Archive for May 21, 2019

The Three Stooges of Grief

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2019 by dcairns

Okay. After further Stooge-viewing, I can offer more “insights.”

(One) Watching with company helps. For me, there’s still a point of depression that kicks in after two shorts, but you obviously get bigger laughs with a friend present, and I can imagine a big cinema audience would amplify things further.

Old womanhaters.

(Two) Some of the shorts have more to offer than others. It might be the presence of a guest star — expected, like Billy Gilbert, or unexpected, like Lucille Ball. Or it might be an actual plot, as in PUNCH DRUNKS, where we get to see the Stooges meet up as if for the first time — Moe is a fight manager, Curly a waiter, Larry a violinist, and Curley becomes an unbeatable berserker whenever he hears “Pop Goes the Weasel” played. Or it might be all that plus the whole thing being a kind of grotesque operetta, as in WOMAN HATERS, an ode to/spoof of misogyny, performed in song and recitative.

Curky does his celebrated Jean Cocteau routine.

(Three) Curly is the most appealing actor. Moe is a horrible character, played with some skill admittedly (and as a unit, the Stooges are exemplary in what they do, if you can admit the need for anybody to do it at all). Whenever Moe gets a closeup, any laughter you might be working on dies before reaching the throat. And then you have a dead laugh lying on your stomach. Larry, apart from his fiddling, seems less of a character all round, and doesn’t really suggest the required dumbness. When you look at Moe and Larry together they seem like they ought to be starring in a film which would be called BILL AND TED GET ACROMEGALY. But Curly has all these weird mannerisms and non-sequiturs, which have nothing to do with real human behaviour — the strange butterfly movements, the dances, the abstract vocalisations, the nonsense utterances — “victim of circumstance” — “that’s a coincidence.” And he’s the most creative, adding flinches everywhere, as if constantly fearing the violence he is, in fact, going to receive.

Look at this image. Now try to think of something amusing.

(Four) I do have a fascination with unfunny clowns, or clowns who are only intermittently funny (Jerry Lewis is the King of Intermittence, but he can get me HYSTERICAL). I’ve watched less than ten Stooges shorts, and two of them begin with the Stooges begging on the streets. Not busking, like L&H, but merely BEGGING. And I think you’d find it hard to argue with the contention that we’re basically being asked to laugh at beggars. The way to enjoy this is to turn the laugh on the filmmakers, and laugh any time there’s a good joke but also laugh at the twisted nature of the endeavor, the tasteless, clueless approach to popular entertainment. There’s a contention that comedy is valuable when it punches UP and disagreeable when it punches DOWN. The Stooges shorts certainly contain a lot of punch-ups. But whereas Laurel & Hardy films have this strange duality (at least when Stan was in charge), where the boys are both the butt of the joke and the sole focus of our sympathy, in the Stooges films we are meant to laugh at the respectable citizens who get hurt and also at the idiots responsible, and we have no sympathy for anyone. I’m reminded of Fassbinder. Yes, I am: “I look to the left, and I look to the right, and I FIRE IN ALL DIRECTIONS.

Censored sequence from FIEND WITHOUT A FACE.

(Five) In POP GOES THE EASEL, a deaf dowager type is introduced. We wait for some kind of comedy based on her mishearing, or forcing people to repeat themselves, but no. She’s merely PELTED WITH CLAY. Her deafness is introduced (by writer Felix Adler, who also worked for Lloyd and Stan & Ollie) merely because it was assumed that smacking a disabled person with clay would be even funnier than doing it to a not-yet-disabled person.

(Six) In MEN IN BLACK (!), directed by Leo McCarey’s tragic brother Ray, the boys are turned loose in a hospital. They knock their boss unconscious with a hammer, transport him to the Operating Room, open him up with a road drill and then leave all their instruments inside him. Ha. Ha. Ha. J.J. Hunsecker’s line about “cheap, gruesome gags,” seems an apt one here.

(Seven) It would be wrong to traduce all Stooges fans. But anyone who likes the Stooges above and beyond other vaudeville-type comics, I would view with suspicion. Sam Raimi, Mel Gibson and the Farrelly Brothers are the main Stoogites I can think of, and I feel their preference tells us a lot about them. I simply won’t watch Farrelly films, they make me laugh a fair bit but there’s always something that depresses me for days. And they are not well-made films. Mel Gibson, enough said. I’m told he includes an hommage (“Spread out!”) in APOCALYPTO. Think of it. His films really are all set in a nightmare world of continuous mayhem, just like the Stooges. Raimi at least incorporates his stoogisms into a burlesque vision of grueling horror, which seems like the right place for them.

Is it a mistake that Moe is labeled with the chemical formula, not of water, but of hydrogen peroxide? Was that a well-known formula the audience would laugh at?

(Eight) Behind-the-scenes-of-chaos personages in the early shorts include Clyde Bruckman, ace gagman and Keaton’s co-director on THE GENERAL, who later shot himself with Keaton’s gun. See HORSES’ COLLARS and learn why. Then there’s the truly magnificent anti-talent of Jules White, co-auteur of the Dogville Shorts, which I kind of adore for their sheer horror. I showed the canine reconstruction of WWI to students and asked, “How did it make you feel?” “Just angry,” came the reply. White also presided over the destruction of Buster Keaton at MGM. Lou Breslow, misguided genius behind reincarnated dog detective movie YOU NEVER CAN TELL, is also in the mix. But it never seems to make much difference who is involved. If you’re in hell, which particular imp is stirring your pot may not matter too much.