The Three Stooges of Grief

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.

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8 Responses to “The Three Stooges of Grief”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    Eventually you’re going to start experiencing bouts of extreme deja vu. The thrifty folks at Columbia would edit in gags, routines and whole reels from earlier films. At one point Moe lobbied for normal haircuts onscreen, but was vetoed because it wouldn’t match old footage.

    It begins during the Curly years, but becomes ghoulish later: After Shemp’s health failed, they got a stand-in and would shoot new connecting footage for a hodgepodge of clips from earlier Shemp shorts. Supposedly the footage for one of these “new” shorts could be shot in a single day, with everything else culled from the vault.

    This would confuse me as a kid. One Curly short began as a remake of “The Fixer Uppers”. The Stooges flee the jealous husband, run into a recruiting office, and find themselves in an army (explicitly not American for some reason). Another begins with them as inventors trying to win a government contract. When their invention fails, they’re drafted — and we’re back in the other short. In another case, the setup is trying to raise money to help a pretty neighbor in a wheelchair. One version has them raising the money. The other has them accidentally exposing the neighbor as a scammer.

    Of course recycling film was pretty common, but it’s usually stunts and second unit material (the MGM Tarzans are hilariously brazen when viewed close together). I think the Stooge shorts were unusual in reusing performances outside of a “scrapbook” format.

  2. Jeez, and the things were horrifically cheap-looking to begin with.

    Frequent collaborator Del Lord’s Keystone comedies often LOOK like random bits of different films cobbled together, but I can’t find any proof they actually were.

  3. bensondonald Says:

    The American sitcom “Cheers” centers on bar owner Sam Malone (Ted Danson), former pro athlete and relentless ladies’ man. When a psychiatrist suggests there’s nothing in his life but chasing babes, he realizes that everything in his life is in fact tied to the pursuit of shallow, empty sex. This sends him into a deep depression.

    Unseduced friend Rebecca (Kirstie Alley) points out that he loves Three Stooges films — which women despise, and therefore have no value whatsoever in seduction. He loves the Three Stooges for their own sake, which proves he has depth as a human being. Redemption!

    Perhaps you had to be there, but it was pretty funny. The cultural cliche of the Three Stooges as a Guy Thing has faded a bit, but for a while male Gen Xers as well as boomer boys embraced the Stooges as a only-half-joking symbol of (not quite toxic) masculinity. Something a manly man could hang on to in defiance of his woman’s good taste.

  4. That’s a very good gag/character point/plot turn! For a while I thought the Marx Bros were a guy thing (my mum can’t bear them), but I have since met quite a few women, Fiona included, who love them.

    My mum’s preferences also made me assume that women generally love westerns (it made sense: men, scenery, ponies) but this has not been borne out by further research.

  5. ehrenstein47 Says:

    I do not like them in any way shape or form. They are not funny, and I’m amazed that anyone thinks they are. Three very late middle-aged men hitting each other is not interesting. It’s just grotesque.

  6. revelator60 Says:

    Groucho was also of the (thankfully mistaken) opinion that women disliked the Marx Brothers and sometimes-surreal humorists like Robert Benchley. My very rough theory is that the social/gender roles being imposed on women (“be a responsible dull housewife honey”) discouraged an interest in nonsense humor.

  7. bensondonald Says:

    In “The Films of Laurel and Hardy”, William Everson claimed that while women actively disliked most slapstick comics, they were merely indifferent to Stan and Ollie. He was writing in the 60s.

    Interesting that from the 50s on, the biggest and most successful slapstick comic was Lucille Ball. Note that she was firmly identified, onscreen and off, as a proper wife and mother who got into temporary messes. Aside from lightly farce-ridden suburban dads, male comics were often outsiders and misfits, as they were in the movies. Red Skelton had a gallery of characters, all of them disreputable: freeloader, drunken hayseed, con man, crooked sheriff, and damaged fighter (always seeing imaginary birds).

  8. “Grotesque” is a polite word for the Stooges. Vonnegut quirkily defined slapstick as “grotesque situational poetry.” In this case, the situations are rather weak and the poetic quality debatable. But they’re all-in on grotesquerie!

    The fact that Laurel & Hardy have such trouble getting on in the world seems like a form of social commentary, whereas Lucy and the Stooges come from varying conservative vantage points, I think. Though Lucy’s is much more benign.

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