The Three Stooges - Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Curly Howard - are back again in what Sony Pictures Home Entertainment appropriately acknowledges as its "'Fan Requested' Collection," a terrific two-disc set of chronologically presented two-reel comedies released 1937-39. The Stooges began their 190-film association with Columbia Studios' Short Subjects Department in 1934; the earliest films were somewhat more experimental, partly a reflection of an earlier, Vaudeville/Broadway/burlesque-influenced style of early-talkie comedy that had been popular, and partly because the Stooges, in their previous association with Ted Healy, were trying to find their own groove, into a style of short comedy not limited to what Buster Keaton (or was it Groucho Marx?) used to disapprovingly refer to as "nut humor."
The shorts in this collection find the team at the very top of their game; as a whole, the films may lack the sheer brilliance of Uncivil Warriors, Three Little Beers (both 1935), and Disorder in the Court (1936), or the crude, nebulous madness of Woman Haters and Punch Drunks (1934), but overall they rank alongside the funniest two-reel comedies ever made. Within a few years, a series of small strokes would have a devastating effect on Curly Howard's unique comic persona, and the shorts would begin to suffer in other ways, too. But the 24 comedies presented here - almost seven hours worth and five more than last time - are near-perfection, and the great transfers are up to the high standards of Volume 1. The only disappointment is that a mere six of the 24 shorts are new to DVD, leaving fans who've been buying these discs all along much less to crow about. (This will change later on, hopefully: the vast majority of Shemp Howard and Joe Besser shorts have yet to make it to any home video format.)
Grips, Grunts, and Groans (1937)
After Punch Drunks, in which Curly went wild every time he heard "Pop Goes the Weasel," Columbia's writers went back to the same well several times too many with variations of this gag, first to good effect in Horses' Collars (1936), in which the sight of a mouse would set Curly off: "Moe! Larry! The cheese!" In this short, it's Wild Hyacinth that makes Curly go wild, satiated only by the tickling of his feet. That's a bit of a stretch even in Stoogeville, but this Preston Black (i.e., Jack White)-directed short has a great payoff, a climatic wrestling match that ends with Curly madly clubbing everyone in sight with the heavy iron match bell. Lots of great gags about alcoholism - alas, a subject no longer politically correct even in slapstick comedy. (*** 1/2)
Dizzy Doctors (1937)
Before infomercials, you had jokers like the Stooges selling worthless cure-alls like "Brighto," ("Brighto! Makes old bodies new! Woo-woo-woo-woo-woo!") One of numerous Great Depression-era shorts to find the unemployed (and unemployable) Stooges jumping head-first into a new line of work, this has them hawking their wares at the Los Arms Hospital (where they had been doctors themselves in Men in Black) like drug companies pushing their pricey product on administrators. The highlight has Moe taking over the hospital's PR system:
Moe: Hello, everybody, we just brought the moon over the mountain.
Curly: Hello, Ma. Hello, Pa. It wasn't much of a fight. I stood like that. But not for long.
[Moe bonks Curly on the head]
Moe: Quiet! [Fruitily] This broadcast comes to you through the courtesy of Brighto. And its six delicious flavors: Chocolate, Vanilla, Cranberry, Strawberry.
Curly: And raspberry. [Moe whacks him] Ow! It's still raspberry! [Moe whacks him again] Ow!
Moe: Now keep quiet or I'll sock you again.
Larry [taking over microphone]: Buh-buh-buh-boo. Buh-buh-buh-boo. Buh-buh... [Now Moe hits him!]
