The Three Stooges Collection enters prime Shemp territory with Volume Six - 1949-1951, a set of 24 two-reel comedies in which an impressive 14 of the shorts - more than half - are new to DVD. This is a big change from all previous sets; the vast majority of shorts in those had been previously released. But from this point forward, through the remaining "Shemp Years" (1947-55) and the final two-reelers with "third stooge" Joe Besser (1956-57) fans will be treated to mostly heretofore unreleased material, shorts shown infrequently on television, and many never available even on VHS.
This collection is also something of a battle royale between increasingly bitter rivals Jules White (1900-1985), the veteran comedy producer-director in charge of Columbia's short-subject department, who during this time was also in charge of one unit, while relative neophyte producer Hugh McCollum (1900-68), usually working in tandem with director Edward Bernds (1905-2000), cranked out shorts from the department's second, independent unit. Their respective approaches to the Three Stooges were markedly different: White's style hadn't changed much since the early-1920s, an era of often crude silent slapstick, while the McCollum/Bernds shorts were more sophisticated (if such a term can be applied to the Three Stooges!), more story-driven and often played like semi-elaborate features whittled down to 18 minutes. The acrimony between White and McCollum climaxed with the firing of the latter in 1952; he and Bernds left for greener pastures and the Three Stooges series was never quite the same again.
Volume Six offers six-and-a-half hours worth of comedy spread over two single-sided, dual-layered discs. The excellent transfers are up to the same high standards of Volumes One and Two, Three, Four, and Five.
The Ghost Talks (1949)
The team's 113th short subject is one of their strangest, a "bottle show" (the entire short takes place within a few adjoining rooms) with Moe (Howard), Larry (Fine), and Shemp (Howard) cast as movers assigned to transport items from Smorgasbord Castle. However, an empty suit of armor, inhabited by the ghost of Peeping Tom, is reluctant to leave, eventually telling the trio about his chance sighting of Lady Godiva (who, alas, turns up wearing a contemporary swimsuit and is played with inexplicable boredom by Nancy Saunders). Written by Felix Adler, it's schizophrenic even by Stooge standards; the Stooges are alternately terrified by, friendly to, and grouchy toward the suit of armor, which is equipped with a slot machine-like payout dispenser. Phil Arnold, a short, bald comic actor (whose shirt is ruined by Shemp in Six a Song of Six Pants) provides Peeping Tom's voice, though in a flashback scene the role is essayed by some anonymous bit player. There's some funny haunted house gags - watch Larry nearly decapitate Moe! - and Shemp has a funny scene scaring himself in a mirror, but all told this plays like a feeble attempt to cash in on Abbott & Costello's recent horror-comedies successes - the Stooges even wear the same kind of moving company uniforms A&C did in Abbott & Costello meet Frankenstein (1948). (*** out of *****)
Who Done It? (1949)
A Shemp classic, this short casts the Stooges as detectives charged with protecting eccentric millionaire Mr. Goodrich (Emil Sitka) from the Phantom Gang, whose members include the old geezer's own niece (Christine McIntyre, clearly enjoying the femme fatale part) and wild-haired goon Nikko (Duke York, in another genuinely unsettling characterization). A fine Bernds-McCollum production, this features the classic switcheroo routine with Shemp and Christine, each aware that one of two glasses on the table before them is poisoned. The show climaxes with a hilarious free-for-all fight with the lights (mostly) turned off. The great Dudley Dickerson appears as a janitor at the beginning. (**** 1/2)
Hokus Pokus (1949)
