Symkus column: Stoogemania is alive and well on cable TV and DVD
The old argument over who was the best movie comedy team of all time continues to rage. But for our purposes, the spotlight will remain fixed on the usual four contenders: Laurel & Hardy, The Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, and The Three Stooges.
Let’s see, great sight gags and chemistry in the L&H shorts; plenty of zaniness but a lot of filler and bad songs with the Marxes; some terrific banter among the dragged-out scripts for A and C; inventive, freeform comic-violence, outlandish silliness, innovative sound effects and camerawork, and rowdy, unrelenting anti-authoritarian behavior from the Stooges.
That settles it. The Stooges win. I’ve been a fan since I was seven. My wife is a fan (it’s one of the reasons I married her). My brother and many of my closest friends - a few of them women - are fans. Why are we drawn to the reckless, immature behavior displayed in these films? I don’t know or care, because they make me laugh. They’ve made a lot of people laugh, especially in entries from the first decade of their 25-year run of shorts (some late-period ones were intolerably bad) at Columbia Pictures, at the end of which, their catalogue made the jump to Saturday morning television, and is currently a mainstay at AMC, IFC and MeTV.
So, for devotees (who might agree with me) and naysayers (who I’d like to convert), here are my 10 favorite Three Stooges shorts.
“MEN IN BLACK” (1934)
Moe, Larry, and Curly are first-year doctors who “graduated with the highest temperatures in our class.” The hospital loudspeaker system is constantly calling for “Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard,” and they end up operating on the head hospital administrator ... against his will.
“THREE LITTLE PIGSKINS” (1934)
The blonde, Pig Latin-speaking woman is Lucille Ball. The out-of-work, spare-changing Stooges are mistaken for college football players and are “recruited” by a gangster who wants them to take part in a private game with no one in the stands (a little eerie when looking at today’s sports headlines). Some great scenes of people falling down a dumbwaiter shaft.
“HORSES’ COLLARS” (1935)
Because his father “was a rat,” every time Curly sees a mouse he goes nuts, fists a-flailing, which is of great help when bad guys are after them in a frontier town, where they’re trying to retrieve an IOU from the nasty Double Deal Decker. They sing some very nice harmony in a rendition of “You’ll Never Know Just What Tears Are.”
“RESTLESS KNIGHTS” (1935)
Character actor Walter Brennan, playing their father, gives them their first onscreen triple slap, just before they’re made royal guards to the queen (Geneva Mitchell). She, of course, is kidnapped, shortly after Moe and Curly have a wrestling match, and soon after, go to her rescue, armed with wooden clubs.
“PARDON MY SCOTCH” (1935)
They’re inept carpenters (“The man said the door goes on the right!”) who, just as Prohibition is being repealed, are mistaken for scotch distillers. They end up - wearing kilts - at a fancy party where they disrupt the performance of an Italian opera singer (with fruit!) and eventually destroy their hosts’ home in a scotch explosion.
“FALSE ALARMS” (1936)
After being fired for insubordination - and sleeping on the job - as firemen, Larry begs for their jobs back because, “Our girls love us in these uniforms.” Throughout the film’s non-stop action, they shower, destroy fire department property, steal the captain’s car, go to a party, and drive away in a burning moving van.
“GRIPS, GRUNTS AND GROANS” (1937)
To make a quick buck - they’re broke again - Curly agrees to become a sparring partner for a pro wrestler, then has to don a disguise and take his place when, thanks to them, the wrestler becomes incapacitated. Curly goes bonkers every time he gets a whiff of Wild Hyacinth perfume which, of course, happens at the title bout.
“BACK TO THE WOODS” (1937)
Because they’re law-breaking troublemakers in 17th-century England, their punishment is to be sent to the American colonies to fight the Indians. Beethoven’s “Minuet in G #2,” at first playing on a music box, gets all jazzed up, Larry is captured by the Indians and attacked by a blackbird, they all go hunting for wild turkeys.
“VIOLENT IS THE WORD FOR CURLY” (1938)
These guys are always getting mistaken for someone else. This time they’re gas station attendants-turned-college professors at an all-girl school. Larry is befuddled when a student asks, “Is it true that time and space are calculated by the direct ration of interplanetary magnetism to solar radiation?” But they’re all in fine form when performing “Swingin’ the Alphabet.”
“BRIDELESS GROOM” (1947)
Shemp has replaced Curly, and plays a bachelor voice instructor who will inherit a fortune if he’s married ... by 6 p.m. Moe and Larry attempt to clean him up and make him irresistible. Yeah, right! Stooges regular Christine McIntyre gets to beat the tar out of Shemp when he tries to woo her.
Various Three Stooges shorts are being broadcast on AMC, IFC, and MeTV throughout April and May. Check your cable listings for titles, dates, and times. The best DVD anthology available for purchase, featuring all 191 Columbia shorts, is “The Three Stooges Collection” from Sony Home Entertainment.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.