popularity. During their 23 years at Columbia, the Stooges were
never completely aware of their amazing drawing power at the box
office. Their contracts with the studio included an open option that
had to be renewed yearly, and Cohn would tell them that the short
subjects were in decline, which was not a complete fabrication
(Cohn's yearly mantra was "the market for comedy shorts is dying
out, fellas"). The Stooges thought that their days were numbered
and would sweat it out each year, with Cohn renewing their contract
at the last moment. This deception kept the insecure Stooges unaware
of their true value, resulting in them having second thoughts about
asking for a better contract without a yearly option. Cohn's scare
tactics worked for all 23 years that the Stooges were at Columbia;
the team never once asked for a salary increase - nor were they ever
given one. It was not until after they stopped making the shorts in
December 1957 that Moe learned of Cohn's tactics, what a valuable
commodity the Stooges had been for the studio and how many millions
more the act could have earned. Columbia offered theater owners an
entire program of two-reel comedies (1525 titles annually)
featuring such stars as Buster Keaton, Andy Clyde, Charley Chase and
Hugh Herbert, but the Stooge shorts were the most popular of all.
Stooges were required to release up to eight short films per year
within a 40-week period; for the remaining 12 weeks, they were free
to pursue other employment, time that was either spent with their
families or touring the country to promote their live act. The
Stooges appeared in 190 film shorts and five features while at
Columbia, outlasting every one of their contemporaries employed in
the short-film genre. Del Lord directed more than three dozen Stooge
films, Jules White directed dozens more and his brother Jack White
directed several under the pseudonym "Preston Black".
Silent film star Charley Chase also shared directorial
responsibilities with Lord and White.
The Stooge films made between 1935 and
1941 captured the team at their peak. Nearly every film produced
became a classic in its own right. Hoi Polloi (1935) adapted the
premise of Pygmalion, with a stuffy professor making a bet that he
can transform the uncultured trio into refined gentlemen; the
plotline worked so well that it was reused twice, as Half-Wits
Holiday (1947) and Pies and Guys (1958). Three Little Beers (1935)
featured the Stooges running amok on a golf course to win prize
money. Disorder in the Court (1936) features the team as star
witnesses in a murder trial. Violent is the Word for Curly (1938) was
a quality Chase-directed short that featured the musical interlude
"Swingin' the Alphabet". In A Plumbing We Will Go (1940),
one of the team's quintessential comedies, the Stooges are cast as
plumbers who nearly destroy a socialite's mansion, causing water to
exit every appliance in the home. Other entries of the era are
considered among the team's finest work, including Uncivil Warriors
(1935), A Pain in the Pullman and False Alarms (both 1936), Grips,
Grunts and Groans, The Sitter Downers, Dizzy Doctors (all 1937),
Tassels in the Air (1938), We Want Our Mummy (1939), Nutty but Nice
(1940), and An Ache in Every Stake and In the Sweet Pie and Pie (both 1941).
Their third Columbia short "Men in
Black," a parody of the Clark Gable medical drama Men in
White that had the boys playing well-meaning doctors who do
more harm than good, earned an Academy Award nomination in 1934 for
Best Short Subject-Comedy. Fortunately for the Stooges, the film's
critical and financial success got them a higher weekly salary and a
better contract. Unfortunately, it lost to an RKO musical short
called "La Cucharacha" and became the only film in their
extensive library to earn them an Oscar nomination.
With the onset of World War II, the
Stooges released several entries that poked fun at the rising Axis
powers. You Nazty Spy! (1940 below) and its sequel I'll Never Heil
Again (1941) lampooned Hitler and the Nazis at a time when America
was still neutral. Moe was cast as "Moe Hailstone", an
Adolf Hitler-like character, with Curly playing a Hermann Goring
character (replete with medals) and Larry a Joachim von
Ribbentrop-type ambassador. The film is revered by Stooge aficionados
as well as the Stooges themselves; Moe, Larry and director Jules
White considered You Nazty Spy! their best film. You Nazty Spy! was
also the first American production to openly make a mockery of Adolf
Hitlers regime (Charlie Chaplins The Great Dictator
opened nine months later). The short was perceived as a great insult
by the Fuhrer, who listed the Stooges as favored casualties on his
own personal death list. (Its not known whether he named each
Other wartime entries have their moments,
such as They Stooge to Conga (considered the most violent Stooge
short), Higher Than a Kite, Back From the Front (all 1943), Gents
Without Cents (1944) and the anti-Japanese The Yoke's on Me (also
1944). However, taken in bulk, the wartime films are considered less
funny than what preceded them. No Dough Boys (1944) is often
considered the best of these farces. The team, made up as Japanese
soldiers for a photo shoot, are mistaken for genuine saboteurs by a
Nazi ringleader (Vernon Dent, the Stooges' primary foil). The
highlight of the film features the Stooges engaging in nonsensical
gymnastics (the real spies are renowned acrobats) for a skeptical
group of enemy agents.
World War II era also brought on rising production costs that
resulted in a reduced number of elaborate gags and outdoor sequences,
Del Lord's stock in trade; as such, the quality of the team's films
(particularly those directed by Lord) began to slip after 1942. Spook
Louder (1943), a remake of Mack Sennett's The Great Pie Mystery
(1931), is sometimes cited as the Stooges' worst film because of its
repetitious and rehashed jokes. Three Smart Saps (1942), a film
considered to be an improvement, features a reworking of a routine
from Harold Lloyd's The Freshman (1925), in which Curly's loosely
basted suit begins to come apart at the seams while he is on the
The Stooges made occasional guest
appearances in feature films, though generally they were restricted
to their short subjects. Most of the Stooges' peers had either made
the transition from shorts to features films (Laurel and Hardy, The
Ritz Brothers) or had been starring their own feature films from the
onset (Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello). However, Moe believed
that the team's firebrand style of humor worked better in short form.
In 1935, Columbia proposed to star them in their own full-length
feature, but Moe rejected the idea saying, "It's a hard job
inventing, rewriting, or stealing gags for our two-reel comedies for
Columbia Pictures without having to make a seven-reeler (feature
film). We can make short films out of material needed for a starring
feature and then we wouldn't know whether it would be funny enough to click."
critics have cited Curly as the most popular member of the team. His
childlike mannerisms and natural comedic charm (he had no previous
acting experience) made him a hit with audiences, particularly
children and women, the latter usually finding the trio's humor
juvenile and uncouth. Because Curly had to shave his head for the
act, it led him to feel unappealing to women. To mask his
insecurities, he ate and drank to excess and caroused whenever the
Stooges made personal appearances, which was approximately seven
months of each year. His weight ballooned in the 1940s, and his blood
pressure became dangerously high. Curly's wild lifestyle and constant
drinking eventually caught up with him in 1945, and his performances suffered.
During a five-month hiatus from August
1945 through January 1946, the trio committed themselves to making a
feature film at Monogram, followed by a two-month-long live
appearance gig in New York City, with performances seven days a week.
Curly also entered a disastrous third marriage in October 1945,
leading to a separation in January 1946 and divorce in July 1946.
That unhappy union wrecked his already fragile health. Upon the
Stooges' return to Los Angeles in late November 1945, Curly was a
shell of his former self. They had two months to rest before
reporting back to Columbia in late January 1946, but Curly's
condition was irreversible. They had only 24 days of work over the
next three months, but eight weeks of time off could not help the
situation. In those last six shorts, ranging from Monkey Businessmen
(1946) through Half-Wits Holiday (1947), Curly was seriously ill,
struggling to get through even the most basic scenes.
During the final day of filming Half-Wits
Holiday (1947) on May 6th, 1946, Curly suffered a debilitating stroke
on the set, ending his 14-year career. They hoped for a full
recovery, but Curly never appeared in a film again except for a
single cameo appearance in the third film after Shemp returned to the
trio, Hold That Lion! (1947 below). It was the only film that
contained all four of the original Stooges (the three Howard brothers
and Larry) on screen simultaneously. According to Jules White, this
anomaly came about when Curly visited the set one day, and White had
him do this bit for fun. (Curly's cameo appearance was recycled in
the remake Booty and the Beast, 1953.) In 1949, Curly filmed a brief
scene for Malice in the Palace (1949) as the restaurant's cook, but
it was not used. Jules White's copy of the script contained the
dialogue for this missing scene, and a production still of Curly does
exist, appearing on both the film's original one-sheet and lobby
card. Larry played the role of the cook in the final print.
Moe Howard - Stooge
Howard was born as Moses Harry Horwitz on June 19th, 1897, in the
Brooklyn, New York neighborhood of Bensonhurst to Solomon Horwitz and
Jennie Gorovitz, the fourth-born of five brothers of Lithuanian
Jewish ancestry. He was named Moe when he was younger and later
called himself Harry. Brothers, Benjamin (Jack) and Irving, were not
involved in show business, but his older brother Shemp, younger
brother Curly would join Moe as members of the Three Stooges. Moe
loved to read and this helped him in his acting career in later
years, such as in memorizing his lines quickly and easily.
Moe Howard's "bowl cut"
hairstyle became his trademark. Initially his mother refused to cut
his hair in childhood, letting it grow to shoulder length. He
secretly cut his hair in his backyard shed, after being frequently
teased in school. During one appearance on The Mike Douglas Show in
the 1970s, he stated, "I used to fight my way to school, in
school, and back home from school."
Moe began to develop an interest in acting
to the point where his grades worsened and he began to play hookey
from school. He said, "I used to stand outside the theater
knowing the truant officer was looking for me. I would stand there
'til someone came along, and then ask them to buy my ticket. It was
necessary for an adult to accompany a juvenile into the theater. When
I succeeded I'd give him my ten cents - that's all it cost - and I'd
go up to the top of the balcony where I'd put my chin on the rail and
watch, spellbound, from the first act to the last. I would usually
select the actor I liked the most and follow his performance
throughout the play."
his waning attendance, Moe graduated from P.S. 163 in Brooklyn, but
dropped out of Erasmus Hall High School after only two months, ending
his formal education. He took an electric shop course for his
parents' wishes, but quit after a few months to pursue a career in
Moe started off running unpaid errands at
the Vitagraph Studios in Midwood, Brooklyn, and was rewarded at first
with bit parts in movies in production there, until a 1910 fire
destroyed the films done there, and with it, most of Howard's work.
Already in 1909, he had met a young man named Ernest Lea Nash (later
known as Ted Healy), who was later to provide a significant boost for
his career aspirations. In 1912, they both held a summer job working
in Annette Kellerman's aquatic act as diving "girls".
Howard continued his attempts at gaining show-business
experience by singing in a bar with his older brother Shemp until
their father put a stop to it, and in 1914, by joining a performing
minstrel show troupe on a Mississippi River showboat for the next two
summers. In 1921, he joined Ted Healy in a vaudeville routine. In
1923, Moe saw Shemp in the audience during a theater performance and
yelled at him from the stage. Shemp responded by heckling Moe, and
the two brothers' amusing bickering during the performance resulted
in Healy's immediately hiring Shemp Howard as a permanent part of the act.
