In 2009, SONY promised to release every one of the 190 Three Stooges short comedies on a series of DVD collections. The films were to appear in the order that they were originally released to theaters, in the best quality possible. Some were struck from the existing camera negatives. 3-D films could be seen in 3-D. Widescreen films would be letterboxed.
Volume 8, released on June 1st, contains the final 32 Three Stooges comedies of the series.
This volume raised some level of skeptical fear from the more ardent Stooges fans. It contains 16 Shemp titles, and 16 featuring Joe Besser as the third stooge. The films from this period are sometimes reviled, often dismissed, and sadly underrated.
By 1955 when the first of these comedies was released, producer Jules White was already cutting costs by taking an older production, adding a few new scenes, and releasing it under another title. Of the 16 Shemp films on Volume 8, only two are original productions with no stock footage. The two Shemp efforts that are original include Gypped in the Penthouse and Blunder Boys (both 1955). The former is another experiment with the trio in separate roles (but reasonably effective as these things go), while the latter is a neat Dragnet spoof.
Most, however, are rehashes of old ideas. Fling in the Ring (1955), for instance, is really just Fright Night (1946) with a new beginning and ending. Stone Age Romeos (1955) features new footage of the Stooges as explorers having brought back evidence of primitive man, and the sample film they show for proof is footage from I’m A Monkey’s Uncle (1949).
It saved money then, and nobody seeing the shorts at the theater likely recalled a nine year old Stooges comedy as the source material. However when the films played back-to-back on television by the dawn of the 1960s, it was clearly evident.
Shemp died suddenly in November of 1955, so Moe and Larry completed their 1956 contract by filming four shorts without any new footage of their deceased partner. Occasionally stand-in Joe Palma can be spotted filling in for Shemp in the new footage, but it is Moe and Larry at the forefront of Hot Stuff, Rumpus in the Harem, Scheming Schemers, and Commotion on the Ocean. These patchwork productions are often better than one might expect. Some tighter editing on Commotion on the Ocean improves upon its 1949 source film Dunked in the Deep. Scheming Schemers combines footage from Vagabond Loafers (1949), and two Curly shorts: A Plumbing We Will Go (1941) and Half Wits Holiday (1946), with impressive results.
But this could not continue. Something had to be done. Thus the entrance of popular comedian Joe Besser, whose career dated back to vaudeville and who already starred as a solo in some Columbia two-reelers.
The 16 films with Besser are constantly put down by both novice and learned Stooges fans. Besser’s established whiny character has been singled out as unable to blend with Moe and Larry effectively. Later reports that he was a prima donna who refused to engage in slapstick and was difficult on the set are quite false, however, and Besser thoroughly enjoyed his tenure with the trio.
The Besser period contains mostly original ideas without stock footage – over half of the sixteen, in fact. One odd experiment, Sweet and Hot (1958) is a musical spotlighting singer Muriel Landers with Larry cast as her boyfriend, Joe as her brother, and Moe channeling Benny Rubin as a teutonic psychiatrist. In two 1957 films – Hoofs and Goofs and Horsing Around (sequels, but rather tenuous ones) – the trio’s sister is reincarnated as a horse. A Merry Mixup (also 1957) has the Stooges playing identical triplets.
But what is interesting about the Besser films is their way of using current trends in their comedy. Just as the Curly films would do gags on Depression class systems and wartime help shortages, the Joe films include gags about space exploration and rock and roll (Larry even makes a joke about Elvis Presley in another 1957 production, Space Ship Sappy). Perhaps the funniest short among the Besser originals is Muscle Up A Little Closer (1957).
The remakes among the Bessers are hit and miss. Curly was in pretty bad shape when he filmed Half Wits Holiday (1946), suffering a debilitating stroke during filming that ended his career, and kept him out of the climactic pie fight. Besser’s remake, Pies and Guys (1958), maintains its own status as a result. Rusty Romeos (1957), a remake of Corny Casanovas (1950), has a more satisfying ending than the original.
The picture quality on these films is difficult to accurately describe. For those of us who spent our childhoods watching the comedies on broadcast television, it is quite amazing to witness the sharpness and clarity of each film. But it really calls attention to when older clips are being used, as Moe and Larry suddenly lose as much as 20 years in age in certain scenes. The only disappointment in the remastering is that Flying Saucer Daffy (1958) was originally recorded in stereo. The version contained on the DVD has a mono track.
A lot of Rogue Cinema readers are indie filmmakers who work within the parameters of very small budgets, effectively using their creativity to produce interesting films despite this limitation. These Stooge comedies were able to be effective with very little money to spend. Within the core of each short is the creativity of the Stooges themselves. The Joe efforts feature some of Moe and Larry’s best work. They somehow seem even less structured than in their early comedies, and the energy in their free-spirited performances is contagious. A whopping 190 comedies in a 24 year period is impressive.
With Volume 8, we complete our collections. We’ve got ‘em all. Next?