Moe Better Blues

Are the Three Stooges martyrs, demons, or splendid anti-role models?

The Three Stooges

Directed by James Frawley

ABC; Monday, April 24; 8 p.m.-10 p.m. ET  

The Three Stooges, which airs Monday on ABC, is a heart-tugger. Its stooge protagonists are clown saints—martyrs to the violence in their own comedy as well as to the moguls who made millions off their punishing smacks and eye-pokes. When the movie opens, an aging Moe Howard (Paul Ben-Victor) is a glorified errand boy on the Columbia Pictures lot, his brothers Curly (Michael Chiklis) and Shemp (John Kassir) are long dead (historically, Shemp preceded Curly and then replaced him after he had a stroke), the Three Stooges are kaput. For the next two hours, the film flashes backward and forward, from the team’s early vaudeville days through their years under contract to studio head Harry Cohn, to whom they signed away their rights, residuals, and all hope of making movies longer than 18 minutes. The birth of the Stooges’ most legendary slapstick is juxtaposed against Moe’s guilt over the fate of his fragile brothers, who are like fallen comrades in arms—bloodied, abandoned, unremunerated. Did years of slaps and pokes kill Curly (stroke) and Shemp (heart attack)? Hard to say for sure, but The Three Stooges builds to Moe’s vindication. No, it’s more than a vindication. After television resurrects them, the re-formed Three Stooges (the third is “Curly-Joe” De Rita) stand haloed by spotlights before a new generation of roaring young fans. They’ve become immortal—apotheosized.

In outline, the story is compelling, and it’s faithful to the facts as they appear in Michael Fleming’s brief illustrated history From Amalgamated Morons to American Icons: The Three Stooges. In execution, however, the movie is stupefyingly bad, a dope-slap in the face for those of us who love the Stooges in spite of our “higher” instincts—who find something mysteriously liberating in those belly bumps and nose boinks and warbles of pain.

Part of the problem is endemic to “biopics,” in which journalistic detail gets slotted into the mouths of characters in the vain hope it will pass for dialogue. Poor Linal Haft as Harry Cohn has tongue twisters like “These guys are Columbia’s blue-plate special—workin’ stiffs who thumb their noses at the hoi-polloi!” The artistic process becomes laughably telescoped, as in the bit in which Moe pokes Larry (Evan Handler) in the eye during a card game and then realizes: “Hey! That’s funny!” How did Jerome (a k a “Babe”) Howard come by the moniker “Curly”?

And you were there.

Chiklis is so sweet-faced and open that he makes you forget all the other Curly imitators you’ve seen—but not, for an instant, the original Curly. Paul Ben-Victor has a different kind of face than Moe: convex instead of concave, with rubbery features instead of Moe’s haggard, slightly pinched ones. He works hard, but he has a way of subtly signaling that his slaps and punches are gags. Moe rarely stylized his anger: His rage was so funny because it looked real.

There’s no point in faulting the actors, however. No one could be a credible Stooge with dialogue this synthetic. Nothing in The Three Stooges brings us closer to understanding either the art or the craft of Moe, Larry, Curly, and Shemp, let alone the working-class anger that’s the dark heart of their comedy. There are other film farceurs who loaf, puncture the elites, and introduce chaos into the machine of the capitalist workplace. There are other—far more stylish—linguist acrobats. But no one crafts ballets of abuse like the Stooges. No one else finds such comic sublimity in hitting.

And hitting, of course, is a terrible thing.

One Sunday morning last month, after enduring a half-hour of Teletubbies with my 23-month-old daughter, Lucy, I decided to treat myself to part of a Three Stooges marathon on American Movie Classics. And what of Lucy? She watched the Stooges for a couple of minutes, listened to her daddy yuk it up, and said, with unusual clarity, “Turn it off.” She then gave me a whack upside my head.

An obvious question arises from this episode: “What kind of moron lets his 23-month-old daughter watch the Three Stooges?” Maybe one so convinced of the therapeutic nature of knockabout comedy that he forgets that no such therapy can be derived by people who haven’t learned to distinguish fantasy from reality. The childlike pleasure to be had from “forbidden” things—e.g., watching grown men slap one another like toddlers—is of no benefit to toddlers, who have yet to grasp the meaning of “forbidden” and would as soon scratch your eyes out as look at you.