On June 7th, 1925, Moe Howard married
Helen Schonberger, a cousin of Harry Houdini. The next year,
Schonberger was pregnant and persuaded Howard to retire from show
business. Moe attempted to earn a living in a succession of
"normal" jobs, including real estate with his mother. Moe
and Helen would haver two children, Joan Howard (born 1927) and Paul
Howard (born 1935).
none of Moe's "normal" jobs proved very successful,
Healy's act with Moe's brother Shemp went on to national fame and had
a successful Broadway run, as well as a national tour. At the end of
a four-month run in Chicago, Illinois, Healy recruited vaudeville
violinist Larry Fine to join the troupe in March 1928. After the show
ended in late November, Healy signed for the Shuberts' new revue A
Night in Venice and recruited Moe Howard out of retirement to rejoin
the act in December 1928. In rehearsals in early 1929, Howard, Larry
Fine, and Shemp Howard came together for the first time as a trio.
The Stooges were paid residuals, but only
for their later efforts and continued to receive the bulk of the
profits from sales of Stooges merchandise. Moe sold real estate when
his show-business life slowed down, although he still did minor solo
roles and walk-on bits in movies, such as Don't Worry, We'll Think of
a Title (1966) and Doctor Death: Seeker of Souls (1973), as well as
several appearances on The Mike Douglas Show in the 1970s. Moe died
of lung cancer at age 77 on May 4th, 1975, at Cedars-Sinai Medical
Center in Los Angeles, where he had been admitted a week earlier in
April, just over three months after Larry Fine's death, and more than
a month before his 78th birthday. He had been a heavy smoker for much
of his adult life. He was interred in an outdoor crypt at Culver
City's Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery. His wife Helen Schonberger
died of a heart attack later that year on October 31st, 1975, at age
75 and was interred in the crypt next to him on the right. At the
time of his death, Howard was working on his autobiography titled I
Stooged to Conquer. It was released in 1977 as Moe Howard and the
Larry Fine - Stooge
Feinberg (October 5th, 1902 - January 24th, 1975), known
professionally as Larry Fine, was an American actor, comedian,
violinist, and boxer, who is best known as a member of the comedy act
the Three Stooges. Fine was born to a Russian Jewish family in
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father, Joseph Feinberg, and mother,
Fanny Lieberman, owned a watch-repair and jewelry shop. In his early
childhood, Fine's arm was accidentally burned with acid that his
father used to test jewelry for its gold content. On this occasion,
the young Fine mistook the acid for a beverage and raised the bottle
to his lips. Before he could drink any, his father knocked the bottle
from his hand, splashing the boy's forearm with acid and causing
extensive damage to it. His parents later gave Fine violin lessons to
help strengthen the damaged muscles in his forearm. He became so
proficient on the violin that his parents wanted to send him to a
European music conservatory, but that plan was thwarted by the
outbreak of World War I. Fine later played the violin in the Stooge
films. In scenes where all three Stooges are playing fiddles, only
Larry is actually playing. The other two are miming.
To further strengthen his damaged arm,
Fine took up boxing in his teens, winning one professional bout. His
father, opposed to Larry's fighting in public, put an end to his
brief career as a boxer.
an early age, Fine started performing as a violinist in vaudeville.
In March 1928, while starring as the master of ceremonies at
Chicago's Rainbo Gardens, Fine met Shemp Howard and Ted Healy. At the
time, Healy and Howard were performing in the Shubert Brothers' A
Night in Spain. Since Shemp was leaving the play for a few months,
they asked him to be a replacement "stooge". Fine joined
Ted's other stooges, Bobby Pinkus and Sam "Moody" Braun.
Shemp returned in September 1928 to finish Spain's national tour and
in early 1929, Healy brought Fine, Shemp Howard, and Moe Howard
together for the first time as a trio.|
Fine was easily recognized in the Stooge
features by his hairdo, bald on top with lots of thick, bushy, curly
red hair around the sides and back; Moe called him
"Porcupine". His trademark hair had its origin, according
to rumor, from his first meeting with Healy. Fine had just wet his
hair in a sink, and it dried oddly as they talked. Healy encouraged
Fine to keep the zany hairstyle.
the earliest Stooge films, Larry frequently indulged in utterly
nutty behavior. Fine livened scenes up with improvised remarks or
ridiculous actions. In the hospital spoof Men in Black (1934), Larry,
dressed as a surgeon and wielding a large kitchen knife, chortles:
"Let's pluck him... and see if he's ripe!" In Disorder in
the Court (1936), a tense courtroom scene is interrupted by Larry
breaking into a wild Tarzan yell. Larry's goofiness has been
described as an extension of Fine's own relaxed personality. Director
Charles Lamont recalled: "Larry was a nut. He was the kind of
guy who always said anything. He was a yapper." Writer-director
Edward Bernds remembered that Fine's suggestions for the scripts were
often "flaky", but occasionally contained good comic ideas.
Fine met his wife, Mabel Haney, in 1922,
when both were working in vaudeville. They married in 1926. The
couple had a busy social life, and every Christmas served lavish
Fine was a terrible businessman and spent
his money as soon as he earned it. He had a significant gambling
addiction, leading him to gamble away all the money he had on him at
racetracks or high-stakes gin rummy games. In an interview, Fine
admitted that he often gave money to actors who needed help and never
asked to be repaid. Because of his constant and free spending and
gambling, Fine was almost forced into bankruptcy when Columbia
stopped filming Three Stooges films in December 1957.
of his profligate ways and Mabel's dislike for housekeeping, Larry
and his family lived in hotels, first the President Hotel in Atlantic
City, New Jersey, where his daughter Phyllis was raised, then the
Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. He did not own a house until the
late 1940s, when he purchased one in the Los Feliz area of Los
On May 30th, 1967, Mabel died of a sudden
heart attack at age 63. Larry was on the road and about to take the
stage for a live show at Rocky Point Amusement Park in Warwick, Rhode
Island when he heard the news. He immediately flew home to
California, leaving the other two Stooges to improvise their
remaining shows at the park.
Mabel's death came nearly six years after
the death of their only son, John, in a car crash on November 17th,
1961, at age 24. Their daughter, Phyllis, died of cancer on April
3rd, 1989, at 60. Phyllis's husband, Don Lamond, was a noted
television personality in Los Angeles, best known for hosting the
Stooges shorts on KTTV for many years; their son (Larry's grandson)
Eric Lamond represents the family in the Stooges' holding company C3 Entertainment.
Fine is sometimes erroneously reported to
be the father of sportscaster Warner Wolf, who is in fact the son of
Jack Wolf, one of several other "stooges" who played in Ted
Healy's vaudeville act at one time or another.
In 1965, Fine, Moe Howard, and Joe DeRita
started a new TV comedy show, The New 3 Stooges (above), a mixture of
live and animated segments. The show produced good ratings, but the
men were too old to do slapstick comedy well. Fine began showing
signs of mental impairment, such as trouble delivering his lines.
A few years later, the men started working
Kook's Tour, a new TV series. On January 9th, 1970, Fine suffered a
debilitating stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body, which
marked the end of his performing career.
Fine eventually moved to the Motion
Picture Country House, an industry retirement community in Woodland
Hills, where he spent his remaining years, and used a wheelchair
during the last five. Even in his paralyzed state, Fine did what he
could to entertain the other patients, and completed his "as
told to" autobiography Stroke of Luck. He also received visits
from Moe Howard. Fine remained accessible to Stooge fans, regularly
hosting them despite his disability. When asked if spending his life
as a Stooge was enjoyable, he answered, "it wasn't fun: it was
work - but it paid off good, so I enjoyed it."
Fine suffered several additional strokes
before his death on January 24th, 1975, at age 72. He was interred
with his wife and son in a crypt at Glendale's Forest Lawn Memorial
Park Cemetery. Moe Howard died four months after Fine.
Shemp Howard - Stooge
Horwitz (March 11th, 1895 - November 22nd, 1955), known
professionally as Shemp Howard, was an American actor and comedian.
The third-born of the five Horwitz brothers, he was called
"Shemp" because "Sam" came out that way in his
mother's thick Litvak accent. He is best known as the third stooge in
the Three Stooges, a role he played when the act began in the early
1920s (19231932), while it was still associated with Ted Healy
and known as "Ted Healy and his Stooges"; and again from
1946 until his death in 1955. Between his times with the Stooges, he
had a successful solo career as a film comedian.
Shemp's brother, Moe Howard, started in
show business as a youngster, on stage and in films. Moe and Shemp
eventually tried their hands as minstrel-show-style
"blackface" comedians with an act they called "Howard
and Howard - A Study In Black". At the same time, they worked
for a rival vaudeville circuit, without makeup.
By 1922, Moe had teamed up with
boyhood-friend-turned-vaudeville star Ted Healy in a
"roughhouse" act. One day Moe spotted his brother Shemp in
the audience and yelled at him from the stage. Quick-witted Shemp
yelled right back, and walked up onto the stage. From then on he was
part of the act, usually known as "Ted Healy and His
Stooges". After a disagreement with Healy in August 1930, Moe,
Larry and Shemp left to launch their own act, "Howard, Fine &
Howard," and joined the RKO vaudeville circuit. They would team
up with Healy again in 1932 but by 1933 Shemp would leave the act,
replaced by younger brother Jerry "Curly" Howard. Shemp
formed his own act and played on the road for a few months and then
found work at Brooklyn's Vitaphone Studios
Shemp played bit roles in Vitaphone's
Roscoe Arbuckle comedies, showing off his comical appearance, and was
given speaking roles and supporting parts almost immediately. He was
featured with Vitaphone comics Jack Haley, Ben Blue and Gus Shy, then
co-starred with Harry Gribbon, Daphne Pollard, and Johnnie Berkes,
and finally starred in his own two-reel comedies. A Gribbon-Howard
short, Art Trouble (1934 above), also features a then unknown James
Stewart in his first film role. The independently-produced Convention
Girl (1935) featured Shemp in a very rare straight role as a
blackmailer and would-be murderer.
seldom stuck to the script. He livened up scenes with ad-libbed
dialogue and wisecracks, which became his trademark. In late 1935,
Vitaphone was licensed to produce short comedies based on the
"Joe Palooka" comic strip. Shemp was cast as "Knobby
Walsh," and though only a supporting character, he became the
series's comic focus, with Johnnie Berkes and Lee Weber as his foils.
He co-starred in the first seven shorts, released between 1936 and
1937. Nine of them were produced, the last two done after Shemp's
departure from Vitaphone.
Away from Vitaphone, Howard unsuccessfully
attempted to lead his own group of "stooges" in the Van
Beuren musical comedy short The Knife of the Party. It was a rare
failure in an otherwise successful solo career. In 1937 he followed
his brothers's lead, moved to the West Coast, and landed
supporting-actor roles at several studios, predominantly Columbia
Pictures and Universal. He worked exclusively at Universal from
August 1940 to August 1943, performing with such comics as W. C.
