By Dan Barry,
Disparage the Three Stooges if you must, you cineaste. Dismiss their films with a weary wave of your smoldering Gauloise. But give them this: Moe, Larry, Curly and Shemp inhabited a world entirely their own, a surreal place where cream pies could fly, and hammer blows to the head never drew blood.
The Stooges maintained their safely violent universe for several decades, beginning with movie-house comedy shorts in the 1930s and continuing deep into the television era. But their Stoogeland gradually slipped away, like some sunken, knucklehead Atlantis — that is, until the Farrelly brothers resurrected it this week with their homage of a film, “The Three Stooges.”
But what about all the menacing mugs who sat down on sizzling waffle irons? And all the sassy girlfriends who pulled at Larry’s hair as though it were taffy? And all the others who inhabited this black-and-white madhouse, delivering and receiving blow after blow, going home, and coming back in the morning to do it again? Sometimes their best lines went no further than: “Hey you! Get back here!” Or, “Why, I oughta.”
In other words: What about the stooges to The Stooges?
Playing dames and gangsters, judges and jurors, cops and nurses and shopkeepers and mad scientists, the little-known denizens of Columbia Pictures were valued less for their command of the Shakespearean canon than for their ability to do a spit take. I’d love to hear your King Henry at Agincourt someday. Really. But for this scene, when Moe hits you on the head with the wrench, you’re going to cross your eyes, buckle your knees and collapse out of the frame.
These character actors toiled for decades in cheap two-reel shorts, which lasted 15 to 18 minutes. And just as these movie-house fillers were in service to the main feature, these actors were in service to Moe Howard, Larry Fine, Curly Howard and Shemp Howard, who stepped in to help his younger brothers when illness forced Curly to retire in 1946.
(Yes, we know about the later, Joe Besser years; send your letters of outrage to Cahiers du Cinéma magazine, Paris, France.)
No matter that stout Vernon Dent, for example, had appeared early on as a reliable cast member in the silent film comedies of the Mack Sennett studio. Here he was now, performing the comic “slow burn” in dozens of Stooges shorts: the “laughing party guest” in “Three Little Sew and Sews” (1939); “Balbo the Magician” in “Loco Boy Makes Good” (1942); King Arthur in “Squareheads of the Round Table” (1948).
No matter that statuesque Christine McIntyre had both beauty and a classically trained voice. Here she was now, putting her musical talents to use by singing “Voice of Spring” in “Micro-Phonies” (1945). In 1950 alone she appeared in six Stooges two-reelers, none of which will ever be listed beside “Citizen Kane”: “Hugs and Mugs.” “Dopey Dicks.” “Three Hams on Rye.”
McIntyre, of Nogales, Ariz., probably did not come to Los Angeles with hopes of one day appearing in “Three Pests in a Mess” (1945). But, according to David J. Hogan, author of “Three Stooges FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Eye-Poking, Face-Slapping, Head-Thumping Geniuses” (Applause, 2011), she and the other stooges to the Stooges were lucky to have any film work, considering the competitive complication that was Golden Age Hollywood.
“There was only so much room for character players in Hollywood at any given time,” Mr. Hogan said. “And there was also a stigma if you worked in two-reelers. It was very much a caste system.”
He said that many of these supporting actors, lunch-pail thespians, also worked in other two-reel comedies that are mostly forgotten now. (When was the last time anyone mentioned the Columbia shorts of Vera Vague or Andy Clyde?) But in the circumscribed Stoogian universe, at least, these chosen few live on, albeit with pie on their faces.
This is thanks, in large part, to an avid, almost entirely male fanbase whose members have cataloged and deconstructed every Stooge moment committed to film. Mr. Hogan, for example, analyzes each of the 190 Stooges shorts — from “Woman Haters” (1934) to “Sappy Bull Fighters” (1959) — with a scholarly precision worthy of Truffaut.
So they who might be forgotten are remembered. Here’s to Tiny Brauer, a dependable gangster, and Bud Jamison, a reliable detective, and Symona Boniface, a perfect society matron, and Connie Cezan, a go-to gold digger with silver-dollar eyes.
Here’s to Emil Sitka, the lanky, talented actor who was so ubiquitous in Stoogeland that he was sometimes called the “Fourth Stooge.” His proudest hour came in “Brideless Groom” (1947), when he played a flustered justice of the peace who says, over and over again, “Hold hands, you lovebirds” — even after getting crowned with a birdcage during the requisite mayhem.
His tombstone, by the way, includes the inscription “Hold Hands, You Lovebirds.”
And, finally, here’s to Joe Palma. In 1955 Shemp Howard died, suddenly, while the Stooges were still under contract to Columbia for a few more shorts. The solution: Recycle some stock footage with a few new scenes that featured Moe, Larry — and Joe Palma, dressed up as Shemp but appearing only from the back or the side.
You might say that Palma’s work in, say, “Rumpus in the Harem” (1956), is a tribute to all the hard-working secondary actors who inhabited the strange world that was Stoogeland. This is because he doesn’t simply play Shemp. He was Shemp.