“I can’t believe you’d show the Three Stooges to your daughter,” said a friend, June, who seemed poised to dial the nearest child-welfare agency. When I babbled something about catharsis, Aristotle, and Freud, she said, “Aristotle and Freud were never little sisters. I was. I had to grow up in a house in which my brothers watched the Three Stooges and couldn’t wait to try out everything they saw on me.” The Stooges, she added, were the reason she became a radical feminist.

But isn’t there a long and honorable tradition of clowns who hit? That’s the position of Ron Jenkins, Wesleyan drama professor, clown scholar, and sometime English translator for that most righteously brutal of comics Dario Fo. Jenkins points out that our arguably greatest movie clown, Charlie Chaplin, is also among our most violent. “In one film,” he says, “the Chaplin character doesn’t have enough money to pay a restaurant bill, and Chaplin re-shot the scene several times without it being funny enough. So he fired the actor playing the waiter and hired one who was twice as big and menacing, who looked like he could actually kill Chaplin for not paying the bill, and suddenly the scene became funny. Chaplin understood that real danger, not fake danger, was essential for comedy.”

Still, there is something about the Stooges that is more radical, more difficult to come to terms with than the purposefully anarchistic Harlequins of Dario Fo or the wheyfaced tramps of Chaplin. As Eric Bentley points out in The Life of the Drama, “The violence in Chaplin’s comedies was done to him, not by him, and masochistic farce always seems more gentlemanlike than sadistic.”

The Stooges are nothing if not un-gentlemanlike.

A ny discussion of sadism in the Three Stooges doesn’t begin with the 5-foot-4-inch Moe Howard, born Moses Horwitz in Brooklyn, but with the man who fashioned the Stooges’ act. He was Ted Healy, a 6-foot Irishman famous for drinking, womanizing, underpaying his stooges, and being so abusive onstage that he propelled the sensitive Shemp to a solo career and inadvertently gave Moe Clip2 and Larry their best weapon for leaving him behind: Curly.

If you look at this clip from Plane Nuts (1934) (included in the Leonard Maltin-narrated video The Lost Stooges [1990]), you’ll see a world of difference between Healy’s and Moe’s brand of hitting. Healy, the would-be aristocrat, delivers his blows from on high. It’s nonchalant cruelty—too disturbingly casual to be funny.

But there’s nothing casual about Moe’s abuse. A man with perhaps the lowest threshold for irritation in history, Moe (I’m speaking of his on-camera persona) doesn’t seem fully alive unless he’s poised to strike one of his underlings. There’s an edge in his voice, as if the treble has been turned way up, and he has to bite his lower lip just to take a breath. Why does Moe hit? First, obviously, in retaliation for injury, as when, say, Curly crushes his foot with a giant wrench or Larry inadvertently dumps a bucket of mud on his head. Second, in response to defiance. Third and perhaps most scarily, as an answer to a bad pun or joke. At his most perverse, Moe will chuckle with the joker, lulling him into a sense of complacency, then smash him across the face.

So what’s eating Moe? Unlike Healy, Moe is a Stooge himself, and his sense of shame is probably so Clip3 overdeveloped that he has internalized his former tormentor—along with the vaudeville audience fond of throwing fruit in response to a bad pun. It’s Moe, as the leader, who carries the burden of society’s expectations, and it’s Moe who must answer to the world for his cohorts’ incompetence. What surely contributes to his rage is that he’s just as big a screw-up as Larry, Curly, and Shemp. What he lacks is their ability to shrug failure off—their splendid insulation.