Fields (playing Fields' bartender in the film The Bank Dick, 1940,
below); and with comedy duos Abbott and Costello and Olsen and
Johnson. He lent comic relief to Charlie Chan and The Thin Man murder
mysteries. He appeared in several Universal B-musicals of the early
1940s, including Private Buckaroo (1942; in which he clowned onstage
with The Andrews Sisters during their performance of "Don't Sit
Under the Apple Tree"), Strictly in the Groove (1942), How's
About It? (1943), Moonlight and Cactus (1944) and San Antonio Rose
(1941), in the latter of which he was paired with Lon Chaney, Jr. as
a faux Abbott and Costello. Most of these projects took advantage of
his improvisational skills. When Broadway comedian Frank Fay walked
out on a series of feature films teaming him with Billy Gilbert,
Gilbert called on his closest friend, Shemp Howard, to replace him in
three B-comedy features for Monogram Pictures, filmed in 1944 and
1945. He also played a few serious parts, such as his supporting role
in Pittsburgh (1942) starring Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne.
Shemp appeared in Columbia's two-reel
comedies, co-starring with Columbia regulars Andy Clyde, The Glove
Slingers, El Brendel, and Tom Kennedy. He was given his own starring
series in 1944. He was working for Columbia in this capacity when his
brother Curly was felled by a debilitating stroke on May 6th, 1946.
In September 1925, Shemp married Gertrude
Frank, a fellow New Yorker. They had one child, Morton (February
26th, 1927 January 13th, 1972).
Shemp used his somewhat homely appearance
for comic effect, often mugging grotesquely or allowing his hair to
fall in disarray. He even played along with a publicity stunt that
named him "The Ugliest Man in Hollywood". ("I'm
hideous," he explained to reporters.) Notoriously phobic, his
fears included airplanes, automobiles, dogs and water. According to
Moe's autobiography, Shemp was involved in a driving accident as a
teenager and never obtained a driver's license.
Curly Howard - Stooge
Lester Horwitz (October 22nd, 1903 January 18th, 1952), known
professionally as Curly Howard, was the younger brother of Moe and
Shemp Howard. Because he was the youngest, his brothers called him
"Babe" to tease him. The name "Babe" stuck with
him all his life, although when his elder brother Shemp Howard
married Gertrude Frank, who was also nicknamed "Babe", the
brothers called him "Curly" to avoid confusion. His full
formal Hebrew name was "Yehudah Lev bar Shlomo Natan HaLevi."
Curly Howard was generally considered the
most popular and recognizable of the Stooges. He was well known for
his high-pitched voice and vocal expressions ("nyuk-nyuk-nyuk!",
"woob-woob-woob!", "soitenly!" [certainly], and
barking like a dog), as well as his physical comedy (e.g., falling on
the ground and pivoting on his shoulder as he "walked" in
circular motion), improvisations, and athleticism. An untrained
actor, Curly borrowed (and significantly exaggerated) the "woob
woob" from "nervous" and soft-spoken comedian Hugh
Herbert. Curly's unique version of "woob-woob-woob" was
firmly established by the time of the Stooges' second Columbia film,
Punch Drunks (1934).
quiet child, Jerome rarely caused problems for his parents
(something in which older brothers Moe and Shemp excelled). He was a
mediocre student, but excelled as an athlete on the school basketball
team. He did not graduate from high school, and instead he kept
himself busy with odd jobs and constantly following his older
brothers, whom he idolized. He was also an accomplished ballroom
dancer and singer, and regularly turned up at the Triangle Ballroom
in Brooklyn, occasionally bumping into George Raft.
When Jerome was 12, he accidentally shot
himself in the left ankle while cleaning a rifle. Moe rushed him to
the hospital and saved his life. The wound resulted in a noticeably
thinner left leg and a slight limp. He was so frightened of surgery
that he never had the limp corrected. While with the Stooges, he
developed his famous exaggerated walk to mask the limp on screen.
Jerome was interested in music and comedy,
and watched his brothers Shemp and Moe perform as stooges in Ted
Healy's vaudeville act. He also liked to hang around backstage,
although he never participated in any of the routines. Jerome married
his first wife, Julia Rosenthal, on August 5th, 1930, but the
marriage was annulled shortly afterwards.
Jerome Howard's first on-stage break was
as a comedy musical conductor in 1928 for the Orville Knapp Band. Moe
later recalled that his performances usually overshadowed those of
the band. Though he enjoyed the gig, he watched as brothers Moe and
Shemp with partner Larry Fine made it big as some of Ted Healy's "Stooges".
Shemp left the act Moe suggested that Curly fill the role of the
third stooge, but Healy felt that with his thick, chestnut hair and
elegant waxed mustache, he looked too good for the part. Howard left
the room and returned minutes later with his head shaven (the
mustache remained very briefly) and Curly was born. In one of the few
interviews Curly Howard gave in his lifetime, he complained about the
loss of his hair: "I had to shave it off right down to the
skin." In 1934, MGM was building Healy up as a solo comedian in
feature films and Healy dissolved the act to pursue his own career.
Like Shemp, the team of Howard, Fine, and Howard were weary of
Healy's drinking and abrasive personality and renamed their act
"The Three Stooges". That same year, they signed on to
appear in two-reel comedy short subjects for Columbia Pictures. The
Stooges soon became the most popular short-subject attraction, with
Curly playing an integral part in the trio's work.
Curly Howard's childlike mannerisms and
natural comedic charm made him a hit with audiences, particularly
children. He was known in the act for having an
"indestructible" head, which always won out by breaking
anything that assaulted it, including saws (resulting in his
characteristic quip, "Oh, look!"). Although having no
formal acting training, his comedic skills were exceptional. Many
times, directors simply let the camera roll freely and let Howard
improvise. Jules White, in particular, left gaps in the Stooge
scripts where he could improvise for several minutes. In later years,
White commented: "If we wrote a scene and needed a little
something extra, I'd say to Curly, 'Look, we've got a gap to fill
this in with a "woob-woob" or some other bit of business',
and he never disappointed us."
By the time the Stooges hit their peak in
the late 1930s, their films had almost become vehicles for Howard's
unbridled comic performances. Classics such as A Plumbing We Will Go
(1940), We Want Our Mummy (1938), An Ache in Every Stake (1941),
Cactus Makes Perfect (1942), and their most violent short, They
Stooge to Conga (1943), display his ability to take inanimate objects
(food, tools, pipes, etc.) and turn them into ingenious comic props.
Moe Howard later confirmed that when Curly forgot his lines, that
merely allowed him to improvise on the spot so that the
"take" could continue uninterrupted, "If we were going
through a scene and he'd forget his words for a moment, you know,
rather than stand, get pale and stop, you never knew what he was
going to do. On one occasion, he'd get down to the floor and spin
around like a top until he remembered what he had to say."
On several occasions, Moe Howard was
convinced that rising star Lou Costello (a close friend of Shemp's)
was stealing material from his brother. Costello was known to acquire
prints of the Stooges' films from Columbia Pictures on occasion,
presumably to study him. Inevitably, Curly Howard's routines would
show up in Abbott and Costello feature films, much to Moe's chagrin.
By 1944, Curly's energy began to wane.
Films such as Idle Roomers (1944) and Booby Dupes (1945) present a
Curly whose voice was deeper and his actions slower. He may have
suffered the first of many strokes between the filming of Idiots
Deluxe (October 1944) and If a Body Meets a Body (March 1945). After
the filming of the feature-length Rockin' in the Rockies (December
1944), he finally checked himself (at Moe Howard's insistence) into
Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, California, on January 23rd, 1945,
and was diagnosed with extreme hypertension, a retinal hemorrhage,
and obesity. His ill health forced him to rest, leading to only five
shorts being released in 1945 (the normal output was six to eight per year).
Moe Howard pleaded with Harry Cohn to
allow his younger brother some time off upon discharge to regain his
strength, but Cohn would not halt the production of his profitable
Stooge shorts and flatly refused his request. The Stooges had five
months off between August 1945 and January 1946. They used that time
to book a two-month live performance commitment in New York City
working shows seven days a week. During their time on the East Coast,
Howard met and married his third wife Marion Buxbaum, whom he married
on October 17th, 1945 after a two-week courtship. Returning to Los
Angeles in late November 1945, Howard was a shell of his former self.
With two months rest, the team's 1946 schedule at Columbia commenced
in late January, but involved only 24 days' work during February to
early May. In spite of eight weeks' time off in that same period,
Howard's condition continued to deteriorate. By early 1946, Howard's
voice had become even more coarse than before, and remembering even
the simplest dialogue was increasingly difficult for him. He had lost
a considerable amount of weight, and lines had creased his face.
Half-Wits Holiday (released 1947 above)
was Howard's final appearance as an official member of the Stooges.
During filming on May 6th, 1946, he suffered a severe stroke while
sitting in director Jules White's chair, waiting to film the last
scene of the day. When called by the assistant director to take the
stage, he did not answer. Moe went looking for his brother; he found
him with his head dropped to his chest. Moe later recalled that his
mouth was distorted and he was unable to speak, only cry. Moe quietly
alerted White to this, leading the latter to rework the scene
quickly, dividing the action between Moe and Larry while Curly was
rushed to the hospital, where Moe joined him after the filming. Curly
spent several weeks at the Motion Picture and Television Country
House and Hospital in Woodland Hills before returning home for
January 1945, Shemp had been recruited to substitute for a resting
Curly during live performances in New Orleans. After Curly's stroke,
Shemp agreed to replace him in the Columbia shorts, but only until
his younger brother was well enough to rejoin the act. An extant copy
of the Stooges' 1947 Columbia Pictures contract was signed by all
four Stooges and stipulated that Shemp's joining "in place and
stead of Jerry Howard" would be only temporary until Curly
recovered sufficiently to return to work full-time.
Curly, partially recovered and with his
hair regrown, made a brief cameo appearance as a train passenger
barking in his sleep in the third film after brother Shemp's return,
Hold That Lion! (1947). It was the only film that featured Larry Fine
and all three Howard brothers, Moe, Shemp, and Curly. Director White
later said he spontaneously staged the bit during Curly's impromptu
visit to the soundstage, "It was a spur-of-the-moment idea.
Curly was visiting the set; this was sometime after his stroke.
Apparently he came in on his own, since I didn't see a nurse with
him. He was sitting around, reading a newspaper. As I walked in, the
newspaper he had in front of his face came down and he waved hello to
me. I thought it would be funny to have him do a bit in the picture
and he was happy to do it." In June 1948, Howard filmed a second
cameo as an irate chef for the short Malice in the Palace (1949), but
due to his illness, his performance was not deemed good enough and
his scenes were cut.
Still not fully recovered from his stroke,
Howard met Valerie Newman (below) and married her on July 31st, 1947.
