For years The Three Stooges were casually dismissed as the bastard children of the classic comedy era. Even a supportive comedy film scholar like Leonard Maltin once said they deserve respect “even if only for their longevity,” having appeared in 190 Columbia Pictures short comedies over a 24 year period. That is somewhat better than Donald McCaffrey’s assessment in his book The Golden Age Of Sound Comedy, who calls the Stooges “a degeneration to the fine art of slapstick.” It has only been in recent years that the Stooges have been allotted a begrudging respect in these stuffy critical circles.
The popularity of the Stooges cannot be denied. Not only have they maintained this status with the baby boomers who discovered them on television, they’ve attracted new generations all the way to current schoolchildren, a feat the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton cannot boast. It was due to this popularity, coupled with the lack of serious respect, that made Stooges comedies immediately available as DVD became commonplace in households, but in shoddy prints. Their best and worst were jammed together on collections that offered second-rate copies, some with deleted scenes, others subjected to colorization. But we wanted Stooges films so badly, we bought them anyway (except for the colorized ones, those failed miserably, allowing me the rare opportunity to give a nod to the American consumer).
That has now changed. Sony is offering beautifully remastered Three Stooges comedies on a series of DVD packages, the first of which was released on October 30th. Even someone like this reviewer, who did purchase all of the previously released DVD sets, will be replacing them with these newly mastered gems. Hence, respect for The Three Stooges has finally permeated the DVD market.
So let’s admit it. The Three Stooges were brilliant slapstick artists. Yeah, I used the word artist to refer to Moe, Larry, Curly, and Shemp. And Joe Besser. Yes; Joe Besser, the most underrated Stooge, is included in my careful assessment.
But this first set is limited to the early shorts, made at Columbia from 1934-1936. The boys had just split from longtime mentor Ted Healy, and embarked on a career all their own. They had some growing pains. The first short on the package, Woman Haters, is a musical with the dialog done in rhyme. The second, Punch Drunks, was from an original story by the Stooges and is an improvement. It was later selected for preservation by the National Film Preservation Foundation with the Library of Congress. The third, Men In Black, was nominated for an Oscar. And the fourth, Three Little Pigskins, features a 23 year old Lucille Ball in a supporting role.
From this point there are particularly great comedies like Hoi Polloi , Three Little Beers, Disorder In The Court, and False Alarms, as well as weaker efforts such as Whoops, I’m an Indian and Restless Knights. The other shorts included here are generally strong comedies with much to offer. And every film on the two-disc set looks more beautiful than at any point since their initial release.
The Stooges were, and remain, incredible comedians. Moe, the short pug-faced bully, set the rhythm with his impulsive violence. Larry, the bewildered innocent, maintained it as the hapless go-between. Moe’s real life younger brother Curly, the fall guy, was the master of this period, the one whose raw talent was so innate, it could not be learned or refined. His timing was impeccable, his blatant reactions are now a part of the American pop culture lexicon. He still has not been given his full critical due as one of the most amazing performers in comedy films. Of course we’ll stop short of placing him alongside Chaplin or Keaton. But to overlook his contribution, as has been done in nearly all of film study since we chose to take slapstick seriously, is much sillier than any of his screen antics could ever be.
Sony is promising further volumes of the Stooges comedies, straight through to their 190th and last short, Sappy Bullfighters from 1957, which features a rather tired Moe and Larry and a jarringly exuberant Joe Besser.
But we may have a future problem. Sadly, many Stooges fans are simply Curly fans. They believe that without the big guy, there is little reason to continue. This is quite unfortunate, as Shemp — Moe and Curly’s real life older brother, who had been with the act in vaudeville before leaving for a solo career — returned to complete the trio when Curly was felled by a debilitating stroke and unable to continue being funny. Once these DVD packages reach the Shemp years, this writer admits to some trepidation as to their lesser sales numbers not warranting a release of the still later Joe Besser period (Joe stepping in for sixteen generally lackluster shorts after Shemp’s 1955 death). While the Joe films are not the Stooges at their best, the better ones are still funnier than most of what passes for comedy today. We want them remasted on DVD to complete the series.
Some comedy film buffs are guessing Sony has a ploy – that they are hoarding some rare special features (none of which appear on this first set), and are planning to place them on the Shemp and Joe discs to entice the picky consumer.
So I am calling on all of my fellow comedy fans who are not the sort of pretentious pseudo-intellectuals that embrace only the comedies their college professors once told them to appreciate. Buy this first Three Stooges set. Buy all subsequent sets. Make the Stooges collection in your DVD library as comprehensive as you can. You will be supporting the remastering and subsequent preservation of a sustaining series of classic short comedies that contain the seeds of virtually any comedian who has stepped in front of a movie camera in the past 30-odd years. You will be celebrating the most enduring comedy artists (that word again) from Hollywood’s coveted Golden Age. And, to paraphrase a Bing Crosby line from Road To Singapore, you’ll be handing yourself a million laughs.
Hey, I didn’t even request a review copy from Sony. I merrily shelled out the dough for this one. I consider it a donation to increase sales figures, even if only marginally, and to make sure that the DVDs keep coming until I get that lousy Sappy Bullifighters in my collection. Keep ‘em coming, Sony!