3 Dumb Clucks (1937)
Gagman Clyde Bruckman, whose collaborators included Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Laurel & Hardy, penned this unusual short which features Curly Howard in a dual role, playing his own father, a muttonchops-wearing Sugar Daddy. Pop Howard is about to marry gold-digger Daisy(-Waisy), played by Lucille Lund, who co-starred with Karloff and Lugosi in The Black Cat a few years before. A running gag has various characters repeatedly falling down an elevator shaft, a gag Curly didn't find quite so funny when some idiot prop man left a big 2 x 4 in the shaft for Curly to rip his scalp open on. In the scene immediately before but presumably shot after, Curly clearly has a patched-up head he cheats away from the camera. (****)
Back to the Woods (1937)
The Three Stooges, Puritans? "Shutteth up!" So says Moe near the beginning of this gem, the last directed by the much-underrated Preston Black/Jack White. Set, vaguely, in the 17th century at the time of the American Pilgrims - despite in-jokes anachronistically referencing everything from the WPA to Whopper the racehorse - the Stooges and their Brooklynese accents are banished from Britain and head for Plymouth Rock. Faced with starvation, they take their blunderbusses hunting, risking the ire of the local Indians, who've claimed the surrounding lands as their own. (****)
Goofs and Saddles (1937)
Wild Bill Hiccup (Moe), Buffalo Bilious (Curly), and Just Plain Bill (Larry) are U.S. Cavalry scouts on the trail of cattle rustler Longhorn Pete (gravelly-voiced Stanley Blystone, a great foil of the Stooges' early days). Superb short is arguably the best of the team's innumerable Westerns comedies (despite the lowest slap-count of any of the shorts, according to Stooge experts), with an inspired chase near the end. I've got to admit, as a kid I really thought you could drop an ammunition belt into a hand-cranked meat grinder and get it to fire like a machine gun, and used to dream about getting my hands on one. (*****)
Cash and Carry (1937) [new to DVD]
What do the Three Stooges and Citizen Kane have in common? Why, Sonny Bupp! (And actress Dorothy Comingore, but that's another short.) In this unsung if awkwardly, atypically sentimental and topical short, the Stooges come to the aid of polio-stricken orphan Jimmy (Bupp) and his unnamed "Sis" (Harley Wood), victims of the Great Depression reduced to living in the local dump! Moe, Larry, and Curly buy a phony map to a treasure supposedly buried ("by Captain Kidd's kid!") in an abandoned house, conveniently located right next door to the United States Treasury. Bupp went on to play the not-so-lucky son of Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles' 1941 classic, before moving to Detroit where he worked in the auto industry.* If that weren't enough, the Stooges get to meet President Roosevelt at the conclusion of this fascinating brew of slapstick comedy and New Deal propaganda. Best moment: Curly's indescribable expression of joy at what he thinks are fireworks (actually TNT). (**** 1/2)
Playing the Ponies (1937)
The Stooges, proprietors of The Flounder Inn, trade in their restaurant for an allegedly prize-winning racehorse, Thunderbolt. The filly turns out to be a dud until Curly accidentally feeds it super-hot chili pepperinos, with a distant bucket of cool water at the finish line as an irresistible incentive. Good short has some funny business with Curly at the run-down restaurant, and introduces the surefire gag of customers thinking the cook is butchering dogs back in the kitchen. (*** 1/2)
The Sitter-Downers (1937)
One of the Stooges' best shorts of this period was this crude but funny reworking of Buster Keaton's classic silent comedy One Week (1920). When prospective father-in-law James C. Morton refuses to let the Stooges marry daughters Florabell (June Gittelson), Corabell (Betty Mack), and Dorabell (Marcia Healy, ex-Stooge ringleader Ted's sister), Moe, Larry, and Curly go on a sit-down strike in Morton's house. When the three suitors' protest gains nationwide attention in their favor, Morton finally gives in, and the Stooges are off to build a prefabricated house - a gift from their supporters. But, alas, Curly accidentally burned the plans and the end result is beguilingly Daliesque. (**** 1/2)
Termites of 1938 (1938)
Not quite up to the level of the earlier Ants in the Pantry, the Stooges once again are pest exterminators, though here they're mistaken for "college student escorts" to accompany a lonely old maid to a swanky party. A highlight has the Stooges at the dinner table - always good for a guffaw or two - prompting all the rich guests to follow their hoi polloi lead. (***)
Wee Wee Monsieur (1938)
This okay short casting the Stooges as Parisian artists (!) joining the French Foreign Legion was one of many remade years later after Shemp Howard (Moe and Curly's real-life brother) had replaced Curly in the "Third Stooge" slot; unlike virtually all the remakes, in this instance the Shemp version is actually funnier. The original suffers from a herky-jerky telling, much of which has the Stooges too far removed from their familiar milieu, though Vernon Dent is a delight as Arab Chieftain Simitz. One has to wonder what French-born cinematographer André Barlatier made of all this. (***)
Tassels in the Air (1938)
Along with Preston Black/Jack White, during their first years at Columbia the Stooges benefited enormously from the contributions of Charley Chase, who helmed six of their shorts, each memorable in its own way. Chase, of course, was one of the great clowns of silent and early talkie comedy. His long association with Hal Roach had ended amicably when that studio phased out its short subject department and Chase wound up at Columbia as both a writer-director and star of his own series of shorts until his untimely death in 1940. Though Tassels in the Air weakly reworks the Curly-go-crazy gag that originated in Punch Drunks - this time, tassels make him go bananas - everything else about this comedy is just great. Ultra-prolific bit player/extra Bess Flowers (who appeared in more Best Picture winners than any other actress) is a nouveau riche housewife who mistakes janitor Moe for chichi interior designer OMay, unwisely inviting the trio to redecorate her home. Highlights include a beautifully paced table-painting scene (the Chase/Roach influence here is obvious) and a funny scene where Moe vainly tries to teach Curly Pig Latin:
Moe: "Boy, are you umb-day."