A friend, Irma Leveton, later recalled, "Valerie was the only
decent thing that happened to Curly and the only one that really
cared about him." Although his health continued to decline after
the marriage, Valerie gave birth to a daughter, Janie, in 1948.
that year, Curly suffered a second massive stroke, which left him
partially paralyzed. He used a wheelchair by 1950 and was fed boiled
rice and apples as part of his diet to reduce his weight (and blood
pressure). Valerie admitted him into the Motion Picture Country House
and Hospital on August 29th, 1950. He was released after several
months of treatment and medical tests, although he would return
periodically until his death.
In February 1951, he was placed in a
nursing home, where he suffered another stroke a month later. In
April, he went to live at the North Hollywood Hospital and Sanitarium.
In December 1951, the North Hollywood
Hospital and Sanitarium supervisor advised the Howard family that he
was becoming a problem to the nursing staff at the facility because
of his mental deterioration. They admitted they could no longer care
for him and suggested he be placed in a mental hospital. Moe refused
and relocated him to the Baldy View Sanitarium in San Gabriel, California.
On January 7th, 1952, Moe was contacted on
the Columbia set while filming He Cooked His Goose to help move Curly
for what would be the last time. Eleven days later, Curly Howard
died. He lived the shortest life of the Stooges, dying at the age of
48. He was given a Jewish funeral and laid to rest at the Western
Jewish Institute section of Home of Peace Cemetery in East Los
Angeles. His older brothers, Benjamin and Shemp, and parents Jennie
and Solomon are all interred there, as well.
Curly Howard's offscreen personality was
the antithesis of his onscreen manic persona. An introvert, he
generally kept to himself, rarely socializing with people unless he
had been drinking (a habit to which he would increasingly later turn
as the stresses of his career grew). Curly refrained from engaging in
the antics for which he became famous unless he was with family,
performing for an audience, or intoxicated. He was known for his
kindness to stray dogs.
first marriage was annulled by his mother five months after the
union occurred and prior to his achieving fame with the Stooges.
Howard married his second wife, Elaine Ackerman, on June 7th, 1937.
Their union produced one child, Marilyn, the following year. The
couple divorced in June 1940, after which he gained weight and
developed hypertension. He was insecure about his shaved head,
believing it made him unappealing to women; he increasingly drank to
excess and caroused to cope with his feelings of inferiority. He took
to wearing a hat in public to convey an image of masculinity, saying
he felt like a little kid with his hair shaved off; despite his low
self esteem, he was popular with women, particularly with those who
wanted to take advantage of him. Moe's son-in-law Norman Maurer
noted, "he was a pushover for women. If a pretty girl went up to
him and gave him a spiel, Curly would marry her. Then she would take
his money and run off. It was the same when a real estate agent would
come up and say 'I have a house for you'; Curly would sell his
current home and buy another one."
During World War II, for seven months of
each year, the trio's filming schedule went on hiatus, allowing them
to make personal appearances. The Stooges entertained servicemen
constantly, and the intense work schedule took its toll on Howard's
health. He never drank while performing in film or on stage, but
after the work day had ended, he would head out to nightclubs where
he ate, drank, and caroused to excess to cope with the stress of
work. He was a profligate spender, especially on wine, food, women,
homes, and was often near bankruptcy. Moe eventually helped him
manage his finances and even filled out his income tax returns.
Curly found constant companionship in his
dogs and often befriended strays whenever the Stooges were traveling.
He would pick up homeless dogs and take them with him from town to
town until he found them a home somewhere else on the tour. When not
performing, he usually had a few pet dogs waiting for him at home, as well.
Moe urged Curly to find himself a wife,
hoping it would persuade his brother to finally settle down and allow
his health to improve somewhat. After a two-week courtship, he
married Marion Buxbaum on October 17th, 1945, a union which lasted
nine months. The divorce proceeding was a bitter one, exacerbated by
exploitative, sensationalist media coverage, which worsened his
already fragile health. The divorce was finalized in July 1946, two
months after he suffered his career-ending stroke.
July 31st, 1947, he married Valerie Newman. They had one daughter
together, named Janie (born in 1948), and remained married until his death.
Curly Howard is considered by many fans
and critics alike to be their favorite member of the Three Stooges.
In a 1972 interview, Larry Fine recalled, "Personally, I thought
Curly was the greatest because he was a natural comedian who had no
formal training. Whatever he did, he made up on the spur of the
moment. When we lost Curly, we took a hit." Curly's mannerisms,
behavior and personality along with his catchphrases of "n'yuk,
n'yuk, n'yuk," "woob, woob, woob", and
"soitenly!" have become a part of American popular culture.
Steve Allen called him one of the "most original, yet seldom
recognized, comic geniuses."
The Ted Okuda and Edward Watz book The
Columbia Comedy Shorts puts Howard's appeal and legacy in critical
perspective, "Few comics have come close to equaling the pure
energy and genuine sense of fun Curly was able to project. He was
merriment personified, a creature of frantic action whose only
concern was to satisfy his immediate cravings. Allowing his emotions
to dominate, and making no attempt whatsoever to hide his true
feelings, he would chuckle self-indulgently at his own cleverness.
When confronted with a problem, he would grunt, slap his face, and
tackle the obstacle with all the tenacity of a six-year-old child."
Curly's legend far outlived him when an
otherwise-obscure rock band, Jump 'n' The Saddle, scored one of the
biggest novelty hits of the 1980s with their 1983 single, "The
Curly Shuffle". The video featured some of Curly's best scenes.
One band member claimed they had watched hundreds of hours' worth of
Three Stooges films to find just the right ones. In the children's
novel series Captain Underpants and its film adaptation, the
elementary school that the main characters attend is named Jerome
Horwitz Elementary School, in Howard's honor.
The Return of Shemp (19461955)
asked older brother Shemp to take Curly's place, but Shemp was
hesitant to rejoin the Stooges as he was enjoying a successful solo
career. He realized, however, that not rejoining the Stooges would
mean the end of Moe's and Larry's film careers. Shemp wanted
assurance that rejoining them would be only temporary, and that he
could leave the Stooges once Curly recovered. However, Curly's health
continued to deteriorate, and it became clear that he could not
return. Shemp resumed being a Stooge. Curly remained ill until his
death of a cerebral hemorrhage from additional strokes on January
Shemp's role as the third Stooge was much
different from Curly's. While he could still roll with the punches in
response to Moe's slapstick abuse, he was more of a laid-back dimwit
as opposed to Curly's energetic man-child persona. And unlike Curly,
who had many distinct mannerisms, Shemp's most notable characteristic
as a Stooge was a high-pitched "bee-bee-bee-bee-bee-bee!"
sound, a sort of soft screech done by inhaling. It was a multipurpose
effect: He emitted this sound when scared, sleeping (done as a form
of snoring), overtly happy, or dazed. It became his trademark sound
as the "nyuk nyuk" sound had become Curly's.
Shemp appeared with the Stooges in 76
shorts and a low-budget Western comedy feature titled Gold Raiders
(1951) in which the screen time was evenly divided with B-picture
cowboy hero George O'Brien. Shemp's return improved the quality of
the films, as the previous few had been marred by Curly's sluggish
performances. Entries such as Out West (1947), Squareheads of the
Round Table (1948) and Punchy Cowpunchers (1950) proved that Shemp
could hold his own. New director Edward Bernds, who joined the team
in 1945 when Curly was failing, sensed that routines and plotlines
that worked well with Curly as the comic focus did not fit Shemp's
persona, and allowed the comedian to develop his own Stooge
character. Jules White, however, persisted in employing the
"living cartoon" style of comedy that reigned during the
Curly era. White would force either Shemp or Moe to perform similar
gags and mannerisms originated by Curly, resulting in what appeared
to be lackluster imitation. Most acutely, it created the "Curly
vs. Shemp" debate that overshadowed the act upon Curly's
departure. The Stooges lost some of their charm and inherent appeal
to children after Curly retired, but some excellent films were
produced with Shemp, an accomplished solo comedian who often
performed best when allowed to improvise on his own.
The films from the Shemp era contrast
sharply with those from the Curly era, largely owing to the
individual directing styles of Bernds and White. From 1947 to 1952,
Bernds hit a string of successes, including Fright Night (1947), The
Hot Scots, Mummy's Dummies, Crime on Their Hands (all 1948), A Snitch
in Time (1950), Three Arabian Nuts (1951) and Gents in a Jam (1952).
Two of the team's finest efforts were directed by Bernds: Brideless
Groom (1947) and Who Done It? (1949). White also contributed a few
fair entries, such as Hold That Lion! (1947), Hokus Pokus (1949),
Scrambled Brains (1951), A Missed Fortune and Corny Casanovas (both 1952).
benefit from the Shemp era was that Larry was given more time on
screen. Throughout most of the Curly era, Larry was relegated to a
background role, but by the time that Shemp rejoined the Stooges,
Larry was allotted equal footage, even becoming the focus of several
films, in particular Fuelin' Around (1949) and He Cooked His Goose (1952).
The Shemp years also marked a major
milestone: the Stooges' first appearance on television. In 1948, they
guest-starred on Milton Berle's popular Texaco Star Theater and Morey
Amsterdam's The Morey Amsterdam Show. By 1949, the team filmed a
pilot for ABC-TV for their own weekly television series, titled Jerks
of All Trades. Columbia Pictures blocked the series from going into
production, but allowed the Stooges to make television guest
appearances. The team went on to appear on Camel Comedy Caravan (also
known as The Ed Wynn Show), The Kate Smith Hour, The Colgate Comedy
Hour, The Frank Sinatra Show and The Eddie Cantor Comedy Theatre,
In 1952, the Stooges lost some key players
at Columbia Pictures. The studio decided to downsize its
short-subject division, resulting in producer Hugh McCollum being
discharged and director Edward Bernds resigning out of loyalty to
McCollum. Bernds had been contemplating his resignation for some
time, as he and Jules White were often at odds. Screenwriter Elwood
Ullman followed suit, leaving only White to both produce and direct
the Stooges' remaining Columbia comedies. Not long after, the quality
of the team's output markedly declined with White now assuming
complete control over production. The shorts became increasingly
mechanical and frequently substituted violent sight gags for story
and characterization. Production was also significantly faster, with
the former four-day filming schedules now tightened to two or three
days. In another cost-cutting measure, White would create a
"new" Stooge short by borrowing footage from old ones,
setting it in a slightly different storyline and filming a few new
scenes often with the same actors in the same costumes. White was
initially very subtle when recycling older footage: he would reuse
only a single sequence of old film, re-edited so cleverly that it was
not easy to detect. The later shorts were cheaper and the recycling
more obvious, with as much as 75% of the running time consisting of
old footage. White came to rely so much on older material that he
could film the "new" shorts in a single day. New footage
filmed in order to link older material suffered from White's wooden
directing style and penchant for telling his actors how to act.
Shemp, in particular, disliked working with White after 1952.
