Stooge Struck

Stooge Kit

Bought a Three Stooges box set secondhand. Well, it was there and so was I. Do I LIKE the Three Stooges? I never thought I did, but I was curious — it’s been decades since I saw a whole one, if I ever did. My memory of TV screenings includes no specific details whatever, just a general impression of the films being in bad shape — and I was used to Laurel & Hardy, so they must have looked really wretched.

It’s basically like a more violent FUNNY GAMES, this one.

Well, now they’re all cleaned up, looking actually new, which doesn’t help, and they don’t seem to feel like the product of any particular era. I watched one where they try to crash Hollywood, and one where they play exterminators (possibly an influence on fanboy Sam Raimi’s CRIME WAVE) who start by planting infestations on (former silent star) Clara Kimball Young’s house party to drum up business, then go fox-hunting for no reason. Then it just kind of stops.

Well, anything you say about the Stooges is probably irrelevant to anyone who finds them really funny. There were some laughs, especially in the extermination skit. Let’s face it, Laurel & Hardy rarely managed a strong fade-out — they’re more usually shrugs. And L&H could be brutal, but with the boys, a poke in the eye was a bit like sand in the vaseline. With the Stooges, the proportions are reversed: a whole sandpit with a blob of lube dropped in.

Mo actually threatens one of his co-stooges thus: “I’ll gouge your eyes out.” About which I see nothing particularly humorous.

Cruelty to animals, too — well, the producer brought us the DOGVILLE SHORTS…

In addition to the violence, there’s the fact that the stooges gits are deliberately spreading misery (and mice, moths, bed bugs…). Well, the Marx Bros. were generally up to no good. (When they try to play Cupid or help struggling sanatoria, we disapprove.) But that was generally part of their anarchy, their conviction that civilisation is overrated. The Stooges are trying to get along and fit it. They’re conservatives. Just vicious, incompetent ones. With really bizarre hair.

Hmm, maybe these films are timely?

Clearly, I need to see more.

16 Responses to “Stooge Struck”

  1. I just wrote my Masters thesis on MASH. Peter Biskind calls the Altman film “a fuck you from the cool to the uncool,” and I’ve always had trouble going along with that perspective in anything. The Three Stooges aren’t cool, but in laughing at them, and at their victims, the audience is positioned as cool. Three Stooges shorts always seemed very nasty and mean-spirited to me – whereas I would cry laughing watching Chaplin’s “One A.M.” or a Laurel and Hardy. Something very different about where the viewer is placed in the power dynamic. It reminds me of an old Napoleon and Uncle Elby cartoon, where a smaller dog is playing with a ball on the beach, then gets hit and knocked over by a big wave. Napoleon (the larger dog) laughs uproariously, and we’re obviously meant to, too – but why? Just because the puppy’s fun was ruined? The Three Stooges upsets me in the same way that cartoon used to do.

  2. Yeah, we’re supposed to laugh at the Stooges for being stupid, laugh when they get hurt, and laugh when innocent bystanders also get hurt. We’re in a position of assumed superiority over everyone. I can see it would work better for kids… but I wouldn’t show these films to kids.

    As I said, the Marxes are mean-spirited too (cool vs. uncool, definitely) but at least we root for them in their destructive pursuit of anarchy. The Stooges don’t seem to offer anything to root for, we seem to be invited to hope for them to suffer disaster along with everyone else, whereas with Stan & Ollie, at some level we want them to win, even though the whole concept is predicated on the fact that they probably won’t.

  3. chris schneider Says:

    Your description of where and why we’re supposed to laugh illuminates the connection to their celebrated fan, Mel “Mr. Schadenfreude” Gibson.

  4. bensondonald Says:

    For this kid, the Stooges registered as human cartoons — the sound effects made their violence unreal (watch them with the sound off and the mayhem becomes painful). I think a big part of the appeal was that they were so relentlessly and unapologetically over the top, rarely wasting our time with the dull talk that constituted most of available afternoon television. Even the endless “I Love Lucy” reruns were a bit diluted in comparison. Also, Stooge shorts were generally laced into an hour mitigated by a benign host (in our market it was Sir Sedley, a ventriloquist accompanied by King Fuddle and a stock company of other puppets who’d play out little adventures).

    We got precious little of the Real Stuff: Laurel and Hardy rarely had a regular time slot in my memory; you had to wait for the occasional feature (“March of the Wooden Soldiers” or maybe one of the Fox products). The Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and the like were mixed in with non-comedy relics. The Little Rascals would pop up on blurry UHF stations, but no other Hal Roach to be seen outside of the handful of Robert Youngson silent compilations that floated about. It came as a shock to learn the Stooges weren’t Columbia’s only comedy shorts — the Keaton shorts are decent if not classic; likewise some of the Charley Chases. But Joe DeRita as a solo act? (If your set has the “Rare Treasures” bonus discs, you might test your endurance).

    When the aging Stooges started making features (Columbia didn’t share any of the bonanza from TV sales of the shorts), they explicitly played to kid audiences, replacing a lot of the violence with silliness. Worth a glimpse, but several months apart:
    — “Snow White and the Three Stooges”: Almost an A in budget, but the funniest stuff is unintended: Cheesy musical numbers, dorky romance, ice skating. There’s a game attempt to give the boys comic dialogue, but the slapstick is hesitant and unpersuasive.
    — “Three Stooges Meet Hercules”: Typical of their thrifty self-made features, with some mildly clever scripting and a decent cyclops.
    — “The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze”: Likewise, but with some proud, clueless WTF-ery.
    — “The Outlaws is Coming”: Kid-level western spoof, but affable. Pre-Batman Adam West as the romantic lead, pre-everything Henry Gibson as an Indian, and a bunch of local kiddie show hosts as the titular outlaws.

