IN 1940, THE IMMENSE POPULARITY OF THE THREE STOOGES WAS DEEMED SUCH A POTENTIAL THREAT to the credibility of The Third Reich that Adolf Hitler added them to his personal death list. What roused the Führer’s ire was a Stooges two-reeler called You Nazsty Spy!, a ruthless send-up of Hitler and his fascist regime released nine months before Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, a full year before America, still firmly isolationist, entered World War II, and produced in direct defiance of both the censorious Hays Code and the prevailing mood in Hollywood which was, with overseas markets already in jeopardy, to play nice and not rock the Nazi boat.
The image of The Three Stooges as fearless, anti-fascist crusaders, willing to put their livelihoods and their lives on the line in the noble cause of liberty, will come as a shock to anyone who thinks of them — if they think of them at all — as a fifth-rate Marx Brothers knock-off whose principal contribution to the art of comedy was the twin-fingered eye-poke. And, to be honest, that would include most of the non-North American population of the planet and anyone in possession of a vagina. What will also come as a surprise to non-Stooge fans (and, as with Marmite and S&M porn, there is no middle ground when it comes to Stooge fandom) is not only that they were once sufficiently popular to get Hitler’s dander up, but that said popularity has not waned one iota in the intervening decades. In fact, it’s safe to say that The Three Stooges, 35 years after last remaining original Stooge Moe Howard gouged his last cornea, are more celebrated today than they were at the zenith of their prolonged, checkerboard career.
Larry, Moe and Curly (the classic Stooge line-up) are stitched into the cultural fabric of America in a way that few entertainers are, rivalling Marilyn and Elvis for kitsch-cult supremacy. They are, it’s claimed, with some justification, the most popular comedy team in history, appearing in almost 200 shorts and feature films from the early 1930s to the early 1970s, hosting their own TV show and making countless stage and personal appearances.
If you want proof of just how ubiquitous the Stooges are, try, as Empire did, doing some research on them at the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. Just remember to wear some comfortable shoes. Far from a one-stop shop at the third-floor cinema section, your hunt for all things Stooge will take you up hill and down dale to, among others, Fiction & Literature, Social Sciences, Biography, Autobiography, Local History and even Cookery. Yes, The Official Three Stooges Cookbook by Chicago Sun-Times reporter Robert Kurson was published in 1999. Books on the Stooges abound, running the gamut from craven hagiography to pseudo-academic analysis (check out Stoogeology: Essays On The Three Stooges, edited by Peter Seely and Gail W. Pieper), and the internet, of course, might have been invented for the sole purpose of disseminating Stooge data. A personal favourite among the superabundance of Stooge sites is Stuart Yaniger’s Three Stooges Wine Rating System which, instead of awarding stars or marks out of a hundred to wines in the traditional fashion, assigns them combinations of Stooges according to their character and quality. A typical entry reads thus: “Ah, a very pleasant bistro-styled ’95 syrah from McDowell. Not deep, but nice varietal character and good balance. It’s anywhere from a Larry Curly to a Double Larry, depending on the proclivities of the taster.”
If, as is highly likely, you’re now wondering exactly what all the fuss is about — a trio of resolutely low-brow buffoons, whose ultra-violent slapstick makes Tom & Jerry look like Bagpuss, fêted as cultural icons — then it’s probably best to start at the beginning.
WITHOUT GOING INTO THE SOMEWHAT CONVOLUTED PRE-HISTORY OF THE STOOGES, it’s sufficient to say that the three Horwitz brothers, Moses, Jerome and Samuel (better known by their stage names as Moe, Curly and Shemp Howard), were nice, blue-collar Jewish boys from Brooklyn, born without an ounce of theatrical blood in their veins. Nevertheless, at an early age — and not unusually for working-class Jews around the turn of the century — both Moe and Shemp decided on a career in showbusiness. The pair had moderate success in a variety of burlesque shows before teaming up for the first time in 1916 to perform a blackface routine. They continued this until 1922, when they encountered an old friend from their Brooklyn days, comedian Ted Healy, then a rapidly rising star in vaudeville. Healy recruited them to be his sidekicks, and when Philadelphia musician and comedian Larry Fine was brought into the act, The Three Stooges were born.
|"The beating he received was so savage that Stooges creator Ted Healy fell into a coma and died." |
As the Stooges’ stock continues to grow, Ted Healy has become an increasingly marginalised figure, remembered only for his poor treatment of his co-stars — who, history would have it, and have it incorrectly, outshone him from the get-go — and for the excessive drinking and wildly erratic behaviour that lead to his violent death. In fact, Healy was an enormously successful entertainer, one of the biggest stars of his era, who has been cited as a formative influence by such comedy legends as Red Skelton, Milton Berle and Bob Hope. As the young Stooges’ mentor, he practically invented the style of brutal slapstick that has made them legends, and if, along the way, he stiffed them out of their fair share of the proceeds, his pivotal role in their history deserves to be recognised. That said, there is no doubt that Healy was a terrible boss, not only tight with a buck, but an abusive, volatile drunk to boot.
