AS EARLY AS 1942, THE LIFE OF A STOOGE HAD BEGUN TO TAKE ITS TOLL ON CURLY. Playing a human punchbag day in, day out for years, enduring constant blows to the head — most of which, according to Moe Howard, were every bit as real as they looked — brought on a series of minor cerebral haemorrhages that slowed him down to the point that he was unable to make personal appearances. Shemp, now under contract to Columbia himself, was brought in to replace Curly in live performances. Curly’s doctors insisted that he also take time off from his punishing filming schedule. Cohn flatly refused to give Curly leave of absence, and it was not long before his declining health became evident on screen. His deterioration can first be seen in 1945 short If A Body Meet A Body. By this time, Curly was forgetting his lines, and his balletic physicality and tireless energy, vital components of the Stooges’ comedy, were visibly ebbing away.
There’s no doubt that Curly’s hard-partying lifestyle contributed to his health problems — he was a massive drinker and, pinhead appearances to the contrary, a voracious womaniser — but neither is there any disputing that Harry Cohn forced him to keep working while he was clearly seriously ill, exacerbating his condition until, later in 1945, the inevitable happened and Curly, aged 42, suffered his first major stroke.
This should have signalled, at the very least, an extended period of rest and recuperation. Yet, incredibly, he was back at work within a month, despite physical impairments that rendered his performances so sluggish and lacklustre they’re painful to watch. The team’s directors, most often Del Lord or Edward Bernds, attempted to disguise Curly’s dire state by using old footage and putting more emphasis on Moe and Larry. For their part, the other Stooges took on the extra responsibility willingly, hoping that Curly would eventually recover sufficiently to resume his role. The results of this combined effort were better than might be expected, in spite of Curly’s infirmity and ravaged appearance (his fat cherub look was a thing of the past).
But it was a losing battle and in 1946, between takes on the short Half-Wits Holiday (a remake of the 1935 two-reeler, Hoi Polloi), Curly suffered a massive, paralysing stroke. His days as a Stooge were over, his career and his health wrecked by dedication to the un-gentle art of slapstick and by Harry Cohn’s gross callousness — callousness compounded with stupidity since his treatment of Curly had cost him one of his studio’s most valuable assets.
Naturally, Cohn didn’t see things that way. His opinion of the Stooges, even while they were raking in money, was that their act was so lacking in sophistication that they were effectively interchangeable, and that pretty much any comic performer who looked funny enough could fill Curly’s shoes in a second. In this he was as mistaken as many observers have been since. The Stooges might not have had the finesse of Chaplin or Keaton, the humanity of Laurel & Hardy or the transcendent novelty of the Marx Brothers, but their chemistry was unique. And if it was not immediately apparent to Cohn what replacing Curly entailed, the endless auditions for a new third Stooge alerted him to what Moe and Larry already knew: they were not going to find another Curly.
IN RETROSPECT, THE SOLUTION SEEMS OBVIOUS. But the decision to bring Shemp back into the act was not that simple. First of all, since abdicating his Stoogedom in 1932, Shemp had forged a successful career as a solo performer, and he was reluctant to sacrifice all that he’d achieved on his own to be reabsorbed into a team he’d opted out of 14 years previously. Secondly, he was now over 50, a dedicated family man, and did not relish the prospect of lengthy road trips or the Stooges’ arduous schedule of personal appearances. Thirdly, there was the prospect of his living in Curly’s substantial shadow, a very real concern, albeit an ironic one given Curly had originally replaced — and comprehensively eclipsed — him.
|"Enduring constant blows to the head, Curly suffered a series of brain haemorrhages" |
After some initial trepidation, Harry Cohn was keen for Shemp to rejoin the act, and with Shemp under contract to Columbia, Cohn began to exert his influence (of course, he expected Shemp to take a 50 per cent pay cut for relinquishing his hard-won independence). In the end, though, it was Shemp’s loyalty to his brother Moe and old friend Larry that persuaded him to rejoin the Stooges; he knew if he didn’t the act was over, and with it Moe and Larry’s careers. Reluctantly, he signed on — but only, he insisted, until a permanent replacement for Curly could be found. In the end, Shemp remained a Stooge until his dying day.
There are two schools of thought on Shemp’s return to the fold. One is that, after Curly retired, Shemp did a valiant job but there was always something missing. Using the Three Stooges Wine Rating System in reverse gives a succinct, if harsh, summation of this position: “Some wines, without being actively bad, are bland or clumsy, really more lame than awful. They’re recognisably wine, but poor substitutes for the REAL experience. Such wines are Shemps.”
The opposing opinion is that Shemp injected a new energy into the act that had been sadly missing during the years they’d struggled with Curly’s ailing health. And, in truth, Shemp was a talented comedian in his own right, not blessed with his baby brother’s physicality, but a brilliant improviser and a genius with a wisecrack. From the mid-’40s to the mid-’50s, the Stooges made some of their best films, Curly’s absence only jarringly apparent when Shemp was compelled by producer-director Jules White to imitate his brother rather than play his own character.
Whatever your perspective on the Shemp years, they were the Stooges’ last great era. Columbia downsized its shorts department in the early 1950s; budgets and shooting schedules, already tight, were slashed to the point where Jules White, now virtually running the department on his own, was making ‘new’ Stooge shorts almost entirely from recycled footage. The team’s personal life was rocked in 1952 when Curly died; three years later Shemp followed him: dead from a heart attack at 60.