Curly (excited): "Oh, you mean I'm umb-day in pig language?"
Moe: "You're umb-day in any language."
Healthy, Wealthy, and Dumb (1938)
Strong comedy from director Del Lord has the Stooges wreaking havoc at the pricy Hotel Costa Plente, after Curly wins $50,000 in a radio contest. Their carefree destruction of priceless objet d'art is screamingly funny. Longtime comic foil James C. Morton (concurrently a regular in Laurel & Hardy's comedies) is well-cast as the harried hotel manager. Highlight: Curly thinks he's got the DTs when a pet monkey (scouting around on behalf of three gold-digging dames next door) starts jumping around in Larry's pants. (****)
Violent in the World for Curly (1938)
"B-A-bay, B-E-bee, B-I-bicky-bi, B-O bo, bicky-bi bo, B-U bu, bicky bi bo bu" and, er - I'll give it to you hangnail: the Stooges are gas station attendants mistaken for stuffy Teutonic university professors and wind up teaching at Mildew U., a woman's college. Watch Curly get roasted alive on a colossal spit! One of the team's most popular shorts thanks to "Swinging the Alphabet," the kind of novelty song rare in the Stooges' two-reelers (Moe, Larry, and Curly-Joe DeRita recorded a new version in the '60s), it's also got another standout sequence, with Moe, Larry, and Curly cast as overzealous gas station attendants ("Super service!") wreaking havoc on the professors and their car. Directed by Charley Chase, this short especially exemplifies his obvious Roach Studios-influenced touch: In the Roach manner, much of the film seems to have been improvised or expanded on location, rather than rigidly adhering to the script. Curly ad-libs like mad with an unruly air hose and in a giant puddle, while what was probably a lengthy scripted lunch sequence has been cut to almost nothing. A great short, its title is a spoof of Valiant in is the Word for Carrie, a 1936 Gladys George vehicle, though surreally apt even if you don't know the connection! (**** 1/2)
Three Missing Links (1938)
Former janitors at Super Terrific Productions, the Stooges are off to Darkest Africa to make a gorilla picture with starlet Mirabel Mirabel (Jane Hamilton) and harried director Herbert (Monte Collins). Once there, they run into witch doctor Ba Loni Sulami (former boxer John Lester Johnson) and Naba, a gorilla (enthusiastically played by Ray "Crash" Corrigan). Highlights include Curly's incredible impression of a chicken with its head cut off, and an iconic scene where the sleeping Stooges have their feet licked by a playful lion. (The lion obviously still has its teeth but even if it didn't, would you volunteer to have your toes licked by the beast?) Thanks to the miracle of DVD, you can now watch Moe take a face-full of black mud frame-by-frame! (*** 1/2)
Mutts to You (1938) [new to DVD]
Another unusual short courtesy director Charley Chase and collaborator screenwriter Al Giebler finds the Stooges, working as pet groomers, adopting what they think is an abandoned baby. Actually, a contrived series of circumstances resulted in the boy's bickering parents (Bess Flowers and Lane Chandler) leaving the kid unwatched on their doorstep; they later believe their kid kidnapped. The centerpiece for this short is the trio's elaborate automated dog-washer, an elaborate Rube Goldberg-type contraption. Not the funniest short in the world but agreeably unusual, and Stooge regulars Vernon Dent and Bud Jamison lend fine support as their landlord and neighborhood (Irish) cop, respectively. (***)
Flat Foot Stooges (1938)
By far Charley Chase's oddest Three Stooges short: a major plot point hinges on a gunpowder-eating duck - whose very existence in the film goes completely unexplained - laying an explosive egg that drops to the ground, causing a three-alarm fire! In this follow-up to the superior False Alarms (1936), the Stooges are fireman for a station still using horse-drawn fire engines. The short seems to be Chase's tribute to the early slapstick silent comedies featuring the Keystone Cops; there's some frenetic business near the end that's straight out of Mack Sennett, and Keystone players Chester Conklin and Heinie Conklin (no relation) have sizeable roles, especially the former as a the walrus-mustached fire chief. Watching this again was a strange experience. I don't think I had since it in at least 30 years yet remembered certain lines and sight gags like I had seen it yesterday. Weird.
