Unless Kevin Brownlow teams up with Columbia/TriStar and the Howard, Fine, Besser, and De Rita families, Stooges: The Men Behind the Mayhem will likely stand as the best documentary ever about The Three Stooges, whose finger-poking, pie-throwing hijinks have been entertaining generations for nearly 80 years. Mackinac Media's two-disc set, touting more than four-and-a-half hours of material, is a must-have for Stooge fans, a well-packaged cornucopia of all things Stooge.
The centerpiece is an expanded edition of the same-titled documentary that first aired as an A&E Biography in 1994. Running 63 minutes, the show gives a good overview of the Stooges' career, from its beginnings in Vaudeville with Ted Healy to the trio's long run making two-reel comedies at Columbia, through their many cast changes, their resurrection during the late-1950s and early '60s, and so forth.
The show's obvious shortcoming is that it was produced independent of the team's longtime home studio, Columbia, and thus had to rely upon public domain footage for its film clips. Unfortunately, that limited the filmmakers to a batch of trailers and a handful of overly familiar PD shorts. Undoubtedly Columbia/TriStar would have demanded a king's ransom for the kind of clips that would best serve this sort of show; it's a shame the two parties didn't team up.
Of course, even if they had teamed up there is still the matter of the families, who battled one another in court for years, and who also have a financial stake in the Stooges and their image. The Stooges themselves are all dead, and very few of their co-workers, particularly from their classic shorts period, are still around, further eroding the show's potential.
Despite all this, the documentary still offers some surprises, including excerpts from radio interviews with bowl-cut leader Moe Howard and late-comer patsy Joe Besser. Writer Elwood Ullman and director Ed Bernds appear in archive clips (from 1982) along with Stooge co-star Julie Gibson (1942's Sock-a-Bye Baby and Three Smart Saps). Fan club president Gary Lassin and fan/voice artist Billy West (Ren & Stimpy) are on hand to talk about the Stooges' influence on popular culture (West calls Larry Fine, the curly-haired middle stooge, "the Keith Richards" of the act), while Lyla Fine Budnick (Larry's kid sister), Janie Hanky (Curly's daughter) and Ted Healy, Jr. talk about their famous relatives. The late Mousie Garner and Nate Budnick discuss their professional relationships with various Stooges, while Adam West dryly recalls working with the team at the end of their careers, in The Outlaws Is Coming (1965).
For die-hard fans of the Three Stooges, the documentary is respectful without offering much that is new, but the two-disc DVD compensates for this in other ways. (The picture discs, incidentally, are cleverly designed, with the faces of Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Jerome "Curly" Howard on Disc One, and Shemp Howard, Joe Besser, and "Curly-Joe" De Rita on the second disc.)
The best of the supplementary features are a trio of Radio Interviews, three Extended Interviews, and a fun DVD-ROM. The first of the radio interviews in an undated 10-minute spot on DJ Ron Berry's show on WERS. It seems to have been taped while the Stooges (by then, Moe, Larry, and Curly-Joe) were on tour, though only Moe is interviewed. The comedian is deadly serious here, talking with the gravitas of an intellectual funeral director, as if to counteract the team's lowbrow image. A 1972 interview for WOHO in Toledo, running 17 minutes, is much livelier; Moe seems to appreciate the DJ's fan-like adulation and knowledge of the team, and it's interesting to hear Moe's assessment of Woody Allen, Johnny Carson and other then-current talent.
The last of the three interviews features both Larry and Moe, and was taped in late-September 1974, just a few months before their deaths. Larry was by this time living in the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, California, after suffering a debilitating stroke. His voice is thick and no longer recognizably Larry and the interview is, frankly, more than a little sad. He seems tired and somewhat out of it - when told by the DJ that the station plans to call Moe later in the evening, Larry weakly asks, "Are you sure he's home?" The interview becomes almost comically macabre. "I thought [Charlie Weaver] was doing much better than me," Larry says, "But he dropped dead Monday morning!" Moe also sounds tired, a far cry from his delightful appearances late in life on The Mike Douglas Show (sadly, these shows aren't included here), on which he was full of energy and even did some of the old routines.
The Extended Interviews are a delight. Lyla Fine Budnick, who looks like the offspring of Larry and Seven of Nine, was 18 years younger than her famous brother, and as such regarded him as a surrogate father as much as a brother. Particularly interesting is her revelation that Larry was good friends with Jimmy Cagney, who used to sneak in through the window of Larry's room at the Motion Picture Country Home. Her husband, Nate, worked as something like a road manager for the Stooges late in their career, and he shares several very amusing, warm anecdotes. Their interviews run a combined total of 28 minutes. Both have apparently passed away since taping these 1994 segments, so their addition here is especially welcome. Voice actor Billy West doesn't have much to say in his 3-minute piece, but his impression of Larry (which he did frequently on The Howard Stern Show) is so good it's creepy.
The DVD-ROM turned out to be a lot more fun than this reviewer would've expected. My Pal Moe - A Fan Remembers is Bob Bernet's sweet tribute documenting his childhood and teenage years corresponding with the lead-Stooge. It's a highly personal story that could be any child writing his hero, and Bernet shares his excitement and occasional naivete in their penpal-ship, which extended to a visit to Moe's house in 1973. The DVD-ROM is packed with full-color reproductions of the letters, photographs and even a 60-second Super-8 home movie Bernet took during his brief visit with the actor. Bernet has even included newspaper clippings and other items from his scrapbook, a list of "Stooge Resources" and web links, and reproductions of two scripts: Booby Dupes (1943) and Micro-phonies (1945), fascinating documents when compared with the final cut of those pictures.
Also included is an extensive Still Gallery divided into three parts: "Lyla Fine's Scrapbook," "Memorabilia," and the generically-titled "Stooge Photos." A little better organization would have been preferred, but there are lots of rare images here, particularly in Ms. Fine's collection.
Of less interest but still fun are the Four Shorts, all public domain titles: Disorder in the Court (1936, featuring Curly), Brideless Groom, Sing a Song of Six Pants (1947), and Malice in the Palace (1949), all featuring Shemp. All four comedies are quite good, and it's nice to see the Shemp comedies especially, as Columbia/TriStar has been short-changing the underrated Howard brother in their own line of DVDs in favor of Curly and, peculiarly enough, Curly-Joe.
Rare Appearances includes a 30-minute TV guest shot by Moe, Larry, and Shemp with Ed Wynn on a 1950 episode of The Camel Comedy Caravan. This section also includes trailers for The Three Stooges in Orbit, Have Rocket, Will Travel, Dancing Lady, The Three Stooges Meet Hercules, Snow White and the Three Stooges, and a matinee compilation called Laff-a-Thon. All are full frame except for Snow White, which appears to be a black and white TV spot that inexplicably has been letterboxed, but does feature the Stooges talking directly to the audience. The Hercules trailer uses only drawings and no scenes from the film.
Video & Audio
Unsurprisingly, the documentary and supplements vary greatly in quality, but all the PD material - the four shorts, the Ed Wynn show, the trailers - are all in watchable condition, much of it several notches above that. The newer interviews are professionally shot and look fine for what they are. The radio interviews fare less well. At least one sounds like it was taped on a cheap cassette player with its microphone placed near a radio speaker, but given its rarity this too is forgivable.
Only Three Stooges fans need apply. More casual viewers might enjoy the documentary and the shorts, but will likely be bored by the minutiae of the supplementary material. But Stooges: The Men Behind the Mayhem is a goldmine and Highly Recommended for Stooge fans.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.