There is a dispute among fans as to which is the better Stooge, Shemp or Curly, but it’s not really much of a contest. Shemp, who was Moe’s older brother, is a superb comedian, with floppy locks and a lined, basset-hound droopiness. But he mostly exists in relation to Moe, whereas Curly has his own spontaneous—expulsive—existence. If there is genius in the Three Stooges, it’s in Curly, one of the most polymorphous comics who has ever lived. Untroubled, he has a happy-go-lucky hedonism, which expresses itself in that familiar quavery falsetto trill. But when whomped by Moe, his hands fly to his hips in a gesture of feminine indignation. The next blow turns him canine, whereupon he sends a snorting rrruffff into his antagonist’s face. This, ironically, is a precursor to his whinnying retreat, often accompanied by hands slapping at his face and jittering leg movements known as “the Curly shuffle.” Before long he is human again, the entire metamorphosis having taken mere seconds.

Where did Curly come up with this stuff? Would he have been equally inventive with better material? With great texts? What, one wonders, could he have done with Gogo in Waiting for Godot, a part first played in the United States by Bert Lahr, whose Cowardly Lion bore a considerable debt to Curly?

Moe and Curly by themselves would have been too intense, but Larry brings another dimension, another brand of idler to the equation. He has the soul of a poet but absolutely no poetry; he’s the sort of dreamy Jewish malingerer who’d rather spend his days at the track. A wiseguy, it’s Larry who mounts the most thoughtful opposition to Moe. The problem is there’s never any follow-through. When ordered by Moe to perform a task, he’ll lean in close and snarl, “I’ll do it when I’m good and ready!”

MOE [threateningly]: Are you ready?LARRY [instantly pulling back, mildly]: Yeah, I’m ready.

The fact that most of the Stooges shorts are terrible takes nothing away from the brilliance of Clip4 the central players or their core routines. With fourth-rate material, they could be honorably second-rate; anything better they could hit out of the park. One of their earliest shorts, the 1934 “Men in Black,” is atypically absurdist, with the Stooges, as doctors, presenting an unusually united front. (Moe still whacks them, but the three are more on the same demented wavelength.) It’s closer in spirit to the Marx Brothers, but the Marx Brothers never had this kind of kamikaze physical inventiveness.

B ecause their principal mode is so violent, the rare lyrical respites in a Stooge short are often treasurable. Perhaps my favorite sequence in any Stooge film contains no slapping whatsoever: It’s in “Micro-Phonies” (1945), the last great Curly short. Early on, the Stooges find themselves in a recording studio, and for two minutes, they simply play. Moe delivers a mock radio commercial and the beginning of a melodrama—and for an instant you can glimpse the Moe Howard who Clip5 longed to be a conventional stage actor. Then Curly lip-syncs to an aria in ways that do more to illuminate the music than the blonde who actually produced the notes. Watch Moe put the woodwind to his lips and flash a look of rage at Curly when it turns out that this isn’t his cue. Then watch the rage almost instantly melt into the purest expression of love he ever showed on screen.

I look forward to showing my daughter that scene. In fact, once we’ve established the rule of NO HITTING, I might be showing her a lot of Three Stooges movies.

“I always loved the Stooges,” the clown scholar Ron Jenkins told me. “But my affection for them was renewed a few years ago when a Balinese family—the father is a great Balinese clown—came to live with me. The twin boys were autistic, but came out of their shells to watch the Three Stooges and recounted the episodes with great animation. Not only did they learn English from the Stooges, they developed a deep spiritual bond based on the Stooges’ struggle to survive in a cruel world.”   

And the violence? Context is everything. When Clint Eastwood or Chuck Norris blows away some drooling piece of vermin, the effect is unambiguously healthful: Society no longer has to worry about that particular piece of vermin, and any other piece of vermin that happens to be watching will think twice about drooling in range of Clint or Chuck. But when Moe cracks Curly or Shemp across the kisser or rips more of Larry’s hair out of his scalp, there is no healthful aftermath. The victimized Stooges function no more efficiently, and there is no catharsis for Moe. The message is that violence is both addictive and pointless—that it gets you nowhere and makes you feel worse. The Stooge shorts rarely end with the restoration of order; usually they close with pandemonium and flight, with “whoop-whoop-whoop” and “nyaaahhhh” and “Let’s get out of here!” There might be no bleaker portrait of the consequences of hitting in American cinema. There is certainly none more hilarious.