    “Have Rocket Will Travel” is a misfire even by Stooge standards, seeming to aim for very little kids. Best bit is a earthly society party near the end, where they dance with ladies who are all at least a head taller.

    “Rockin’ in the Rockies” is a lame B musical; the leading man is so bad you expect him to turn out to be a singer. He’s not. Sole point of interest is that the Stooges are introduced as strangers to each other, something they almost never did.

  5. I ran four more… interesting people turn up… including a 22-year-old Lucille Ball.

  6. Jeff Gee Says:

    There’s a really early one called something like “The Woman Haters Club” where they all speak in rhythmic, rhyming dialogue, like Al Jolson in “Hallelujah I’m a Bum.” Talk about The Road Not Taken…

  7. bensondonald Says:

    Warner Archive has released a disc of really early Stooges, mostly being slapped by Ted Healy and salvaging some prehistoric production numbers from forgotten revues. Also a disc of Shemp Howard working solo or as comic support for other players. Shemp has William Demarest’s hard-knock work ethic, cranking up his energy in inverse proportion to the bland young leads.

    Some interesting people are in the Stooge shorts credits. Clyde Bruckman, who worked with Keaton and Lloyd, dusted off some gags for the Stooges. Lloyd sued him. Charley Chase directed the Stooges when not starring in his own Columbia series; he salvaged some of his own old bits.

  8. Woman Haters is one I just watched, and MUST write about. There are a few outliers that seem to have plots, and they’re quite a bit more satisfying. If not funny.

    Everybody was always recycling their old gags, so Lloyd suing over it seems rather sour, especially considering Clyde Bruckman’s eventual melancholy death.

    Director Del Lord, whose The Railway Stowaways I recently “enjoyed” at the Hippodrome, kept going for decades on Stooge films, churning out rambling, ugly disjointed comedies in some kind of slapstick purgatory.

  9. John Seal Says:

    I think there’s something uniquely American about the Stooges that others just don’t get. I moved to the US as a child and can remember the kids at school going crazy over them, while my reaction – even at the tender age of 8 – was utter bafflement. I just didn’t find them funny then, and I never acquired the taste. It almost strikes me as obscene that they are considered part of the same comedy universe as Laurel and Hardy, or even Abbott and Costello (who my born-in-1926 mother ADORED, having been a fan since the ’40s). The Stooges are just that: violent idiots, and completely unlovable. Perfect Americans, in other words…

  10. I believe you guys are missing the point. The Three Stooges emerged out of Vaudeville where their highly choreographed act was performed before live audiences. It’s all about the timing, both of the violence and the gags.

    Our generation laughs at irony and meta gags. Bits that require coordination are passe. Throw in political correctness and an act an act such as the Stooges (as well as the Marx Bros & Abbot and Costello) could not exist today.

  11. No, I don’t think you can say that.

    I love the Marxes, quite like Abbot and Costello, and find the Stooges… interesting. True, all three work with rhythm a lot, and in the case of the Stooges, where the dialogue jokes are pretty weak and the plots usually barely discernible, rhythm and violence are basically what you get. Performed with skill, yes, and clearly honed to great precision.

    Timing is still key to comedy, but it’s rare to see comedians work with pure rhythm and almost no material.

    Political correctness only comes into when you look at kids as an audience — they would still enjoy the Stooges, I suspect, but we’d probably worry about the eye-gouging. And that’s not unreasonable.

  12. DBenson Says:

    I stand by my human cartoons theory. They were treated as cartoons on local TV. It was cartoon violence with cartoon sound effects, and iffy reception made them less real. Live hosts and commercial breaks broke their shorts down to cartoon length. So that’s how we viewed them. Yes, we recognized the superiority of Abbott and Costello and higher forms of comedic life, but they were on weekends if they played at all. Acceptable after school entertainment was Looney Tunes, Stooges, and Popeye (the older ones). The alternative was boring grownup stuff.

    What did kids watch after school in the UK?

  13. Cartoons, yes, but are they Daffy and Bugs or Herman & Katnip?

    We had Warner and MGM cartoons but in my memory those were more at weekends. After school we had elevating stuff like the bafflingly-named Blue Peter, and Hanna-Barbera toons like Top Cat, retitled Boss Cat by some idiot at the BBC.

    I used to hurry home to catch Dangermouse when I was in secondary school.

    On BBC2 around 6 we got Chaplin and Lloyd, which seems inconceivable now. Laurel & Hardy turned up erratically but often. Channel 4 showed the Stooges when it started up and needed cheap, novel material — this was also the first time in my memory that I Love Lucy appeared. I didn’t have any interest in either.

    More Stooges soon.

  14. Jonathan Wertheim Says:

    I’m American, and never liked the Three Stooges. But some did, of course. I don’t think it’s as easy as chalking it up to the American psyche, though.

  15. Jonathan Wertheim Says:

    Follow-up thought – I did like Looney Toons, but not Tom & Jerry.

  16. T&J is very skilfully made… but it’s JUST violence, rather like the Stooges. When the dog enters and the three of them are whaling on each other, in fact, it’s very much like the Stooges.

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