In 1930, Ted Healy & His Stooges (they were never billed as The Three Stooges while they worked for Healy) appeared in the Fox Studios feature film Soup To Nuts. It was not a hit. Healy’s act, which relied heavily on ad libs and improvisation, never transferred successfully to film; neither was he exactly movie-star material, with a bulbous spud face and big boozer’s nose. The Stooges, on the other hand, impressed the Fox brass, and they were offered a contract without Healy. Furious, Healy immediately put the kibosh on this by claiming the Stooges were his employees. The offer was duly rescinded. When Larry, Moe and Shemp got word of this, they decided to cut Healy loose anyway and struck out on their own. True to form, Healy was incensed, forbidding them to use any of their old routines, which he considered his own copyrighted material, even threatening to bomb theatres if the Stooges dared to play them. In desperation, Healy made a failed attempt to salvage his act by hiring replacement Stooges.
Amazingly, in 1932, with Moe now the group’s business manager, Healy and his Stooges settled their differences and began working together again. It proved anything but a joyful reunion. Healy’s Jekyll and Hyde personality, exacerbated by his increasingly heavy drinking, so terrified the notoriously skittish Shemp that he left the act to go solo and was soon making comedy shorts for Vitaphone back in Brooklyn. This left the Stooges a man down. Shemp’s proposed solution was that Moe’s baby brother, Jerry, fill the gap. Healy was scathing. With all the foresight and perception that comes with drinking Wild Turkey for breakfast, he took one look at the future Curly Howard, the most beloved of all the Stooges, and dismissed him as not funny. Admittedly, Jerry did not much resemble his iconic alter ego at that point, sporting long red hair and a handlebar moustache. And, it must be said, neither Moe nor Larry had any confidence in Jerry’s comic abilities either. Moe stated flatly to Shemp that Jerry had “no talent whatsoever”. That changed abruptly when, at Shemp’s urging, Jerry ran on stage in the middle of a Stooges routine sporting a freshly shaved head, wearing a bathing suit and carrying a tiny bucket of water. This earned him a huge laugh from the crowd (vaudeville audiences were obviously a push-over), and one of the most gifted comic performers of the 20th century had officially arrived.
With Curly on board, Ted Healy & His Stooges signed a one-year contract with MGM to make five shorts and a couple of full-length features, none of which proved remarkable. The contract was not renewed, and in 1934 Healy and his Stooges finally went their separate ways.
Dumb waiters: With mentor/drunk/bully Ted Healy in 1934, three years before his murder.
TED HEALY, WHOSE CAREER FROM THIS POINT ON, ALTHOUGH STILL HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL, FADES FROM THE HISTORY BOOKS, could fairly be described as his own worst enemy. Not only was he prone to violent, drunken rages, he was apt to do some very dumb things indeed. Aside from insulting Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano’s Italian heritage and attempting, as a gag, to knock off one of Al Capone’s private safes, perhaps the dumbest thing he ever did was schtupping comic actress Thelma Todd while she was still married to mobster Pasquale ‘Pat’ DiCicco, Luciano’s eyes and ears in Tinseltown and confidant of the Hollywood high and mighty.
When Todd turned up dead in 1935 (ruled a suicide but almost certainly DiCicco’s work), a spooked Healy swore off actresses for good and took up with a beautiful UCLA student named Betty Hickman, whom he later married. Unfortunately, he neglected to swear off getting drunk and acting like a prick in public, and three years after Todd’s death, while out celebrating the birth of his first child, he ran into DiCicco again. Already several sheets to the wind when he arrived at the Trocadero on the Sunset Strip, Healy lost no time in mixing things up with another famously belligerent drunk, character actor Wallace Beery, who was drinking at the bar with DiCicco. Healy suggested they take things outside. They duly did, and Beery and DiCicco proceeded to beat Healy to a pulp. The beating was so savage, in fact, that the following day Healy fell into a coma and died.
There was little or no serious investigation into Healy’s death, and a farcical autopsy, performed after his body had been embalmed, concluded that he had died of acute alcoholism, noting that his organs were soaked in alcohol — as of course they would have been, having just been embalmed. When his wife Betty, by then an MGM contract player, complained to the press about the lack of interest in Healy’s death, she was summarily fired by the studio and never worked in Hollywood again. Shortly after Healy’s death, Wallace Beery took a three-month vacation in Europe.