On November 22nd, 1955, Howard went out
with associates Al Winston and Bobby Silverman to a boxing match (one
of Howard's favorite pastimes) at the Hollywood Legion Stadium. While
returning home in a taxi that evening, Howard died of a sudden
massive heart attack, at the age of 60. He had just told a joke and
was leaning back, lighting a cigar, when he suddenly slumped over on
Al Winston's lap, accidentally burning Al with the cigar. Al thought
Howard was playing a joke, since he'd been laughing moments earlier,
but he was dead. It was just three years after Curly's death.
Shemp Howard was interred in a crypt in
the Indoor Mausoleum at the Home of Peace Cemetery in East Los
Angeles. His younger brother Curly is also interred there, in an
outdoor tomb in the Western Jewish Institute section, as well as his
parents Solomon & Jennie Horwitz and older brother Benjamin "Jack".
Moe was stunned and contemplated
disbanding the Stooges. However, Columbia had promised exhibitors
eight Three Stooges comedies for 1956, but only four were completed
at the time of Howard's death and studio boss Harry Cohn reminded Moe
that the team owed Columbia four additional films with Shemp. To
fulfill the contract, producer Jules White manufactured four more
shorts by reusing old footage of Howard and filming new connecting
scenes with a double, longtime Stooge supporting actor Joe Palma, who
is seen mostly from the back.
Palma came to be known by Stooge fans as
the "Fake Shemp". Later, director Sam Raimi and his
childhood friend actor Bruce Campbell referred to anyone playing body
doubles or stand-ins in other films as "Shemp" or "a
Fake Shemp", in reference to these postmortem Stooge scenes.
The re-edited films range from clever to
blatantly patchy, and are often dismissed as second-rate. Rumpus in
the Harem borrows from Malice in the Palace, Hot Stuff from Fuelin'
Around, and Commotion on the Ocean from Dunked in the Deep (all
originals released 1949; all re-edits released 1956). The
best-received and most technically accomplished is Scheming Schemers
(again 1956), combining new footage with recycled clips from three
old Stooge shorts: A Plumbing We Will Go (1940), Half-Wits Holiday
(1947) and Vagabond Loafers (1949).
When it was time to renew the Stooges's
contract, Columbia hired comedian Joe Besser to replace Shemp.
Columbia discontinued new Stooge comedies in June 1959, but kept the
series going into the 1960s by reissuing Shemp's Stooge shorts to
theaters, allowing Shemp Howard to remain a popular star for more
than a decade after he died.
The Stooge that Almost Was
Shemp's death, Moe and Larry were again in need of a third Stooge.
Several comedians were considered, including noted African-American
actor Mantan Moreland. Moreland was a talented character actor with
brilliant comic timing. Morelands earliest roles were in
"race films," made with black actors for black audiences.
His first screen role was as a night watchman in a haunted pawn shop
in Thats the Spirit (1933), followed by a small role as an
angel in The Green Pastures (1936). Moreland was quickly moved up to
supporting roles in all-black westerns like Harlem on the Prairie
(1937) and Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938), playing the comic sidekick
to Herb Jeffries (better known as the Bronze Buckaroo, Americas
first black singing cowboy). Recognizing his talent, studios soon
snapped him up to play comic relief roles in mainstream movies (with
white casts), but his real break came when he was paired with Frankie
Darro in a series of crime comedies. The two appeared in the films as
porters, bellhops, or pages who stumble across murder cases. While
Morelands performances are stereotypical of the era (hes
always the frightened one), the films represent a huge turning point
on the part of the studio: Moreland and his white co-star are
depicted as friends and equals. A high point of the series is when he
and Darro recreate one of the bits that made Moreland a hit on the
stage. The 'indefinite talk' bit appears in Up in the Air (1940), and
pays homage to the routine he developed earlier with Ben Carter, in
which the two would finish each others sentences. The series
came to an end when Frankie was drafted during World War II, but
Monogram hung onto Moreland, recognizing him for the amazing talent
he had. Perhaps intentionally, he was featured in some
otherwise-lackluster films, injecting a healthy dose of humor where
there would have been none. King of the Zombies (1941) is perhaps the
best known, and nearly every single line spoken by Moreland is
memorable, from "Move over, boys, Im one of the gang
now!" to "If theres anything I wouldnt want to
be twice, zombies is both of them."
Moreland was somewhat less valued at other
studios, where he didnt receive top billing, but his role in
Universals The Strange Case of Dr. X (1942) caught the eye of
Three Stooges cast member Shemp Howard. The two appeared together in
a gambling scene, and Howard was impressed with Morelands comic
timing. He suggested to brother Moe that Moreland would be the
perfect replacement stooge, should the need ever arise.
the 1940s, Moreland was cast as chauffeur Birmingham Brown in
Monograms series of Charlie Chan films and was the only actor
to stay on board for the entire run, appearing in 15 of the 17 films.
In two of the Charlie Chan films, Moreland got to reprise his
indefinite talk bit with original vaudeville partner Ben Carter. Both
The Scarlet Clue (1945) and Dark Alibi feature versions of the
routine that made him famous. When the Charlie Chan series ended in
1949, and once so famous that his films bore his real-life name
(Mantan Runs for Mayor and Mantan Messes Up, 1946), Moreland's career
began to wane.
When Shemp died suddenly in 1955 Moe
remembered his brother's recomendation. Moreland biographer Michael
H. Price talked to Moe about just what a great idea it was,
"Mantan was responsive, when Larry (Fine) and I talked the idea
over with him. I mean, wed all seen our better days by that
time, but ol Moreland, now there was a talent that could
a invigorated the whole act! He had the word play, you ever
heard him do that 'anticipation' routine, where he and one or another
of his partners finished each others sentences? - and he had
the physical shtick, the jive moves and double take receptions that
would a filled in the gaps when Jerome (Curly) and Shemp
had kept covered." But the studio had other ideas according to
Howard, "But of course Columbia (Pictures management)
demanded a white guy, because theyd apparently been scared off
of Mantan, and we ended up with that prissy damned Joe Besser, who
was whatcha might call a pain&ldots; Ive always thought what a
great act the Stooges could a stayed for a while, if only
wed a gone with Mantan."
Moreland appeared in over 300 movies in
his career, but only worked sporadically in the industry until his
death in 1973 from a cerebral brain hemorrhage. His last featured
role was as a doomed delivery man in the 1964 comedy-horror film
Spider Baby. Moreland also made a few TV appearances on shows like
"Adam 12" and an episode of "Love, American Style"
with Eddie (Rochester) Anderson, Flip Wilson and Gail Fisher
(above). Morland also released a few "party records" on the
Laff label, including That Aint My Finger (his "mashed
potatoes" punchline appears in the Beastie Boys song "B-Boys
Makin With the Freak Freak").
Joe Besser - Stooge
Besser (August 12th, 1907 March 1st, 1988) was an American
actor, voice actor, comedian and musician, known for his impish humor
and wimpy characters. He is best known for his brief stint as a
member of the Three Stooges in cinematic short subjects of 1957 to
1959. He is also remembered for his television roles: Stinky, the
bratty man-child in The Abbott and Costello Show, and Jillson, the
maintenance man in The Joey Bishop Show.
Besser was born in St. Louis, Missouri,
the ninth child of Morris and Fanny Besser, Jewish immigrants from
Eastern Europe. He had seven older sisters, and an older brother
Manny who was in show business, primarily as an ethnic Jewish comic.
From an early age, Joe was fascinated with show business, especially
the magic act of Howard Thurston that visited St. Louis annually.
When Joe was 12, Thurston allowed him to be an audience plant. Besser
was so excited by this, he sneaked into Thurston's train after the
St. Louis run of the show was over, and was discovered the next day
sleeping on top of the lion's cage in Detroit.
informed Besser's parents of the situation, but he was allowed to
stay on and was trained as an magician's assistant. The first act
involved pulling a rabbit out of a hat. The trick involved two
rabbits, one hidden in a pocket of Thurston's cape. But young Besser
was so nervous that he botched badly, pulling out the rabbit from the
cape at the same time as the other rabbit was on display, before the
trick had been performed. The audience roared with laughter, and
Besser from then on was assigned "comic mishap" roles only.
Besser remained in show business and
developed a unique comic character: a whiny, bratty, impish guy who
was easily excitable and upset, throwing temper tantrums with little
provocation. Besser, with his frequent outbursts of "You crazy,
youuuuu!" and "Not so faaaaaast!" or "Not so
harrrrd!!" was so original and so outrageously silly that he
became a vaudeville headliner, and movie and radio appearances soon followed.
The zany comedy team of Olsen and Johnson,
whose Broadway revues were fast-paced collections of songs and
blackouts, hired Joe Besser to join their company. Besser's noisy
intrusions were perfect for their anything-can-happen format.
Besser's work caught the attention of the Shubert brothers, who
signed Besser to a theatrical contract. Columbia Pictures hired
Besser away from the Shuberts, and Besser relocated to Hollywood in
1944, where he brought his unique comic character to feature-length
musical comedies like Hey, Rookie and Eadie Was a Lady (1945). On May
9th, 1946 Besser appeared on the pioneer NBC television program Hour
Glass, performing his "Army Drill" routine with stage
partner Jimmy Little. During this period, he appeared on the Jack
Benny radio program in the episode entitled "Jack Prepares For
Carnegie Hall" in June, 1943. Besser also starred in
short-subject comedies for Columbia from 1949 to 1956. By this point,
his persona was sufficiently well known that he was frequently
caricatured in Looney Tunes animated shorts of the era. He also
appeared in the action film The Desert Hawk (1950).
had substituted for Lou Costello on radio, opposite Bud Abbott, and
by the 1950s he was firmly established as one of the Abbott and
Costello regulars. When the duo filmed The Abbott and Costello Show
for television, they hired Joe Besser to play Oswald
"Stinky" Davis, a bratty, loudmouthed child dressed in an
oversized Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit, shorts, and a flat top hat
with overhanging brim. He appeared during the first season of The
Abbott and Costello Show. Besser was cast for the role of Yonkel, a
chariot man in the low-budget biblical film Sins of Jezebel (1953)
which starred Paulette Goddard as the titular wicked queen.
After Shemp Howard died of a heart attack
in 1955 his brother Moe suggested that he and teammate Larry Fine
continue working as "The Two Stooges". Studio chief Harry
Cohn rejected the proposal. Although Moe had legal approval to allow
new members into the act, Columbia executives had the final say about
any actor who would appear in the studio's films, and insisted on a
performer already under contract to Columbia, Joe Besser. At the
time, Besser was one of a few comedians still making comedy shorts at
the studio. He successfully renegotiated his contract, and was paid
his former feature-film salary, which was more than the other Stooges earned.
Besser refrained from imitating Curly or
Shemp. He continued to play the same whiny character he had developed
over his long career. He had a clause in his contract prohibiting
being hit excessively. Besser recalled, "I usually played the
kind of character who would hit others back".
