LOS ANGELES -- On a recent drive up historic Highland Avenue, Joan Howard Maurer interrupts a tale of family history to point to a house. "Oh, we lived there." Pretty cool. "And my Uncle Curly lived there." Okay, very cool.
Yes, that Uncle Curly. And Joan's dad was, of course, Moe. The Howard brothers (originally Horwitz, no relation to your author -- naturally, I checked), along with their friend Larry Fine, were the Three Stooges. The comedy team's eye-poking, pie-throwing comedies will finally begin a chronological release on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, beginning Oct. 30 with "The Three Stooges Collection: Years 1-3," representing all 19 of their comedy shorts issued from 1934 to 1936.
The Stooges began their careers in New York in the 1920s behind abusive comic Ted Healey, with whom they parted ways in the early '30s after arriving in Hollywood. Not long afterward, they signed on with Columbia Pictures, creating 190 comedies from 1934 to 1958 for the studio's Short Subjects Department, run by producer-director Jules White.
"Theirs is one of the only brands of humor that has withstood the test of time," says director Bobby Farrelly, who, with his brother, Peter, has been developing a Three Stooges feature film for five years. "The Stooges were so physical. It was always just a variation of slipping on a banana peel, but it's still funny. A kid will look at it today and still laugh."
The group's shtick was fairly simple: three idiots. "Nincompoops," corrects film historian Leonard Maltin. "Let's get it right." There's Moe, the tough leader of the lot, constantly trying to keep the other two in check with well-placed pokes to the eye or punches to the stomach, accompanied by some choice insult ("Why, you pickle brain!"). Then there's Curly, whose childlike temperament and ridiculous squeals and gestures have long made him the fan favorite. And, of course, the frizzy-haired Larry, who seems to observe the other two in action, only to get punishment from Moe nonetheless (Larry: "What'd I do?" Moe: "That's for lookin' guilty!").
"I call it their 'triadic dynamic,' " says Jon Solomon, the Robert D. Novak professor of Western civilization and culture at the University of Illinois and author of "The Complete Three Stooges" official filmography. "Very few teams had three. You need the third person in there to sort of absorb the violence, et cetera. And Larry worked perfectly for that. He's like the bassoon and the violas in the orchestra. It wouldn't be the same texture without him."
The team's comedy was indeed different in many respects from that of other comic teams of the day, though, as Solomon notes, "everybody stole from everybody." Though the Stooges' humor is loaded with slapstick, that wasn't always their focus. "The Stooges really came out of vaudeville and didn't have a background in slapstick, as you might expect," says Maltin. "But the people that made their films did. They adapted to a form that they didn't grow up in."
Surrounding the Stooges were a team of writers and directors who came from the world of the silent film comedies of Mack Sennett, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. These included Jules White, his brother Jack White (often billed as "Preston Black"), Felix Adler, Clyde Bruckman, Del Lord, Charley Chase and others. "They were well guided by the writers and directors who worked on those Columbia shorts," Maltin adds.
The basic premise of many a Stooges comedy wasn't complicated: The three down-on-their-luck schmoes take on some job for which they are completely unqualified, making a complete mess of it. For example, after happening upon some wealthy homeowner with leaky pipes, Moe will declare, "Sure, we can do your plummin', Toots. We'll have you fixed up in a jiffy!" Typically, this is followed by more broken pipes, pipes clobbering heads and, of course, a flood.
"They're either on the lam or trying to make it in society, falling into some predicament, often with bad results for the more well-to-do people," says Frank Gladstone, part of the Glendale, Calif.-based Alex Film Society, which throws a Stooges Festival every Thanksgiving weekend. "They have confidence they can do the job, but we know they're immediately going to screw it up, in the funniest possible way."
Such comedy often involved poking a finger in the eye -- literally and figuratively -- of the wealthy. "They're fish out of water, but the ocean they're in is full of rich people," Gladstone says. "And it's very funny to most people, because most of us are not rich people."
Says Maltin: "The people who made their films subscribed to all the basic and timeworn tenets of comedy, in particular slapstick comedy. They're the have-nots in a world of haves. They're the plain-spoken working stiffs in a world of pomp and pretension." And, of course, pies.