Though the Jules White-directed two-reelers were notably lacking in story, occasionally his writers (in this case, the prolific Felix Adler) hit upon some great gags. This is the classic short where paperhangers Moe, Larry, and Shemp are hypnotized by the great - if criminally irresponsible - Svengarlic (David Bond), and made to dance on the flagpole high up alongside a tall building. When Svengarlic is knocked out cold by a distracted bicyclist "the boys" are on their own. Moe's real-life neighbor, Ned Glass, appears uncredited as Svengarlic's manager. A subplot in which a scheming blonde, Mary (Mary Ainslee), commits insurance fraud by pretending to be confined to a wheelchair, totally confused innumerable Stooge fans: in the 1956 remake, Flagpole Jitters, Mary really is paraplegic! "You are now in Sing Sing!" "I am now in Sing Sing." (**** 1/2)
Fuelin' Around (1949) [new to DVD]
This terrific, all-star Stooge short has the team working as carpet-layers at the home of rocket scientist Professor Sneed (Emil Sitka), who lives with his young daughter (Christine McIntyre, who was actually three years older than Sitka!). Larry is mistaken for Sneed by Anemian spies (not Armenian, as Wikipedia claims!), a thinly-coded Communist country, and the Stooges are kidnapped. Under threat of death Larry has to come up with a new rocket fuel. Six actors get title card credit: McIntyre, Sitka, Vernon Dent, Philip Van Zandt, Andre Pola, and Jock Mahoney (as Jacques O'Mahoney). This is one of those mini-movie-type shorts discussed above. It's got a great story, funny gags, makes good use of a picturesque backlot street, and has a terrific chase finish. (**** 1/2)
An almost unrecognizable Curly Howard (left) makes an ultimately aborted cameo in Malice in the Palace, a role filmed but not used.
Malice in the Palace (1949)
The last of the Three Stooges shorts in the public domain, Malice in the Palace has turned up in myriad 99¢ DVD compilations, but it never looked as good as it does here. This Jules White-Felix Adler gem has the Stooges running a restaurant somewhere in the Middle East, where their efforts to feed two threatening customers, Hassan Ben Sober (Vernon Dent) and Gin-a-Rummy (George J. Lewis) results in many classic gags. Moe, Shemp, and the two tough customers become convinced Larry is feeding them freshly-slaughtered cat and dog. (The scene includes the disquieting, Daliesque gag of a weiner affectionately licking Shemp with its "tongue.") The Stooges eventually are persuaded to try and retrieve the lost diamond of Rootentooten, stolen by the Emir of Schmow (Johnny Kascier). (The Schmow must live near Moronica, as the same map last seen in 1941's I'll Never Heil Again is consulted.) (****)
Moe: (to Hassan Ben Sober) "You mean to tell me you're only a doorman?"
Shemp: "Well there's the door, man!" (kicks Hassan in the butt)
Vagabond Loafers (1949)
A reworking of the classic Curly short A Plumbing We Will Go (1940), Vagabond Loafers, from the Bernds-McCollum team (and adapted by frequent collaborator Elwood Ullman), is the first of innumerable remakes of old Curly shorts, though few are as well done as this. It's an utterly fascinating short: classic Curly scenes are redone gag-for-gag with Shemp, whose screen persona doesn't match the material as well, while enough new material is integrated so that Stooge fans won't at all feel cheated. This may also be the first Stooge short in which an actor has been brought back to match new scenes with older stock footage scenes he filmed years before. In this case, hilarious footage from the 1940 short of Dudley Dickerson as a cook besieged by the havoc wreaked by the Stooges' crazy mixed-up plumbing is matched with new scenes of Dickerson, now nine years older and about 30 pounds heavier, putting in a brief appearance near the end. It's positively bizarre; the new Dickerson footage is welcome but unnecessary; a butler also in the short could have delivered the same two lines - maybe the Stooges (or Bernds, or McCollum) simply wanted to give the underrated comedian some work. Emil Sitka continues to show his great versatility as wealthy Mr. Norfleet, whose priceless Van Brocklin is stolen by Kenneth MacDonald and Christine McIntyre in the subplot, which also features character actress Symona Boniface in her final Stooge appearance. (*** 1/2)
Dunked in the Deep (1949) [new to DVD]