During Bessers' tenure, the Stooges' films
were assailed as questionable models for youth, and in response began
to resemble television sitcoms of the time. Besser was a talented
comic, however, his whining mannerisms and lack of slapstick
punishment against him did not quite blend with the Stooges' brand of
humor, though his presence did create a verbal friction between Moe
and Larry that improved their mutually insulting banter.
had changed, and Besser was not solely to blame for the quality of
these final entries; the scripts were rehashes of earlier efforts,
the budgets were lower and Moe's and Larry's advanced ages prohibited
them from performing the physical comedy that was their trademark.
Besser had suggested that Moe and Larry
comb their hair back to give them both a more gentlemanly appearance.
Moe and Jules White approved of the idea, but used it sparingly in
order to match the old footage in films that were remakes.
Despite their lukewarm reception, the
Besser shorts did have their comedic moments. In general, the remakes
had the traditional Stooges knockabout look and feel, such as 1958's
Pies and Guys (a scene-for-scene remake of Half-Wits Holiday, which
itself was a reworking of the earlier Hoi Polloi), Guns a Poppin
(1957), Rusty Romeos (1957) and Triple Crossed (1959). In contrast,
Hoofs and Goofs, Horsing Around and Muscle Up a Little Closer (all
1957) mostly resembled the sitcoms of the era. A Merry Mix Up (also
1957) and Oil's Well That Ends Well (1958) are also amusing, while
the musical Sweet and Hot (1958) deserves some credit for straying
from the norm. The American space craze also led to three entries
focusing on space travel: Space Ship Sappy, Outer Space Jitters (both
1957) and Flying Saucer Daffy (1958).
Columbia was the last studio still
producing live-action and two-reel short films (other studios were
still making animated one-reelers well into the 1960s, but the
Stooges' last live-action competition, one-reel series Joe McDoakes,
had ended its run in 1956), and the market for such films had all but
dried up. As a result, the studio opted not to renew the Stooges'
contract when it expired in December 1957. The final comedy produced
was Flying Saucer Daffy, filmed on December 19th and 20th, 1957.
Several days later, the Stooges were unceremoniously fired from
Columbia Pictures after 24 years of making low-budget shorts.
No formal goodbyes or congratulatory
celebrations occurred in recognition of their work and of the money
that their comedies had earned for the studio. Moe visited Columbia
several weeks after the dismissal to say goodbye to several
executives. But without the current year's studio pass, Moe was
refused entry, later stating that it was a crushing blow to his pride.
The studio had enough completed Stooge
films to be released over the next 18 months, though not in the order
in which they were produced. The final Stooge release, Sappy Bull
Fighters, (with Greta Thyssen above) did not reach theaters until
June 4th, 1959.
Greta Thyssen was a Danish film actress
and model who arrived in the United States after winning the Miss
Denmark crown in 1952. She was Marilyn Monroe's double in Bus Stop,
and appeared in Accused of Murder, Terror Is a Man, Three Blondes in
His Life and Journey to the Seventh Planet. In addition to her
appearances on the television series Dragnet and Bachelor Father, she
appeared as Roxy Howard, the title character in the Perry Mason
episode, "The Case of the Nervous Accomplice". Thyssen also
appeared on Broadway in Pajama Tops as a replacement for June
Wilkinson. But Thyssen is probably best remembered for her
appearances in the Three Stooges films Quiz Whizz, Pies and Guys
(where she received a cream pie to the face), and Sappy Bull
Fighters. From 1956-1958, Thyssen was the original Pirate Girl on the
game show Treasure Hunt, assisting host Jan Murray. After appearing
in the musical comedy Cottonpickin' Chickenpickers (1967), she
retired from acting. Thyssen died of pneumonia at her home in
Manhattan, aged 90 in 2018.
With no active contract in place, Moe and
Larry discussed plans for a personal appearance tour but Besser
declined. His wife had suffered a heart attack in November 1957, and
he was unwilling to leave without her. In later life, Besser praised
Moe and Larry in a 1985 radio interview, "... Moe and Larry,
they were the best. I enjoyed every minute of it with them. In fact,
to show you how wonderful they were, I never liked to be hit with
anything. And Larry would always say to me, 'Don't worry Joe, I'll
take it.' Now that's the kind of guys that they were ..."
returned to films and television, most notably as the superintendent
Jillson for four seasons (1961-1965) of The Joey Bishop Show. He also
made occasional appearances on the ABC late-night series, also called
The Joey Bishop Show between 1967 and 1969. Besser also had roles on
The Mothers-in-Law, Batman, The Good Guys, That Girl, and Love,
Besser also provided voices for several
Saturday Morning cartoon series in the 1970s including Scooby's
All-Star Laff-A-Lympics. He voiced the character Putty Puss in The
Houndcats (1972), and Scare Bear in Yogi's Space Race (1978). He
voiced the bumbling genie Babu in Jeannie (1973), (a cartoon inspired
by I Dream of Jeannie) that also featured a young Mark Hamill. He
also provided the voice of the dragon on The Alvin Show (1961).
Besser's career slowed somewhat after he suffered a minor stroke in
1979, resulting in considerable weight loss.
Later in life, Besser expressed some
dismay that people only recognized him for his brief tenure with the
Stooges. However, he eventually softened, realizing that the Stooges
continued to bring him his greatest exposure.
In 1984, Besser co-wrote with authors Jeff
and Greg Lenburg his autobiography, Not Just a Stooge, for Excelsior
Books. The book would be later retitled and re-published as Once a
Stooge, Always a Stooge following his death in 1988.
In 1932, Besser married dancer Erna Kay
(born Ernestine Dora Kretschmer), known as "Ernie". The
couple had no children. They were neighbors and friends of Lou
Costello. Besser appeared in the Abbott and Costello movie Africa
Screams (1949), which also featured Shemp Howard. Joe and Shemp were
old friends, having met in 1932.
Joe Besser was found dead in his home on
March 1st, 1988. He was aged 80 and died of heart failure. His wife
Erna died on July 1st, 1989, from a heart attack at age 89.
Curly Joe DeRita -
Stooge years: 19581970
Wardell (July 12th, 1909 - July 3rd, 1993), known professionally as
Joe DeRita, was an American actor and comedian, who is best known for
his stint as a member of The Three Stooges in the persona of "Curly-Joe."
DeRita was born into a show-business
family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Florenz (DeRita) and
Frank Wardell, and of French-Canadian and English ancestry. The
youngest of 5 brothers. Wardell's father was a stage technician, his
mother a professional stage dancer, and the three often acted on
stage together. Taking his mother's maiden name, DeRita, joined the
burlesque circuit during the 1920s, gaining fame as a comedian.
During World War II, DeRita performed with the USO throughout Britain
and France with such celebrities as Bing Crosby and Randolph Scott.
In the 1944 comedy film The Doughgirls, about the housing shortage in
wartime Washington, D.C., he had an uncredited role as "the
Stranger", a bewildered man who repeatedly showed up in scenes
looking for a place to sleep.
1946 (the same year Curly suffered his disabling stroke) DeRita was
hired by Columbia Pictures Short Subjects Division head/director
Jules White to star in his own series of comedies. The first effort,
Slappily Married, was released under the studio's All-Star Comedy
series. The three remaining entries, The Good Bad Egg, Wedlock
Deadlock (both 1947) and Jitter Bughouse (1948), billed DeRita as the
headliner. Regarding his Columbia shorts series, DeRita said, "My
comedy in those scripts was limited to getting hit on the head with
something, then going over to my screen wife to say, 'Honey, don't
leave me!' For this kind of comedy material, you could have gotten a
busboy to do it and it would have been just as funny." White
also attempted to recruit DeRita for the Three Stooges because he
wanted "another Curly." However, the strong-willed DeRita
refused to change his act or imitate another performer. White
eventually gave up on the idea and Shemp Howard returned to the act.
Meanwhile DeRita went back to burlesque, recording a risque LP in
1950 called Burlesque Uncensored.
Shemp Howard died suddenly of a heart
attack in 1955 and was succeeded by Joe Besser and then Columbia shut
down its short-subjects department at the end of 1957. Besser quit
the act to take care of his ailing wife and the two remaining Stooges
seriously considered retirement. Then Columbia's television
subsidiary, Screen Gems, syndicated the Stooges' old comedies to
television, and the Three Stooges were suddenly television superstars.
Moe and Larry now had many job offers, but
they were in need of a new "third Stooge." Larry had seen
DeRita in a Las Vegas stage engagement and told Moe that he would be
"perfect for the third Stooge." Howard and Fine invited
DeRita to join the act, and this time he readily accepted. When he
first joined the act in 1958 (shortly after appearing in a dramatic
role in the Gregory Peck western, The Bravados), DeRita wore his hair
in a style similar to that of former Stooge Shemp Howard and did so
during initial live stage performances. However, with television's
restored popularity of the Three Stooges shorts featuring Curly
Howard, it was suggested that Joe shave his head in order to look
more like Curly. At first, DeRita sported a crew cut; this eventually
became a fully shaven head. Because of his physical resemblance to
both Curly and Joe Besser, and to avoid confusion with his
predecessors, DeRita was renamed "Curly-Joe".
The team embarked on a new series of six
feature-length theatrical Three Stooges films, including Have Rocket,
Will Travel (1959 above), DeRita's on-screen debut with the Stooges,
and Snow White and the Three Stooges (1961). Aimed primarily at
children, these films rarely reached the same comedic heights as
their shorts and often recycled routines and songs from the older
films. Moe and Larry's advanced ages, Moe was 62 and Larry 57 at the
time of the first Curly Joe film, plus pressure from the PTA and
other children's advocates, led to the toning-down of the trio's
trademark violent slapstick. While DeRita's physical appearance was
vaguely reminiscent of Curly, his characterization was milder and not
as manic or surreal. The characterization evolved over time; early
sketches featuring Curly Joe (such as a commercial for Simoniz car
wax) have him effectively as a fifth wheel while Moe and Larry
divided most of the comedy between themselves, while by the
mid-1960s, Larry's role had been reduced and Curly Joe divided much
of the comedy with Moe. Curly Joe also showed more backbone, even
occasionally talking back to Moe, calling him "buddy boy".
Through the 1960s, DeRita remained a
member of the team, participating in The New Three Stooges animated
cartoons series (with live-action introductions) and a shelved
television pilot titled Kook's Tour in 1969. Kook's Tour was a
half-hour pilot for a syndicated 39-episode TV series. A combination
travelogue-sitcom that had the "retired" Stooges traveling
to various parts of the world with the episodes filmed on location.
