The Three Stooges: When Slapstick Meets Sentiment

The comedy trio of Hollywood's Golden Age might have been coarse, brutal and mildly sociopathic, but those Stooges were worlds smarter than these wan ones

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Everett Collection

In 1954, the sociologist Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, his argument that horror comic books were corrupting America’s youth. Widely read by troubled parents — and by their kids, because of the lurid panels of disfigurement and dismemberment Wertham used to illustrate his thesis — the book served as a form of literary McCarthyism that defiled the robust artistry of a significant form of mid-century popular culture. (Translation: I was a kid then, I loved those comics, and I somehow survived them.)

A more suitable case for study in the 1950s would have been the seismic influence of The Three Stooges on the juvenile delinquency that flourished at the time. It cannot have been mere chance that the airing of the Stooges’ old short films on local TV stations coincided with a rise in sadist-destructive impulses among young males: underage crime, flagrant disrespect for adults and the poking of classmates’ eyes accompanied by the teen-terrorist mantra, “Nyuk nyuk.” Exposure at an impressionable age to the face-slapping, hair-pulling antics of the prime Stooge trio — Moe Howard, his brother Curly (Jerome) and their partner Larry Fine — surely sowed seeds for a generation that, a few years later, tried to reap anarchy in America. (Translation: I didn’t think the Stooges shorts were funny; and what doesn’t make me laugh makes me angry.)

(READ: The Glory and Horror of EC Comics)

Hyperbole aside, it’s no exaggeration to say that some of the boys weaned on the Stooges grew up to make roundhouse movies that put a premium on pain as a tool of comedy. What are Animal House, Porky’s, American Pie and half of the Judd Apatow canon if not repositories to the infantile male hostilities on display in the Cinema of Stooge? Now, in the nakedest homage yet, Peter and Bobby Farrelly, the Rhode Island siblings who used to own a near-monopoly on rude movie humor (Dumb & Dumber, There’s Something About Mary), have perpetrated a feature-length tribute to the short-film trio and called it, with ardor overwhelming ingenuity, The Three Stooges.

In their day, Moe, Larry and Curly (joined by Moe and Curly’s brother Shemp in 1946 after Curly suffered a stroke) were among the least celebrated of comedy teams. Critics loved the Marx Brothers, tolerated the Ritz Brothers and ignored or scorned the Stooges. In 1937 a critic in the Motion Picture Herald divided movie audiences into two groups: “one composed of persons who laugh at The Three Stooges and the other made up of those who wonder why.” Even Leonard Maltin, the B-movie historian and trash-comedy enthusiast, opens his Stooges chapter in the book Movie Comedy Teams with the mildest of encomiums: he pegs the trio as “talented, experienced comedians who deserve recognition, if only for longevity.”

(MORE: Rare Behind-the-Scenes Photos of The Three Stooges)

Give them credit for sticking around. Like the most reliable workers at the Pink Slime factory, these veteran vaudevillians ground out about eight two-reelers a year at Columbia Pictures for a quarter century, from 1934 to 1958, and didn’t graduate to feature-film stardom until Columbia closed its short-films department. In their productivity, rigid format and emphasis on violent comedy, the Stooge shorts might be compared to the Warner Bros. cartoons of the same period — except that animation directors Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones often turned mayhem into masterpieces, while the Stooges’ psychopathy steered clear of ambition and artistry.

(READ: Corliss’s tribute to Chuck Jones and the Warner Bros, cartoons)

Almost always, the plots plopped Moe (with the bowl haircut and shortest fuse), Larry (a dim bulb sporting Einstein’s frantic coiffure) and Curly (a smart physical comedian with a buzz cut) into some bastion of propriety to raise wholly hell. Some of their better early films have them invading an art class in Pop Goes the Easel, a society party in Ants in the Pantry, where they drop rodents down the dresses of the debs, and a hospital in their one Oscar-nominated short, Men in Black. (These can be found on the DVD The Three Stooges Collection, Vol. 1, 1934-1936.)