Allegedly suggested by the "Pumpkin Papers," microfilm hidden by Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers in a hollowed-out pumpkin, this short has the Stooges unwittingly assisting friendly neighbor Mr. Borscht (Gene Roth, made-up to resemble Stalin), actually a spy himself, get his stash of watermelons out of the country. The four wind up in the hold of a cargo ship bound for the Old Country. South Dakota-born Roth specialized in shady German types in cheap '40s films but was even better playing shady Russian types in Three Stooges comedies. He even has the best line, growling at the Stooges, in possession of the microfilm: "Give me that fil-lum!" Highlight: Moe thinks Shemp has puked all over him, in a nauseatingly funny gag that somehow made it past the censors. And that sure sounds like Moe's voice on the radio at the beginning of the picture. (***)
Punchy Cowpunchers (1949)
Yet another example of how superior the Bernds/McCollum shorts were to the concurrently-made Jules White-directed ones. Punchy Cowpunchers is a B-Western spoof along the lines of the late-period Curly short The Three Troubledoers (1946). What's interesting about this short is how far it deviates from the usual Stooge two-reeler, all in service to the comedy. Rare among the Stooge's Columbia two-reelers it's got a musical score and it plays more like an ensemble comedy. Co-stars Christine McIntyre (as Sweetheart Nell), Dick Wessel (Cavalry Sergeant Mullins) and Emil Sitka (as Captain Daley) all get to be funny on their own, separate from the Stooges, especially McIntyre, as a damsel in obviously less distress than usual. But the short really belongs to Jock Mahoney (here billed as Jacques O'Mahoney) as terminally clumsy cowboy hero Elmer - possibly a direct, unflattering spoof of much-disliked Columbia B-Western star Allan "Rocky" Lane, whom Mahoney strongly resembles. (Or not: As Tom Weaver helpfully points out, Lane at this time was under contract at Republic, not Columbia! Thanks, Tom.) Mahoney is hilarious ("I keep forgettin' ma gee-tar") and does several acrobatic pratfalls worthy of Buster Keaton. Note the padding that falls out of villain Kenneth MacDonald's hat after he gets clunked on the head by Larry. (****)
Hugs and Mugs (1950) [new to DVD]
Back to Jules White, and another especially lame short, this one casting the Stooges as furniture reupholsters. The clumsy script has three beautiful jailbirds (Christine McIntyre, Nanette Bordeaux, and Kathleen O'Malley) trying to retrieve a $50,000 pearl necklace purchased but presumed worthless by the Stooges. More silly than funny, the short has virtually no story, just a lot of labored tit-for-tat gags, with the three ladies more often than not on the receiving end. Not memorable. (**)
Dopey Dicks (1950)
For the umpteenth time, the Stooges are would-be detectives in haunted house-type surroundings. In this one, they're janitors cleaning the office of Sam Shovel, Private Eye, when a mysterious blonde (Christine McIntyre), mistaking Shemp for Shovel, pleads for his help just before she's kidnapped. The rest of the short is a reworking of A Bird in the Head, this time with Philip Van Zandt in the mad scientist role, and Stanley Price as his butler, with the very unbutlerly name of Ralph. Instead of the usual gorilla, Van Zandt is trying to perfect a robot army, and one of his headless creations wanders around the room listlessly. It's not very good, though both Van Zandt and Price give impressively monomaniacal performances, and the bizarre horror ending is offbeat. (***).
Love at First Bite (1950) [new to DVD]
No vampire comedy here; rather, this short opens with nearly a full reel of non-stop eye-poking and head-banging by the trio before the story finally gets underway. In flashbacks Moe, Larry, and Shemp each recall meeting their respective fiancées while serving in Europe. Larry falls for an Italian waitress (Marie Monteil), Moe goes gaga over a pigtailed soprano (Christine McIntyre, in her sixth appearance out of the last eight shorts) in Vienna, while Shemp is enamored of a French girl (Yvette Reynard) in Paris.