On January 9th, 1970, during production of the pilot, Larry suffered
a paralyzing stroke, ending his acting career along with plans for
the television series. The pilot was unfinished and several key shots
were missing, but producer Norman Maurer edited the available footage
and made the pilot a 52-minute special that was released to the
Cartrivision videocassette home video market in 1973. It is the last
film in which the Stooges appeared and the last known performance of
the early 1970s, with Moe's blessing, Joe DeRita recruited
vaudeville veterans Frank Mitchell and Mousie Garner to tour as The
New Three Stooges. Garner had worked with Ted Healy as one of his
"replacement stooges" decades earlier and was briefly
considered as Joe Besser's replacement in 1958. Mitchell had also
replaced Shemp as the "third stooge" in a 1929 Broadway
play and appeared in two of the Stooges' short subjects in 1953. The
act fared poorly with minimal bookings. By this time, Moe's wife had
prevailed on him to retire from performing slapstick due to his age.
For the next several years, Moe appeared regularly on talk shows and
did speaking engagements at colleges, while DeRita quietly retired.
DeRita was married twice. His first
marriage was to a chorus girl named Bonnie Brooks (real name Esther
M. Hartenstine) from July 13th, 1935, until her death on September
6th, 1965; they had no children. DeRita married his second wife, Jean
Sullivan, the following year on December 28th. Sullivan's sons from a
previous relationship, Earl and Robert Benjamin, control licensing
rights to many deceased celebrities, along with the Three Stooges,
through C3 Entertainment.
DeRita, who was the only member of the
Stooges who was not Jewish, died of pneumonia on July 3th, 1993, nine
days before his 84th birthday. He was residing at the Motion Picture
& Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills,
California, at the time of his passing. He was the last surviving
member of the group, his tombstone reads "The Last Stooge".
Although DeRita enjoyed working with Moe
and Larry and made a living doing it, he was not a fan of the
Stooges' humor. He once told an interviewer the following:
"I don't think the Stooges were
funny. I'm not putting you on, I'm telling the truth - they were
physical, but they just didn't have any humor about them. Take, for
instance, Laurel and Hardy. I can watch their films and I still laugh
at them and maybe I've seen them four or five times before. But when
I see that pie or seltzer bottle, I know that it's not just lying
around for no reason. It's going to be used for something. I was with
the Stooges for 12 years and it was a very pleasant association but I
just don't think they were funny."
Despite his indifference to the team's
brand of comedy, he had nothing but respect and appreciation for the
Stooges, proudly saying "Moe and Larry were the best. We worked
well together and enjoyed every minute of it."
The Fourth Stooge
Following Larry Fine's stroke during the
filming of Kook's Tour, plans were made for Emil Sitka (right) to
replace him in a new feature film, written by Moe Howard's grandson,
Jeffrey Scott [Maurer], titled Make Love, Not War. Moe Howard, Joe
DeRita and Emil Sitka were cast as POWs in a World War II Japanese
prison camp, plotting an escape with fellow prisoners. The film would
have been a departure from typical Stooge fare, with dark-edged humor
and scenes of war violence, but insufficient funding prevented
production from advancing beyond the script stage.
Plans for Sitka to replace Larry as the
Middle Stooge in late 1970 and again in 1975, only resulted in a few
promotional pictures ever being made. Sitka was to play Larry's
brother, Harry. Sitka later described him as being "conscientious
to the point of ridiculousness." Two feature film offers for
the Stooges had been considered, but this proposed version of the
group would never transpire, due to Moe falling ill and dying shortly
after its conception. One of the film offers was Blazing
Stewardesses, which would go on to feature the surviving members of
the Ritz Brothers.
Emil Sitka (December 22nd, 1914 - January
16th, 1998) was a veteran American actor, who appeared in hundreds of
movies, short films, and television shows, and is best known for his
numerous appearances with The Three Stooges. He is one of only two
actors to have worked with all six Stooges (Shemp Howard, Moe Howard,
Larry Fine, Curly Howard, Joe Besser and Joe DeRita) on film in the
various incarnations of the group (Harold Brauer, a recurring villain
who appeared in three 1940s shorts, was the other).
served the role of a literal "stooge," or straight man, to
the Three Stooges throughout nearly 40 of their short films, most of
which were filmed during Shemp's run as the third stooge. In addition
to one single appearance during Curly's run with the trio, and a
limited number of appearances during Besser's, Sitka returned as a
near-regular character when the trio returned to film and television
with DeRita. His frequent appearances with the trio, and his role as
stooge to the stooges, have earned him the informal title of being
the "fourth stooge".
Sitka was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania
in 1914. He was the oldest of five children, born of Slovak immigrant
parents. His father, Emil Sitka, a coal miner, died of black lung
disease when Sitka was 12 years old, and his mother, Helena Matula
Sitka, was hospitalized, unable to take care of the children. His
siblings were placed in foster homes, but Sitka went to live in a
church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with a Catholic priest for the
next few years. At this time, he became an altar boy and made plans
to enter the priesthood, and had his first acting opportunity in the
church's annual Passion Play. At the age of 16, he and one of his
brothers traveled across the United States looking for work. After a
year, they returned to Pittsburgh, where Sitka found a job working in
a factory. He stayed there until the great St. Patrick's Day
Pittsburgh Flood of 1936, after which he departed to pursue his dream
of acting in Hollywood.
found inexpensive lodging in a small acting theater, doing handiwork
to pay his rent, and gradually acting in small parts in the theater.
With time and experience, the parts became larger, and eventually
Sitka was directing plays as well. Since the theater did not pay,
Emil always kept a job as a civil engineer to pay the bills as well
as his acting career at night. By 1946, he had played dozens, if not
hundreds of roles; this breadth of experience would help him in his
later film career, playing everything from butler to lawyer to
businessman to construction worker.
In 1946, Sitka was leading his own acting
troupe when he was spotted by a talent scout for Columbia Pictures.
He was told to contact Jules White, head of Columbia Pictures' short
film department, and was cast in a short film that White was
directing Hiss and Yell. starring Barbara Jo Allen as her
character "Vera Vague." Hiss and Yell was nominated for an
Academy Award. Several months later, he was cast in his first Three
Stooges film, Half-Wits Holiday, where he played the role as
Sappington, the first footman. At the time, this episode was also the
final starring role of Curly Howard, who suffered a stroke off screen
and it marked the end of his career, thus making it one of only two
shorts where Emil and Curly appeared together. The other short was
Hold that Lion.
Sitka went on to appear in dozens of Three
Stooges short films, as well as most of their feature films and the
live action segments for The New Three Stooges 1965 cartoon series.
He worked in both short films and feature films with others as well,
including Lucille Ball, Milton Berle, Red Skelton, Tony Curtis, Alan
Hale, Walter Brennan, Dan Blocker, Joey Bishop, Bob Denver, and many
others. However, Sitka is best remembered for his association with
the Three Stooges, and with one line in particular which he repeated
several times: "Hold hands, you lovebirds!" from Brideless
Groom (one of the four Three Stooges shorts that lapsed into the
public domain and thus was distributed freely and widely).
In the Brideless Groom (1947 above), Shemp
Howard must be married before 6:00 p.m. in order to inherit $500,000.
After striking out, Shemp finally finds a girl willing to marry him,
and they rush off to a justice of the peace played by Sitka. As he
starts the ceremony, initially telling the couple to "hold
hands, you lovebirds", the other girls that turned down Shemp's
proposal burst in, having heard of the inheritance. A free-for-all
then ensues, with poor Sitka being struck again and again, attempting
to re-start the ceremony, each time more disheveled and his "hold
hands, you lovebirds" line being delivered weaker and weaker.
Because this short was in the public
domain it was broadcasted countless times on local television
stations all over the country, and the scene is the one that Sitka
has become best known for. A clip of this short is featured in Pulp
Fiction (1994), for which Sitka's name even appears in the credits as
"Hold Hands You Lovebirds."
Sitka appeared as a contestant on Let's
Make a Deal in 1985 (above left), bringing along a drawing of silent
film star Ben Turpin, which host Monty Hall remarked on when choosing
him. After being given $500 by Hall and offered the chance to trade
it for an unknown item, Sitka opted to keep the money and avoided a
"zonk" prize of his-and-hers garbage cans.
Sitka continued with the acting career,
more out of love for acting than the need for money, including a
cameo as a supermarket customer in the horror film Intruder (1989
above right), in which he said his signature line), appearing in
films as late as 1992. He was in demand at various Three Stooges
conventions, and had numerous requests from Three Stooges fans to
appear at their wedding to say "Hold hands, you lovebirds!"
Sitka and first wife Donna Driscoll
married in the 1940s and divorced in the 1960s. He married longtime
girlfriend Edith Weber in the 1970s; they were married until her
death in 1981. Sitka had seven children, all from his first first marriage.
For decades Emil
contributed to the legacy of the Three Stooges by representing them
at numerous events and conventions. He gave frequent interviews and
corresponded with literally thousands of Stooge fans. He assisted
with efforts to put their star on the Hollywood Walk-of-Fame, and he
contributed to quite a few notable Stooge books and video
retrospectives. While hosting several Stooge fans in his home
in June 1997, Sitka suffered a massive stroke and never regained
consciousness (one fan was a certified EMT and was able to keep Sitka
alive until paramedics arrived). He died on January 16th, 1998 in
Camarillo, California, less than a month after his 83rd birthday. He
is interred next to his wife Edith at Conejo Mountain Memorial Park
in Camarillo. As a tribute to his tenure with the Stooges, Sitka's
gravestone reads "Hold hands, you lovebirds!", as well as
"He danced all the way."
The Stooges Live On
The early days of television provided
movie studios a place to unload a backlog of short films that they
thought otherwise unmarketable, and the Stooge films seemed perfect
for the burgeoning genre. ABC had even expressed interest as far back
as 1949, purchasing exclusive rights to 30 of the trio's shorts and
commissioning a pilot for a potential series, Jerks of All Trades.
However, the success of television revivals for such names as Laurel
and Hardy, Woody Woodpecker, Popeye, Tom and Jerry and the Our Gang
series in the late 1950s led Columbia to cash in again on the
Stooges. In September 1958, Columbia's television subsidiary Screen
Gems offered a package consisting of 78 Stooge shorts (primarily from
the Curly era), which were well received. An additional 40 shorts hit
the market in April 1959; by September 1959, all 190 Stooge shorts
were airing regularly. With so many films available for broadcast,
daily television airings provided heavy exposure aimed squarely at
children. Parents who had grown up seeing the same films in the
theaters began to watch alongside their children and, before long,
Howard, Fine and DeRita were in high demand.
lineup, now frequently referred to as "Larry, Moe and Curly
Joe," starred in six full-length feature films from 1959 to
1965: Have Rocket, Will Travel (1959), Snow White and the Three
Stooges (1961), The Three Stooges Meet Hercules (1962), The Three
Stooges in Orbit (1962), The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a
Daze (1963) and The Outlaws IS Coming! (1965). The films were aimed
at the kiddie-matinee market, and most were black-and-white farce
outings in the Stooge tradition, with the exception of Snow White and
the Three Stooges, a children's fantasy in color. They also appeared
in an extremely brief cameo as firemen (a role that Larry, Moe, and
Shemp had also played in the pre-"Three Stooges" film Soup
to Nuts in 1930) in the film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963),
and in a larger capacity that same year in 4 for Texas starring Frank
Sinatra and Dean Martin. Throughout the early 1960s, the Stooges were
one of the most popular and highest-paid live acts in America.