Shemp Howard’s wife Babe firmly believed that Louis B. Mayer deployed his infamous fixers Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling to protect Beery, one of his top stars, by covering up the incident. MGM story editor Samuel Marx confirmed this in an interview shortly before his death in 1992. Marx had earlier exposed another of Mayer’s cover-ups, the murder of Jean Harlow’s husband, his close friend Paul Bern, in the 1990 book Deadly Illusions.
Babe Howard also believed that the Stooges themselves were well aware of the MGM cover-up but, although shocked and appalled by Healy’s death, were too intimidated by DiCicco to make waves. And by then, they had quite another ruthless sociopath to contend with.
AT THE TIME OF HEALY'S DEATH, THE THREE STOOGES HAD BEEN UNDER CONTRACT TO THE MONSTROUS HARRY COHN'S COLUMBIA PICTURES FOR THREE YEARS. They were on the brink of their greatest success and had honed their act into the classic Stooge mode that defines them to this day. By this point, with almost 30 shorts and five features for Columbia under their belts, the individual Stooge personalities were fully formed, and the group dynamic, on which the Stooges’ comedy rested as heavily as the brutality and the pie fights, had emerged.
The internal mechanism of The Three Stooges is deceptively simple. It’s based on the premise that all of them are stupid, but some are more stupid than others. Moe, with his gravelly voice, permanent scowl and menacing helmet of bowl-cut hair, was the leader, invariably the under-boss entreated with overseeing whatever hopelessly doomed endeavour the Stooges found themselves pursuing (and whatever it was, you can bet it involved heavy objects and the potential for maximum mayhem; plumbing, not surprisingly, was a favourite Stooge profession).
Curly, his hulking frame bursting out of a too-small suit, was the irredeemably incompetent man-child, the knucklehead’s knucklehead and recipient of most of Moe’s abuse — a litany of punches, slaps and smacks, bonks on the head and, quintessential Moe, the twin-pronged poke in the eye. (Moe actually had his brother Shemp to thank for his signature move. Once, during a card game, Shemp became so convinced that Larry was cheating him he leapt up and poked him in both eyes. Moe made a note of it and duly incorporated it into the act.)
Larry, too often underestimated, was the all-important bridge between Moe’s authoritarian bully and Curly’s babyfaced clown. An easygoing simpleton, Larry was the essential, non-threatening intermediary, and he brought a special genius to the role. “As in Waiting For Godot,” writes Ted Levitt in his essay Larry: The Existential Stooge, “if Curly and Estragon are body, Vladimir and Moe are the intellect, then they are waiting for Larry in order to be complete, to have a sense of their own existence.” Of course, he also got hit in the head with a wrench now and then, too.
Even given the quick-fire production schedule for shorts, the Stooges were extraordinarily prolific during their Columbia years, churning out film after film of, more often than not, admirable quality in terms of writing, direction and production values, given they were shot in a mere four or five days. And their films were hugely popular, often getting a more positive response than the features they were designed to accompany. The Stooges made a fortune for Columbia, playing a large part in boosting the studio’s fortunes, transforming it from a second-string Poverty Row outfit into a bona fide major. Naturally, their talent, industriousness and lucrative bankability were rewarded with all the bounteous largesse for which Harry Cohn was justly famous. Right.
Although the legend that in the 23 years they spent at Columbia the Stooges never received a payrise is untrue, it is rooted in reality. Playing his customary dual role of ruthless businessman and enthusiastic sadist, Cohn kept the Stooges on a one-year contract throughout their career at the studio, forcing them to re-negotiate their employment every 12 months, browbeating them into signing for a pittance with warnings that the shorts department was in financial trouble. In fact, thanks largely to the Stooges, Columbia’s shorts department thrived throughout the late ’30s and ’40s. Keeping its biggest stars in the dark as to their true value was a deliberate ploy to ensure they worked cheap.
It would be easy to blame the Stooges for their predicament; why, for instance, didn’t they simply tell Cohn to shove it and take their business elsewhere? They could have, but didn’t for several reasons. For one, they were terrified of Cohn and his Mob connections, as were a good many people in Hollywood. They were also egregiously screwed by their manager, Harry Romm, a good friend of Cohn’s who they signed with at the studio boss’ insistence. Romm was happy to feather his own nest while keeping in with Cohn by perpetuating the outright lie that the Stooges weren’t making any money for the studio and that the shorts department was under imminent threat of closure. As working-class guys, fearful of losing their livelihood, they were happy to take what they were given. But if Cohn was a bastard in his financial dealings with the Stooges, he outdid himself for sheer moustache-twirling villainy when Curly Howard’s health began to fail in the early 1940s.