Somewhat out of character, the celebratory Stooges - the girls' ship is due later that day - get dead drunk on 100 proof "Old Panther," get into a fight and pass out, but not before Moe and Larry think they've killed Shemp in the melee. Larry suggest they put best-pal Shemp's "feet in cement and dump him in the river." Nice guy, that Larry. Footnote: Moe has a bookie named Joe in this. (***)
Self Made Maids (1950) [new to DVD]
Another oddity, this short opens with a title card noting: "All parts in this picture are played by The Three Stooges." The Stooges are artists who fall in love with three women whose portraits they paint: Moella (played by Moe), Larraine (Larry), and Shempetta (Shemp). Moe also plays the girls' father, and all three play their infant children at the end. Moe is understandably doubled in some shots - for instance in scenes where the girls' father chases the Stooges around the girls' house, but oddly one role isn't played by Moe, Larry, or Shemp: for no good reason one shot in a hotel lobby features an unidentified extra seated and reading a newspaper. Why this one person was added to the otherwise all-Stooge cast is a mystery. In drag, the Stooges make singularly ugly women, with Moe and Larry looking especially alarming. (Shemp, by contrast, in drag sort of resembles Nancy Walker, a comparative improvement.) Split-screen optical effects put six Stooges together in a few shots. (***)
Three Hams on Rye (1950) [new to DVD]
Herky-jerky short with "the boys" working as stagehands with bit parts in Emil Sitka's Broadway show, The Bride Wore Spurs. Sitka's producer is worried an influential newspaper critic (Ned Glass, uncredited) may try to sneak in to review and subsequently pan the show, and orders the Stooges to keep an eye out backstage. This is followed by a strange series of gags with the Stooges in disguise (Larry's getup is like something out of Charles Addams). Shemp notes a door cautioning "Dangerous - Keep Out" which he reads as "Danga-roos kipper-ra" and, naturally, opens it, only to receive a sock in the jaw. This strange but unsatisfying effort ends with a reworking of the feather-filled cake scene from the classic Uncivil Warriors (1935), performed here as an onstage Civil War melodrama gone wrong. (***)
Studio Stoops (1950) [new to DVD]
At B.O. Pictures the Stooges are exterminators mistaken for studio publicity men - Why not simply cast them as publicity men? Because the Stooges are always being mistaken for something they're not - and ordered to dream up some publicity for new starlet Dolly Devore. They have her go missing, but she turns out to really have been kidnapped by oily Dandy Dawson (Kenneth MacDonald), but nobody - including policeman Vernon Dent - will believe them. Reporter: "I'm Brown from the Sun." Shemp: "Oh, that's too bad. Are you peeling?" Strong short has many fine gags, climaxing with Shemp hanging for dear life from a tenth-floor window, an extending telephone his only lifeline. (****)
Slaphappy Sleuths (1950) [new to DVD]
Fuller Grime (Gene Roth), general manager of the Onion Oil Co. (I.M. Greedy, President; the company motto is "In Onion, There Is Strength") hires dumb-looking but allegedly intelligent investigators Larry, Moe, and Shemp to work undercover at one of their gas stations, hoping to nab the couple behind a series of robberies. When Grime asks Shemp if he's good, Shemp replies, "Am I? You see this heel? [pointing to his shoe] I ran that down!" Lots of good verbal and sight gags in this Jules White-Felix Adler offering, with Emil Sitka as a hapless customer - the Stooges put popcorn into his car radiator - and later the trio follow a trail of leaked oil straight to the thieves' apartment ("How'd they get the car in there?" Shemp wonders). A change of pace, casting wise: the crooks are played by gravelly-voiced Stanley Blystone and Nanette Bordeaux - apparently Kenneth MacDonald and Christine McIntyre were on vacation that week. (*** 1/2)
A Snitch in Time (1950) [new to DVD]
