Completes the picture for all those early Stooge supporters. Columbia Pictures and Sony have released The Three Stooges: Rare Treasures from the Columbia Pictures Vault, a three-disc collection of rare indeed Stooge-related material that was first released as bonus material on their massive 2012 The Three Stooges: The Ultimate Collection boxed set. Included here are impossible-to-see comedy two-reelers starring Shemp Howard, Joe Besser, and Joe DeRita, the never-before-released-to-DVD feature films, Rockin' in the Rockies and Have Rocket, Will Travel, and three early Columbia cartoons with appearances by the animated Stooges. Rabid Stooge fans who purchased the earlier 8 individual Stooge sets (which were distressingly bare-bones) went ape when that box set came out loaded down with these goodies (and at a lower overall price, to add insult to injury). Now, you may carp about having to pay even more for these treasures after laying out all that dough the first time around for those once-pricey sets, but at least your collection will now be (mostly) complete with these fascinating Stooge extras.
If there was a valid reason to go into great detail examining The Three Stooges: Rare Treasures from the Columbia Pictures Vault, I certainly would in this review. Previously, I wrote up looks at Volumes 4 and 8 of Sony's individual Stooge sets, where I (rather pointlessly) defended the Stooges as masters of American comedy...as if that debate hadn't already been settled a long time ago by the only "critics" who really matter: the ticket-buying, TV-watching American public. If I thought that The Three Stooges: Rare Treasures from the Columbia Pictures Vault was an unknown quantity that had to be "sold" to the average DVD buyer, I'd write a book on it. To be honest, though: who's reading this review, anyway, unless it's a Stooge fan who already knows all about this disc and its contents? The casual DVD buyer isn't going to pick it up; it's going to be purchased by a dedicated Stooge-ophile who certainly doesn't need my opinion to sway them (and let me tell you something: those Stooge fans can be rough on reviewers who differ in opinion). All that aside, if The Three Stooges: Rare Treasures from the Columbia Pictures Vault hadn't already been covered by DVDTalk, then I'd let loose with a torrent of words...however, Stuart Galbraith IV's superlative (and exhaustive) review of The Three Stooges: The Ultimate Collection already covered all the items here in minute detail, and to his credit, his likes and dislikes concerning the Stooges line up pretty closely with mine (sorry, Stuart - couldn't resist that one).
So, I took a much more casual approach to watching The Three Stooges: Rare Treasures from the Columbia Pictures Vault than I normally do...and quite frankly enjoyed not obsessively noting every single important detail of every single offering here. Disc One features two of the Stooges' early big-screen efforts: Rockin' in the Rockies from 1945 and 1959's Have Rocket, Will Travel (the absence of 1951's Gold Raiders with Moe, Larry, and Shemp keeps The Three Stooges: Rare Treasures from the Columbia Pictures Vault from being so "ultimate"). Rockin' in the Rockies was new to me, but I doubt I'll catch it again; the splitting up of the Moe, Larry, and Curly trio doesn't work, while the gags are sadly lacking. As for the music...if you can't have Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys in your movie, then I guess Spade Cooley will do (The Hoosier Hot Shots, though, got on my nerves but quick). Have Rocket, Will Travel, the first big project for the Stooges after they were rediscovered on television in the late 50s, was a staple of Saturday afternoon and late, late movie shows when I was growing up. I always enjoyed it then, and today, it plays fairly well anytime Moe and Larry are on, even in their slowed-down, low-energy, older Stooge mode. However, I can't abide zero-charisma, anti-funny Joe DeRita; any time he's on the screen, I go stone-faced (cripes, even Besser would have been a better choice). Also included on Disc One are three Columbia cartoons which feature The Three Stooges (these older toons are definitely an acquired taste): Bon Bon Parade (1936), The Merry Mutineers (1936), and Frank Tashlin's Tinseltown parody, A Hollywood Detour, from 1942 (best gag: a beautiful stallion says he belongs to Cary Grant, while a grotesquely sway-backed nag says his owner is Kate Smith).