Three Little Sew and Sews (1939) [new to DVD]
The funniest thing about this short is its (deliberately) hilarious special effects, a miniature of a submarine madly flailing about like a salmon swimming upstream. How the Stooges find themselves aboard this runaway sub with a pair of saboteurs (Phyllis Barry and Harry Semels) is the story of this two-reel delight. It's basically a U.S. Navy comedy but obviously its setting was changed to a fictional country so as not to offend the real Navy, this being released just prior to the outbreak of World War II. The Stooges don't make it out of this one alive. Abbott & Costello's In the Navy (1941) suspiciously borrows several very specific plot points. (****)
We Want Our Mummy (1939) [new to DVD]
Filmed between Universal's original 1932 The Mummy and its second-cycle horror entries with Lon Chaney, Jr. during the 1940s, this is about the only Stooge horror spoof to venture, however tenuously, into the realm of another studio's monster domain. Curiously, at the same time Columbia's screenplays during this period seemed to be trying to fashion the Stooges after Fox's Ritz Brothers, then in vogue with kids and teenagers. This and the next short have a slightly forced zaniness that was common in the (mostly unfunny) Ritz Brothers movies, but which doesn't really work for the Stooges. Curly gets another solo bit: "swimming" in a mirage of an cool water amidst the hot desert sand. One incredible scene has Curly falling on top a mummy (the remains of Queen Hotsietotsie, as it turns out), promptly turning the ancient corpse into a pile of dust and withered bandages - "He exploded!" (*** 1/2)
A Ducking They Did Go (1939)
"To the hunt! To the hunt! To the hunt-hunt-hunt!" This terrific short's early scenes were shot right outside the Columbia lot on Gower Avenue - you can even see the old "Hollywoodland" sign in the background. Moe, Larry, and Curly are salesmen for a crooked racket selling memberships to a duck hunting club. Michael Moore could have saved himself the trouble of making Bowling for Columbine and just re-released A Ducking They Did Go as a cautionary tale of crazy idiots with guns. Classic bit has the trio in a sinking rowboat, into which Larry fires his shotgun "to let the water out!" (****)
Yes, We Have No Bonanza (1939)
An okay Western comedy, this time with the Stooges playing singing waiters at crooked bank robber Maxey's (Dick Curtis) saloon. The short opens with the stooges and three ingénues (Jean Carmen, Lola Jensen, and Suzanne Kaaren, the latter Mrs. Sidney Blackmer and "Gail Tempest" from Disorder in the Court) singing perhaps the worst rendition of "Red River Valley" in screen history. The Stooges quit their jobs to go gold prospecting, and in an incredible coincidence, accidentally dig up Maxey's stolen loot. Set in that Never-Never Land of the Hollywood West where horse-drawn carriages and Ford sedans roamed the prairie. (*** 1/2)
Saved by the Belle (1939) [new to DVD]
Latin stereotypes abound in this South of the Border spoof of Central American revolutions, the last Stooge short directed by Charley Chase. Salesmen unable to move their stifling winter attire, they switch to selling butt cushions in earthquake-ridden Valeska, but get caught up in the revolution after befriending Senorita Rita (Carmen LaRoux), girlfriend of Singapore Joe, revolutionary leader (LeRoy Mason). (***)
Calling All Curs (1939)
Funny if overworked short (How many times has this been released to DVD? Five?) is like a veterinarian Men in Black, the Stooges zany doctors at a pet hospital. When socialite Mrs. Bedford's (Isabelle LaMal)'s beloved standard poodle Garçon is dognapped, it's up to Moe, Larry, and Curly to rescue the prized pooch. Watch Curly pluck Moe's eyebrows like the petals of a daisy ("She loves me! She loves me not!") and a mutt's amazing spying powers (How did they get that tail to bend in the shape of a question mark?) (*** 1/2)