Notably violent short has the Stooges proprietors of Ye Olde Furniture Shoppe ("Antiques Made While U Waite"). Among the painful gags: after one of Moe's eyes is glued shut, Shemp and Larry use pliers, a screwdriver, and a hammer to try and open it, and when his hands later get stuck to a board, Larry briefly tries to free Moe by sawing his hands off at the wrists! They eventually deliver some furniture to the home of boarding house landlady Miss Scudder (prolific Jean Willes) but some bad guys, including Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea's Henry Kulky, threaten to steal her family heirlooms. (***1/2)
Three Arabian Nuts (1951)
Back at that ubiquitous, all-purpose warehouse full of crates, where the Stooges are delivering priceless China and other antiquities to Mr. Bradley (Vernon Dent). Of course, the Stooges are totally incompetent, breaking and/or losing practically everything before the short is over; apparently this takes place in the back rooms of the Los Feliz Post Office. Unbeknownst to all, Bradley's booty includes a magic lamp with a pair of Arabian thugs (Phil Van Zandt and Dick Curtis) hot on its trail, but Shemp finds the "syrup pitcher" first, unleashing the "genius" (Wesley Bly) as he calls him. For a change, the Stooges wind up healthy, wealthy, and dumb at the fade-out. (****)
Baby Sitters Jitters (1951) [new to DVD]
Funny short opens with the Stooges seemingly tossing infants around perilously; Shemp slips and falls on top of one, crushing it - "Oh!" he says, "I'm afraid to look." But, surprise-surprise, they're just dolls - no Michael Jackson baby-dangling controversy here. The Stooges become babysitters in order to meet their rent with grouchy landlady Mrs. Crump (Margie Liszt); note how when she and Moe stick out their tongues at one another, they accidentally collide and nearly French kiss. They go to work for Joan Lloyd (Lynn Davis), whose own toddler is first seen in his crib with a pistol in his tiny hands, the barrel lodged in his mouth. "I must have dropped it in the crib," Joan says, unconcerned. Eventually the irresponsible Stooges grow tired of "the little brat" (as they call him) and fall asleep, and Joan's estranged husband (Varan the Unbelievable's Myron Healey) makes off with the kid. Lots of great verbal gags* with semi-literate Shemp's attempt to make "consummated soup" being the highlight. (****)
"Don't Throw That Knife" (1951) [new to DVD]
Love that title! Derivative short opens with a note stating, "Any resemblance between the Three Stooges and regular human beings, whether living or dead, is a dirty shame." Sort of a reworking of No Census, No Feeling (1940), the Stooges once again are census takers (had they still been making two-reelers in the 1960 and 1970, no doubt more remakes would have followed), but the short is a hodgepodge of ancient wheezes - "Walk this way!" says voluptuous Jean Willes, prompting much hip-swaggering from the Stooges as they follow behind - and plays like an old Vaudeville sketch. One long scene, admittedly effective, has Moe, Larry, and Shemp gazing into funhouse mirrors for several minutes. (***)
Scrambled Brains (1951) [new to DVD]
Somewhat similar to the later, even more bizarre Cuckoo on a Choo Choo, Shemp has been released prematurely from a sanitarium because "We can't afford it," says Moe. (How did a clip from this not turn up in Sicko?) Trying to recover at home, Shemp hallucinates an extra set of hands during a piano lesson, and Dr. Gesundheit (Emil Sitka, in Coke bottle glasses) can do little to help. At least Shemp's in love, imagining a gorgeous blonde nurse, unaware that his bride-to-be is alarmingly ugly - and nearly toothless - Nurse Nora (Babe London, of Our Wife fame). Later, the Stooges get into a big fight with Nora's father (Vernon Dent), which begins with a funny scene with the Stooges and Dent all crammed into a telephone booth. (*** 1/2)
Merry Mavericks (1951)