Although devastated, Moe and Larry kept the act alive, recruiting comedian Joe Besser as the third Stooge. This, as any Stooge fan will tell you, was the beginning of the end. Besser was never happy as a Stooge and, wary of what had happened to Curly, had a clause in his contract forbidding Moe from hitting him.
By now, Columbia was the only studio in town producing shorts, and in 1957, with television taking over the market, the department was shut down. In December of ’57, the studio declined to renew the Stooges’ contract and, after 23 years’ service, they were unceremoniously fired. A few weeks later, Moe returned to the studio to say goodbye to some old friends. He was refused entry by a security guard. Shortly afterwards, amid negotiations for a live tour, Joe Besser left the act.
By rights, this should have been the end of the road. But, in a supremely ironic twist of fate, the Stooges were actually on the brink of a major comeback. In 1958 Columbia offered a package of 78 Curly-era shorts for TV broadcast. Picked up by a number of networks across the US, they were an instant hit, particularly with children, and soon all 190 Stooge shorts were in circulation and drawing huge audiences. Suddenly the Stooges were in big demand, and Moe and Larry once again revived the act with Joe ‘Curly-Joe’ DeRita stepping into the breach. With Moe and Larry now getting on in years, this was the Stooges’ last hurrah. But it was, in many ways, a triumphant one. From 1959 to 1965 they made a series of feature films in the classic Stooge vein, including the infamous Snow White And The Three Stooges (which is not nearly as bad as people would have you believe — well, not quite). They also recorded 41 live wraparound segments for The New Three Stooges cartoon series. In 1969, Moe, Larry and Curly-Joe shot a pilot for a proposed TV show called Kook’s Tour, a Stooge-style travelogue. It was not to be. In January 1970, Larry Fine suffered a debilitating stroke, ending his career. Longtime Stooge co-star Emil Sitka was contracted to replace him, but no footage was ever shot with Sitka as a Stooge.
In December 1974, Larry suffered another stroke and, the following month, he died at the age of 72. With near unbelievable fortitude, Moe vowed the Stooges would soldier on, approaching veteran Ted Healy-era Stooge Paul ‘Mousie’ Garner. Tragically, while negotiating a number of movie projects, Moe was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He died on May 4, 1975.
BUT THE THREE STOOGES LIVE ON. In the States it’s impossible to get through a week, a day even, without encountering a Stooge reference — images, clips, signature lines (“Calling Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard” from 1934’s Men In Black crops up continually in films and on TV), catchphrases (“I’m a victim of soicumstance!” etc), noises (particularly Curly’s trademark “nyuk, nyuk, nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!” and “woo, woo, woo!”), even sound effects — the Stooges’ ‘frying pan’ is a classic for the ages, still famously used by Vic & Bob.
During the late ’70s, a popular kids’ cartoon series, The Robonic Stooges, appeared. And in 2000, Mel Gibson, perhaps the most famous Stooge fan, produced a Stooges TV biopic for ABC. The Simpsons is littered with Stoogeisms, so many they have their own website. Michael Jackson was also a huge fan, who drove around Neverland in a customised Stooge RV; he based his moonwalk on the Curly Shuffle, a move invented by Curly that made it look as if he was walking backwards.
It’s further claimed that Curly invented breakdancing: in times of stress he would fall to the ground and run in a circle using his shoulder as a pivot. The Stooges have even inspired poetry. Russell Thorburn’s Watching The Three Stooges, After Fifty, In The Hospital concludes with the verse:
Later, when stillness settles like an X-ray,
you hear the most perfect line,
the child in you laughing at its insistent plea
that you imagine Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard
paged on the public address, as they weave
through the hall on carts, ride the snorting trot
of horses to surgery, Moe’s sour grape face
wanting to pummel that tenor to a gasp
and shell him with scatterbrained buckshot
However you feel about the Stooges, such devotion is not born from an eye-poke alone, two-fingered or otherwise.
This article was first published in issue 252 of Empire magazine. For more in-depth stories on the history of Hollywood every month makes sure you subscribe to Empire today.
FOOL'S GOLD Just a few cinematic Stooge tributes
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|LETHAL WEAPON (1987) |
Crazy cop Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) goes Moe on some drug-dealer’s ass. Gibson claimed that Riggs, a tortured insomniac, would definitely have been a Stooge fan, Late Show re-runs being the accompaniment to his dark nights of the soul.
|PULP FICTION (1994) |
When John Travolta plunges a syringe into Uma Thurman’s heart, Brideless Groom is playing in the background. Showing the Stooges was prohibitively expensive, so instead, Emil Sitka is heard singing, “Hold hands you lovebirds!”, QT’s fave Stooge line.
|DEAD MEN DON'T WEAR PLAID (1982) |
Spliced into a scene with Kirk Douglas from I Walk Alone, detective Rigby Reardon (Steve Martin) dresses down a trio of Douglas’ goons with a burst of Stooge schtick, stamping on one’s toe and downing another’s flies with a “Ziiip!” Funnier than it sounds.
|TRADING PLACES (1983) |
The plot of John Landis’ comedy, in which Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy’s billionaire brothers bet on whether Eddie Murphy’s street hustler can be transformed into a stuck-up stockbroker, is a dead ringer for the 1935 Stooge short, Hoi Polloi.
|THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984) |
In Rob Reiner’s, if you will, ‘rockumentary’, one of the clueless combo’s replacement drummers is named Joe ‘Mama’ Besser, an homage to replacement Stooge Joe Besser — as well as a very clever pun on the phrase “yo mama!”