Oily to Bed, Oily to Rise (1939) [new to DVD]
Once again homeless and hungry tramps, the Stooges are offered a meal by grandmotherly Widow Jenkins (Eva McKenzie), whose oil-rich land is being swindled away by a trio of crooks. Be sure to freeze-frame the shot of Moe getting zapped in the eye by a blast of oily goop at a water pump; his surprised and appalled reaction is very real. Several unbilled actors in this went onto bigger and better things: One of the crooks is played by prolific B-Western stars James Craig, soon featured in The Devil and Daniel Webster (and later to star in Venus Flytrap, one of Ed Wood's more outrageous obscurities) while one of the Stooges' girlfriends, April Jenkins, is played by Linda Winters, who as Dorothy Comingore would star opposite Orson Welles in Citizen Kane. (*** 1/2)
Three Sappy People (1939)
Rich folk sure are stupid: they constantly mistake the uneducated, lowbrow Stooges for highly educated doctors, Ivy League students and European professors. In this short J. Rumsford Rumford (Don Beddoe) mistakes the trio for Drs. Ziller, Zeller, and Zoller, eccentric psychiatrists he hires to treat his uncontrollable free-spirit wife (Lorna Gray, reportedly still attending conventions at the age of 90!), who in an early scene makes a splashy entrance at a party in her honor by driving her car right into the living room. It's funny if standard stuff with the usual dinner table antics and climatic pastry fight, but a great way to cap off this collection. Notice the quick cutaway after a pastry (probably thrown by Moe) hits Gray squarely in the mouth; it really got tightly lodged in there, requiring some fast-thinking emergency treatment! (*** 1/2)
Video & Audio
The shorts in this collection generally look outstanding; some of the transfers are obviously new while others are not, but the overall quality is impressively high. The 415 minutes worth of Stooge comedy is crammed onto just two single-sided dual-layered discs, but there are no compression issues. Most are extremely sharp and some of the shorts have window-boxed opening titles. The only problem I noticed was that Yes, We Have No Bonanza has weak, distorted audio. Most of the Stooge shorts from this period were Western Electric Mirrophonic recordings, but this is credited to RCA Victor High Fidelity, if that makes any difference. The mono audio (English only, unlike some of the earlier DVD releases, which had multiple language options) is otherwise fine. There are no subtitle options, though the discs are closed-captioned.
Once again, there are no Extra Features, but at this point most fans of the team's comedy would be happy just to get a complete run of the team's 190 shorts rather than hold out for material supplementing the same 20 shorts seen over and over again.
This is another great set of two reel comedies. At this rate it's likely we'll see two more Curly volumes (one good, one not so good) before Sony hopefully moves on to the Shemp Howard and Joe Besser years. Highly Recommended.
* Bupp once called WKBD-TV's "Bill Kennedy at the Movies" in Detroit to say he was enjoying seeing himself in Citizen Kane and by telephone relayed a few interesting anecdotes. Astonished that a veteran of Citizen Kane, a Humphrey Bogart movie, and a Three Stooges short actually lived in my neighborhood, I nervously called him up one afternoon and this segued into what became my first "celebrity" interview. Bupp died last year at age 79; this review is dedicated to his memory.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel. His audio commentary for Invasion of Astro Monster is now available.