Wanted for vagrancy - with a reward of 50 cents each, or three for a dollar - the Stooges are mistaken for famous marshals in Peaceful Gulch; in a strange genre fusion they guard money in a haunted house, where the spirit of a headless Indian supposedly wanders its halls. (When I was a child, this was the only Stooge horror-comedy that actually frightened me; that methodically shuffling headless Injun creeped me out.) Except for some surprisingly good cinematography there's little to recommend it. Paul Campbell turns up as "Clarence Cassidy" ("Don't sound quite right no how - somehow!" says Shemp) but he's a poor man's Jock Mahoney, and once promising starlet Marion Martin turns up here as a saloon girl. "What's the West coming to?" asks Moe. (** 1/2)
The Tooth Will Out (1951)
In case you're wondering why the Bernds-McCollum team would shoot back-to-back Western comedies, apparently all the Stooges-as-Old-West-dentists scenes in this were shot for Merry Mavericks, but when that ran long the footage was broken up into two separate shorts (each runs less than 16 minutes). This one's a slight improvement, notable for its painful scenes of hapless cowboys Slim Gaut and Dick Curtis (in his last Stooge appearance) in the dental chair. Accompanied by tooth-wrenching sound effects, a wayward drill and smoke billowing out of Gaut's mouth, this is not recommended for those afflicted with odontophobia. Later, with Curtis in the chair, Shemp accidentally picks up a copy of The Amateur Carpenter and, believing it to be a dental instruction manual, proceeds to "sandpaper the chest" and "varnish the lid." (*** 1/2)
from one of Shemp's solo shorts, alas not included as an extra feature
Hula-LaLa (1951) [new to DVD]
The only Stooge short directed by producer Hugh McCollum is also the only one that fades out with a faux Hawaiian dance number, "Lu-Lu." At B.O. Pictures Corp. - the same setting as Studio Stoops - the Stooges are choreographers - Hermes Pan, look out!. "Hey 'Red Shoes'!" Moe barks at Shemp. Bossy studio head Emil Sitka (parodying Jules White, perhaps?) sends the boys to the South Seas isle of Rarabonga to teach the headhunters dancing. First, however, they must get past witch doctor Varanu (Kenneth MacDonald), who wants to marry the King's daughter, Luana (Jean Willes). Best scene has Moe battling a four-armed idol (Lei Aloha plays, well, most of her). Look for Mack Sennett silent era comedian Heinie Conklin as the king. (*** 1/2)
Pest Man Wins (1951) [new to DVD]
A harbinger of things to come. To save money, Columbia's short subject department relied more and more on stock footage from earlier films. This short feebly remakes the great 1936 Curly entry Ants in the Pantry while its climax is mostly stock shots of the great pie fights from both In the Sweet Pie and Pie (1941) and Half-Wits Holiday (1947), which makes Symona Boniface's (in stock footage only) inquiry about Moe's "metamorphosis" downright perplexing. About the only thing going for this short is Vernon Dent, who does a hilarious little dance when a mouse climbs into his tuxedo. (***)
Video & Audio
The six-and-a-half hours worth of Stooge comedy are crammed onto two single-sided dual-layered discs (24 two-reelers, 12 on each disc), but there are no compression issues. 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.
Yet again, no Extra Features. The big question now is: Will Sony offer anaglyphic (red and cyan) 3-D versions of Spooks and Pardon My Backfire, the 3-D shorts certain to be included in the next volume? Which, if any of the shorts, will be in their correct widescreen aspect ratios?
The Edward Bernds-Hugh McCollum team wins hands-down over the Jules White-directed shorts. Soon after this, Bernds and McCollum would be ousted, and the Stooge series would suffer, with increasingly mechanical, less-inspired scripts to work from. But The Three Stooges Collection - Volume Six - 1949-1951 still finds Moe, Larry, and Shemp near the top of their game. Highly Recommended.
* In one scene Shemp exclaims, "Eureka!" to which Moe responds, "You don't smell so good yourself!" About 20 years ago, I was writing a check for some dry cleaning; I asked the owner, "Who do I make this out to?" When he replied, "Eureka," I just couldn't resist. It didn't go over too well.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, Japanese Cinema, is on sale now.