The fish-out-of-water-plus-slapstick premise hasn't been lost on modern filmmakers, including the Farrelly brothers ("There's Something About Mary," "Dumb and Dumber" and the recent "The Heartbreak Kid"). "That premise is always funny," Bobby Farrelly says. "My brother, Pete, and I had that kind of philosophy in mind when we wrote 'Dumb and Dumber.' These guys quickly get out of their league." But as in the Stooges' films, Farrelly notes, funny jokes have to be accompanied by funny slapstick, and lots of it. "If it's just witty repartee, it can get old. All the physical humor keeps it funny. It's something we learned from them, for sure."
The Stooges were also romantically incompetent, either competing for the same gorgeous Columbia starlet (a young Lucille Ball among them), or being browbeaten (and otherwise) by three loathsome battle-ax wives. "The Stooges are not sexy at all -- intentionally so," notes Solomon. "And, besides, 'Hiya, Toots' is not a good opening line."
The "moron never quite gets sexy dish" motif, again, found its way into the Farrelly brothers' work. "We had that in mind in 'Dumb and Dumber,' where there's never really any hope that they'll get the women that they wanted," Farrelly says. "But, actually, the audience, in a way, doesn't really want them to anyway, because it would have broken them up," as with the Stooges. "You always felt, 'They're better off with each other. That's their marriage.' . . . And it's their loyalty to each other, even through all the rest, that the audience really loves, even if it isn't obvious."
On the set, the Stooges worked hard, pumping out eight films a year. "It was mayhem," recalls actress Adrian Booth Brian, who, billed as "Lorna Gray," appeared in four Stooges shorts in the late '30s and early '40s. "They were rehearsing stunts all the time. And Jules White was as crazy as they were."
While major gags were scripted, the Stooges' face-slapping and eye-poking were not. For such scenes, says Joan Maurer, "you know what the script says? 'The Stooges do their stuff.' " While the boys would work out some of those routines during meetings with directors before shooting, Maltin notes, "being on the stage and performing for a live audience day after day, night after night, year after year, gave performers of that generation tremendous experience and instinct. They had their bag of tricks of foolproof shtick." Adds Maurer, "It was a choreography of idiocy."
Maurer, who was born in 1927, recalls watching the Stooges' vaudeville act from the front row as a child. "It was very exciting, watching them do their thing. I even remember, when my dad would slap Curly, you could actually see the saliva fly out of his mouth, he was hitting him that hard. My dad would try to hold back a little, but Curly would say, 'No, no, hit me as hard as you can, so they can hear it in the last row!"
At home, the Stooges were nothing like their onscreen personas. Maurer has fond memories of her father, Moe, at home, when the Stooges were not filming or on the road performing. "He was a real family man, very loving," she recalls. Visits from her uncles were infrequent, she says, particularly given the time they spent together working, though her father would often join his older brother, Shemp Howard, to see boxing matches. It was Shemp who, having left the act just before the Stooges began their film work in the early '30s, rejoined after Curly suffered a debilitating stroke in 1946.
Visits from Maurer's Uncle Curly usually just involved a quick "Hello, Joanie," before he would disappear into the family swimming pool. Interestingly, though his real name was Jerome, Curly was rarely called "Jerry" around the family, instead being known as "Babe" (or, in Maurer's case, "Uncle Babe") since he was the youngest of the pack. "The only time my dad might call him Jerry was if Shemp's wife was around, whose nickname was also 'Babe,' " she says.
There have been thousands of pieces of licensed merchandise since the Stooges formed their Comedy III Productions (now C3 Entertainment) in 1959. (The company is now run by their heirs.) These include T-shirts and mugs, along with, more recently, lottery tickets, Three Stooges Beer, downloadable ring tones and electronic games, according to company president Earl Benjamin. The company declined a proposal for a casket with the faces of the Stooges on it. Three Stooges toilet paper suffered a similar rejection.
While the Three Stooges seem always to have captivated men, there are plenty of female fans. But, says Solomon, "in general, when I've talked to women about the Stooges, they think it's just more silly men. 'Why do you have to sit down and watch silly men? I've got one right here!' "
The Alex Film Society's festival, by the way, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, featuring a half dozen shorts and appearances by special guests (such as Maurer and other family members). Last year's screening was even the scene of a marriage proposal, the bride-to-be properly responding in the affirmative with Curly's trademark "Soitenly!"
(The proposing nincompoop/knucklehead, by the way, was your correspondent.)
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