The Stooges also tried their hand at
another weekly television series in 1960 titled The Three Stooges
Scrapbook, filmed in color and with a laugh track. The first episode,
"Home Cooking", featured the boys rehearsing for a new
television show. Like Jerks of All Trades in 1949, the pilot did not
sell. However, Norman Maurer was able to reuse the footage
(reprocessed in black and white) for the first ten minutes of The
Three Stooges in Orbit.
The trio also filmed 41 short comedy skits
for The New Three Stooges in 1965, which features a series of 156
animated cartoons produced for television. The Stooges appeared in
live-action color footage, which preceded and followed each animated
adventure in which they voiced their respective characters.
During this period, The Stooges appeared
on numerous television shows including The Steve Allen Show, Here's
Hollywood, Masquerade Party, The Ed Sullivan Show, Danny Thomas Meets
the Comics, The Joey Bishop Show, Off to See the Wizard and Truth or Consequences.
In 1999, AMC ran a program called N.Y.U.K.
(New Yuk University of Knuckleheads), which starred actor/comedian
Leslie Nielsen. The program would show three random Stooge shorts.
Nielsen hosts the program as a college instructor, known as the
Professor of Stoogelogy, who teaches to the students lectures on the
Three Stooges before the Stooges' shorts air. The block aired several
shorts often grouped by a theme, such as similar schtick used in
different films. To this day The Stooges enjoy a place on the TV
schedule appearing on various networks and cable stations (The Family
Channel, Me-TV, WSBK-TV) sometimes with a place in the regular
schedule or used as filler between movies and as in holiday
marathons. Some of the Stooges shorts have even been colorized.
In 1995 a bankruptcy court had confirmed
that the heirs of the Three Stooges own the rights to their work. The
ruling ended years of litigation which held up lucrative film and
in the 1980s, the Stooges finally began to receive critical
recognition. The release of nearly all their films on DVD by 2010 has
allowed critics of Joe Besser and Joe DeRita (often the recipients of
significant fan backlash) to appreciate the unique style of comedy
that both men brought to the Stooges. In addition, the DVD market has
allowed fans to view the entire Stooge film corpus as distinct
periods in their long, distinguished career rather than unfairly
comparing one Stooge to another (the Curly vs. Shemp debate continues
to this day).
The team appeared in 220 films, but it is
the durability of the 190 short films the Stooges made at Columbia
Pictures that acts as an enduring tribute to the comedy team.
American television personality Steve Allen went on record in 1984
saying, "Although they never achieved widespread critical
acclaim, they did succeed in accomplishing what they had always
intended to do: they made people laugh."
the Three Stooges slapstick comedy was primarily arranged around
basic plots dealing with more mundane issues of daily life, a number
of their shorts featured social commentary or satire. The Stooges
were often anti-heroical commentators on the class divisions and
economic hardships of the Great Depression in the United States. They
were usually under- or unemployed and sometimes homeless or living in
shanty towns. The language used by the Three Stooges was more
slang-laden than that of typical feature films of the period and
deliberately affected a lower class status with use of crude terms,
ethnic mannerisms, and inside jokes.
One important area of political commentary
was in the area of the rise of totalitarianism in Europe, notably in
the directly satirical You Nazty Spy! and I'll Never Heil Again, both
released before United States' entry into World War II despite an
industry Production Code that advocated avoiding social and political
issues and the negative portrayal of foreign countries.
Over the years, in addtion to their film
and TV work, The Stooges appeared in various other mediums. Several
Three Stooges comics were produced, the first being published by St.
John Publications in 1949. Other books followed from DELL, Gold Key
Comics and Eclipse Comics among others including an American
Mythology Production series from 2017 which shows the Three Stooges
in the modern times.
Three Stooges appeared in animated form in Hollywood Steps Out (top
left), a 1941 short Merrie Melodies cartoon by Warner Bros., directed
by Tex Avery. The cartoon features caricatures by Ben Shenkman of
Hollywood celebrities from the 1930s and early 1940s, including Cary
Grant, Clark Gable, Wallace Beery, Bing Crosby, Greta Garbo, and
The Stooges also appeared in the animated
series, The New Three Stooges (bottom left), which ran from 1965 to
1966 and featured a mix of forty-one live-action segments which were
used as wraparounds to 156 animated Stooges shorts. The New Three
Stooges became the only regularly scheduled television show in
history for the Stooges. Unlike other films shorts that aired on
television, like the Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, and Popeye, the
film shorts of the Stooges never had a regularly scheduled national
television program to air in. When Columbia/Screen Gems licensed the
film library to television, the shorts aired in any fashion the local
stations chose (late-night "filler" or back-to-back
"marathon" showings). Stooges marathons can be seen on
various stations to this day.
Another animated production included The
Robonic Stooges, (CBS, Hanna-Barbera 19771978), featuring Moe,
Larry, and Curly (voiced by Paul Winchell, Joe Baker and Frank
Welker, respectively) as bionic cartoon superheroes with extendable
limbs, similar to the later Inspector Gadget. In 2015, C3
Entertainment partnered with London-based production company Cake
Entertainment and animation house Titmouse, Inc. in an attempt to
produce a new animated Three Stooges series.
Beginning in 1959, the Three Stooges began
appearing in a series of novelty records. Their first recording was a
45 rpm single of the title song from Have Rocket, Will Travel. The
trio released additional singles and LPs on the Golden, Peter Pan and
Coral labels, mixing comedy adventure albums and off-beat renditions
of children's songs and stories. Their final recording was the 1966
Yogi Bear and the Three Stooges Meet the Mad, Mad, Mad Dr. No-No,
which incorporated the Three Stooges into the cast of the Yogi Bear cartoons.
2000, long-time Stooge fan Mel Gibson executive-produced a TV film
(The Three Stooges) about the lives and careers of the comedians.
Playing Moe was Paul Ben-Victor, Evan Handler was Larry, John Kassir
was Shemp, and Michael Chiklis was Curly. It was filmed in Australia
and was produced for and broadcast on ABC. It was based on Michael
Fleming's authorized biography of the Stooges, The Three Stooges:
From Amalgamated Morons to American Icons. Its unflattering portrayal
of Ted Healy led Healy's son to give media interviews calling the
film inaccurate. Additional errors of fact included the portrayal
that Moe Howard was down on his luck after Columbia cancelled their
contract and worked as a gofer at the studio, where he, his brothers
and Larry had formerly worked as actors. In reality, Moe was the most
careful with his money, which he invested well. He and his wife Helen
owned a comfortable house in Toluca Lake, in which they raised their children.
Sirius XM Radio aired a special about the
Stooges hosted by Tom Bergeron in 2009, on the Sirius Howard 101
channel. Bergeron had conducted the interviews at the age of 16 back
when he was still in high school in 1971. The television host had the
tapes in storage for many years and was convinced on-air during an
interview with Howard Stern to bring them in and turn it into a
special. After finding "the lost tapes", Bergeron brought
them into Stern's production studio. He stated that the tapes were so
old that the tapes with the Larry Fine interviews began to shred as
Stern's radio engineers ran them through their cart players. They
really had only one shot, but the tapes were saved. "The Lost
Stooges Tapes" was hosted by Tom Bergeron, with modern
commentary on the almost 40-year-old interviews that he had conducted
with Larry Fine and Moe Howard. At the times of these interviews, Moe
was still living at home, while Larry had suffered a stroke and was
living in a Senior Citizen's home.
Farrelly brothers brought The Three Stooges back in their 2011, 20th
Century Fox film, (titled: The Three Stooges) which had been in
"development hell" for years. The Farrellys, who wanted to
make the film since 1996, said that they were not going to do a
biopic or remake, but instead new Three Stooges episodes set in the
present day. The film is broken up into three continuous episodes
that revolves around the Stooges characters.
Casting the title characters proved
difficult for the studio. Originally slated were Sean Penn to play
Larry, Benicio del Toro to play Moe, and Jim Carrey to play Curly.
Both Penn and del Toro left the project but returned while no
official confirmation had been made about Jim Carrey. When del Toro
was interviewed on MTV News for The Wolfman, he spoke about playing
Moe. He was later asked who was going to play Larry and Curly in the
film and commented that he still thought that Sean Penn and Jim
Carrey were going to play them, though he added, "Nothing is for
sure yet." A story in The Hollywood Reporter stated that Will
Sasso would play Curly in the upcoming comedy and that Hank Azaria
was the front runner to play Moe. Sasso was ultimately cast as Curly;
Sean Hayes of Will & Grace was cast as Larry Fine, while Chris
Diamantopoulos was cast as Moe. Jane Lynch later joined the cast,
playing a nun who ran the Sisters of Mercy Orphanage where we first
meet the Stooges as young boys. Other nuns working at the orphanage
included Jennifer Hudson, Kate Upton and Larry David as Sister Mary-Mengele.
The film was released on April 13th, 2012, and grossed over $54
Gary Lassin, grand-nephew-in-law of Larry
Fine, opened the Stoogeum in 2004, in a renovated architect's office
in Spring House, Pennsylvania, 25 miles (40 km) north of
Philadelphia. The exhibits fill three stories, including an 85-seat
theater. Peter Seely, editor of the book Stoogeology: Essays on the
Three Stooges said that the Stoogeum has "more stuff than I even
imagined existed." 2,500 people visit it yearly, many during the
annual Three Stooges Fan Club gathering in April.
Over half a century since their last short
film was released, the Three Stooges remain popular with audiences.
They continue to delight old fans while attracting new viewers. They
were a hard-working group of comedians who were never the critics'
darlings, a durable act who endured several personnel changes in
their careers that would have permanently sidelined a less persistent
act and The Stooges would not have lasted as long as they did as a
unit without Moe Howard's guiding hand.
"Many scholarly studies of motion
picture comedy have overlooked the Three Stooges entirely - and not
without valid reasoning. Aesthetically, the Stooges violated every
rule that constitutes "good" comedic style. Their
characters lacked the emotional depth of Charlie Chaplin and Harry
Langdon; they were never as witty or subtle as Buster Keaton. They
were not disciplined enough to sustain lengthy comic sequences; far
too often, they were willing to suspend what little narrative
structure their pictures possessed in order to insert a number of
gratuitous jokes. Nearly every premise they have employed (spoofs of
westerns, horror films, costume melodramas) has been done to better
effect by other comedians. And yet, in spite of the overwhelming
artistic odds against them, they were responsible for some of the
finest comedies ever made. Their humor was the most undistilled form
of low comedy; they were not great innovators, but as quick laugh
practitioners, they place second to none. If public taste is any
criterion, the Stooges have been the reigning kings of comedy for
over fifty years."
- The Columbia Comedy
Shorts by Ted Okuda and Edward Watz