Disc Two is all Shemp Howard two-reel comedy material. They're divided up between titles he appeared in, and those he successfully headlined prior to rejoining the Stooges after Curly's stroke in 1946. The former include: Home on the Range (1938), Glove Slingers and Money Squawks (both 1939), Boobs in the Woods and Pleased to Mitt You (both 1940). The latter are: Pick a Peck of Plumbers and Open Season for Saps (both 1944), Off Again, On Again, Where the Pest Begins, and A Hit With a Miss (all from 1945), Mr. Noisy, Jiggers, My Wife, and Society Mugs (all from 1946), and Bride and Gloom from 1947. Watching the first batch of Shemp appearances made me long for an Andy Clyde boxed set of two-reelers ("Penrod, behave!"), while the second set of Shemp-starrers showed my personal favorite Stooge to generally hilarious advantage. Sorry--Shemp wins out over Curly every time (just as an experiment, I had my littlest kids--who despite my best efforts still can't tell the difference between the various Stooges--join in and watch a few Shemps and Bessers with me, and not surprisingly, they found them quite funny even though they're in black and white and over 70+ years old; for the next three days all I heard was one of my kids screaming, "WATCH HIM DROP IT!" from the screamingly grotesque Mr. Noisy, before someone smacked a ball out of someone else's hand to peals of laughter).
Disc Three contains the Joe Besser and Joe DeRita two-reelers the comedians cranked out for Harry Cohn's short subject division in the 1940s and 1950s. The Joe Besser titles are: Waiting in the Lurch (1949), Dizzy Yardbird (1950), Fraidy Cat and Aim, Fire, Shoot (both from 1951), Caught on the Bounce (1952), Spies and Guys (1953), The Fire Chaser (1954), G.I. Dood It and Hook a Crook (both 1955), and Army Daze (1956). Looking back over my review for that previous 8th and final set of Stooge shorts, I was pretty hard on poor Joe Besser, who doesn't get a lot of respect from hard-core Stooge fans, either, at least in context with his work with Moe and Larry (his paralyzing stint as "Stinky" on The Abbott & Costello Show, though, will forever land him a place as one of television's greatest supporting comedy players). However, watching these shorts where he's front and center in the action (and not waiting to play off Moe and Larry), I have to say I found him far more engaging than his official Stooge work. His beautifully-delivered "sissy" act may not be "politically correct" today (more's the pity), but it still generates laughs time and again, while the fast-paced action of these two-reelers (often their own remake of a remake of an older Columbia or Hal Roach short) compared favorably with some of the later Stooge efforts. None of that, however, applies to the four Joe DeRita shorts here: Slappily Married (1946), The Good Bad Egg and Wedlock Deadlock (both from 1947), and Jitter Bughouse from 1948. Seeing as how Columbia Pictures studio chief Harry Cohn had a sentimental attachment to his short subject division, sticking with the outdated format long after everyone else in Hollywood had dropped them, the relatively puny 4 title output by DeRita could suggest that not even Cohn thought he was all that funny (agreed that's a big leap...but who cares; DeRita stinks). If there are die-hard Stooge fans out there that celebrate his work, I've never heard them, but I do know that DeRita actually was quoted as saying he thought the Stooges' humor wasn't funny. Case closed against DeRita...but even if he hadn't said that, these shorts and his latter-day stint with Moe and Larry showcase a performer who seems alarmingly unfunny. In Slappily Married, DeRita is put through some standard "kitchen nightmare" sight gags that should be foolproof for anyone...but he blows them with flat ad-libbed patter and a glum, grumpy demeanor that deflates any potential joy in the slapstick. If, as it's been suggested, DeRita was ticked-off that he had to imitate Curly or that he was angry when fans openly expressed their preferences for Curly or even Shemp over him...tough. A real comedian would have used that situation to try and stand out in his own way (give credit here to Besser). DeRita, however, is no comedian. A dreary way to finish out the fun The Three Stooges: Rare Treasures from the Columbia Pictures Vault collection.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.