Three Stooges: 100 Years of Slapstick
In 1922, vaudeville comedian Moe Howard crossed paths with one of the superstars from their shared line of work Ted Healy. The two discovered they a great chemistry and decided to build an act together. Their slapstick duo evolved with the addition of Moe’s brother Shemp Howard. A few years later they discovered violinist Larry Fine and brought him into the act which became known as “Ted Healy and His Stooges”. Healy was the straight man playing off of Moe, Larry, and Shemp who would of course make a mess of things. While they were a success on the stage, the team reached mass audiences in 1930 when Fox brought them to the big screen in the film Soup to Nuts. This would be the beginning of the Stooges’ careers being changed forever. While Ted Healy was the star on paper, it was the trio playing firemen who stole every scene they were in with their slapstick antics. This success combined with the fact that they were already touring on their own as Howard, Fine & Howard: Three Lost Soles, sealed the fact that they had that IT factor and would one day be comedy legends as The Three Stooges.
In the early days before things really took off a line-up changed occurred. Shemp seemed to see the value he, his brother and Larry had on their own and felt their continued ties to Ted Healy who’s star was fading and was increasingly turning to alcohol was not the way to go. But at the end of the day Healy still held the “Stooges” name as well as a number of their gags, so Shemp eventually struck out on his own in 1932, leaving the role of the third Stooge wide open. Luckily Moe had another brother, Jerome “Babe” Howard who had been following Moe, Larry, and Shemp for years and had been bitten by the entertainment bug himself. Shaving his bushy hair and mustache, Jerome remarked “Boy don’t I look girly” which was misunderstood by Healy as “Curly” and the rest is history. The trio split their time between shorts for MGM and the stage before signing a deal with Columbia Pictures leading to them finally and amicably breaking away from the man who was once their star and officially becoming “The Three Stooges”.
From 1934-1946, the line-up of Moe, Larry, and Curly were featured in 97 shorts and a feature film, for the studio. While the critics derided them, their anarchic humor won over audiences in a major way. Full of eye-poking, slaps, and hair-pulling they brought their vaudevillian style to the big screen with tremendous success. Moe was the leader who bullied the others into line (well the best he could anyways), Larry was the unassuming one who tried to keep the peace and often ended up with a knock on the head for it, and Curly was the cut-up who could send audiences into giggle fits with his physicality and now iconic “whoop-whoop-whoop” and “nyuk, nyuk, nyuk”. This period is often seen as the Golden Age for the trio as they produced a slew of fan favorites like: “A Plumbing We Will Go”, “Pop Goes the Easel”, “You Nazty Spy” and “Disorder in the Court which stands as the sole public domain short featuring Curly.
As they seemed to be unstoppable, the Stooges faced their first setback which would see Moe step up as the “big brother” of the team to navigate them through rough times. In the late 1940’s Curly’s health began to trend downward eventually forcing him to step down. In 1952 these issues would finally lead to Jerome “Curly” Howard passing away at only the age of 48. To fill the void of the third stooge, Moe and Larry found help in a familiar face, Shemp. Often dubbed the “underrated Stooge” Shemp would unfairly be compared to Curly who was more familiar to mass audiences at the time, but he had a tougher style which was uniquely his own, making him more than merely a by-the-numbers replacement. This line-up would continue for 76 shorts and a feature film. The short “Hold That Lion!” was made during this time and holds a special place in Three Stooges history as it not only featured Moe, Larry, and Shemp, but also a cameo from Curly (with a full head of hair) in what would be his final appearance with his brothers and Larry. Sadly in 1955 Shemp too would pass away leading to Moe and Larry putting things on hiatus.
At this time Moe Howard and Larry Fine wished to continue the act as the Two Stooges. Given their chemistry and longevity in working with one another this is undoubtedly would have worked. The blueprint was already there character-wise; Moe could continue his role as the bully-ish one with Larry spouting unexpected one-liners and taking the abuse. Columbia Picture refused this idea, so the search was on for a new Stooge. The two of them wanted Mantan Moreland, a prolific actor, who like them came from a vaudeville background. While an African American becoming a member of such a high profile act would have been revolutionary the studio rejected the idea on the grounds that he did not have a contract with them. Instead they went with Joe Besser. He performed briefly with the team from 1956-1958, and it was obvious he had no chemistry with Moe and Larry. After seeing how callous Larry Fine’s face was after years of taking blows, Besser put a “No-Slap clause” put into his contract which obviously threw a wrench into the bicycle spokes of their act.
As far as the studio heads were concerned the era of the Three Stooges had come to an end and once their contracts expired Columbia Picture unceremoniously refused them an extension. Moe would recount that a mere few days after this he went to the lot to simply say farewell to those he had worked with for years and was refused entry at the gate. This would have been a tragic end to an otherwise stellar run had it not been for a revolution in entertainment as a whole. In 1958 Columbia sold the Three Stooges shorts for television syndication and the popularity of the team was renewed with an eye-gouging vengeance. Ever the sharp businessman, Moe decided it was time for the Three Stooges to reunite. This time he and Larry recruited Joe DeRita into the fold. Given that the Curly shorts seemed to be particularly popular in reruns, Moe convinced the newbie to go by the stage name “Curly Joe”. While their return led to 6 films along with TV appearances and shorts, Moe and Larry along with Curly Joe made a trip back to their first love: the stage. This new era of the Three Stooges would continue until 1967 when right before they took the stage at a Rhode Island amusement park, Larry Fine learned that his wife of 45 years had passed away unexpectantly. Moe would try to keep things going with, Emil Sitka who had prominently been the straight man in 40 of their shorts with Columbia taking on the name of “Harry” but aside from some publicity shots nothing ever came to fruition. Larry and Moe both passed away 1975 putting an end once and for all to one of the greatest comedy teams in the history of show business.
As far as the stuffy crumb bum critics have been concerned for the past century the Three Stooges have been seen as merely “lowbrow”. But therein lies their genius and the key to the fact that they have remained relevant for a century. They refused to abide by the comedic rules and standards of their day instead opting for a style that was raucous, brash, physical, obnoxious, and absolutely hilarious, setting them apart from their contemporaries. They lacked the charm of Charlie Chaplin, the witticism of Abbott & Costello, or even the team dynamic to the level of the Marx Brothers. They were just three guys who slapped each other, insulted each other, and generally made a mess of things. In doing so they forged a raw connection with audiences in a way few other entertainer can hope to compare to. Even now one hundred years after Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp, Joe, and Curly Joe have maintained their popularity and are indisputable icons of popular culture. From the stage to the big screen and to the small screen they can still crack fans up.