Occasionally the set pieces are as sharp as the Stooges are dumb, thanks to the rough craftsmanship of directors Del Lord and Charley Chase and writers Felix Adler and Clyde Bruckman — a famous gagman for three decades, and co-director of Buster Keaton’s immortal silent comedy The General. (After writing his final Stooges short in 1955, Bruckman borrowed a pistol from Keaton and blew his brains out.)

(READ: Corliss’s tribute to Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle)

Rarely interrupted by the musical numbers that gave audience a gentle pause amid the chaos of Marx Brothers movies, the Stooges shorts raced from one indignity to another — often visited on stuffed shirts, more frequently on themselves. Nor did the films bother with romantic subplots, a must in feature-length comedies of the time. Stooges pictures had no heart; they only had time for the pain. And the punishment was quickly inflicted, instantly forgotten, immediately repeated. When Moe would gouge Curly’s eyes, or Larry answer a slap with a harder smack, nobody ran for shelter or skulked away. The Stooges were the movies’ form of commedia dell-arte puppets, with no feelings to hurt.

You have noticed that my recent viewing of a few dozen Stooges shorts has slightly mellowed my old antagonism — just in time to see the Farrellys’ feature as an unworthy tribute. Written a decade ago, the project was originally envisioned for an all-star cast: Benicio Del Toro (or Hank Azaria or Johnny Knoxville) as Moe, Sean Penn (or Andy Samberg) as Larry and Jim Carrey as Curly. That plan never bloomed, and the brothers wound up with Sean Hayes (flamboyantly gay Jack on Will & Grace) in the Larry role and the much-lesser-known Chris Diamantopoulos (Frank Sinatra on the miniseries The Kennedys) as Moe and Will Sasso (who looks like a jollier James Gandolfini and impersonated him in Sopranos spoofs on MAD TV) as Curly. The movie’s audience should be divided between those who would like to have seen the Del Toro-Penn-Carrey version and those who wonder why the Farrellys bothered to make this one.

(READ: A Brief History of Slapstick Humor)

Set mostly in the present day, and photographed in blinding color instead of the crisp black-and-white of the shorts, The Three Stooges is broken into three “episodes” of about 27 minute each. (An actual Stooges film ran 15 to 20 minutes.) It begins a quarter century ago at the Sisters of Mercy Orphanage — “founded 1934” — run by a chipper Mother Superior (Jane Lynch), with the strict Sister Mary-Mengele (Larry David, of Curb Your Enthusiasm, in immaculate drag) as Prefect of Discipline. Young Curly (Robert Capron), Larry (Lance Chantiles-Wertz) and Moe (Skyler Gisondo) already suffer from criminal-comic dementia. But when Moe is improbably adopted, he refuses to join his new family unless the other two can come along, which gets him a return ticket to the orphanage. Flash-forward to the present day, as the orphanage faces closing due to $830,000 in unpaid medical bills incurred by the trio. The grown-up but still arrested-development Stooges resolve to leave home, raise the money and save the Sisters.

Already, we’re deep into the sort of sappy sentiment the original Stooges would have butt-kicked off the screen. Theirs was a ruthless Cinema of Cruelty; this is whimsy with a coating of corrosion. Stumbling into the scheme of a sexy predatress (Sofia Vergara) who is using her boyfriend (Craig Bierko) to kill off her rich husband (Kirby Heyborne), the Stooges are goofs with soft spots, and not just in their heads. In the Christian sense, they’re fools for Christ: virtually every bit of violence they cause is for the greater good of bailing out the nuns and their adorable charges.

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A couple of decent set pieces — one inflicting severe vehicular pain on the boyfriend, other using hot irons as defibrillators on a cop’s chest — are the most distant approximations of gags from early Stooge shorts. Guest shots from the famous (Dreamgirls’ Jennifer Hudson as a singing nun), the infamous (the cast of Jersey Shore) and the libidinous (Sports Illustrated swimsuit icon Kate Upton as a nun who finally gets out of the habit) can’t save the movie from its deficiency in star quality. Indeed, the purpose of the entire enterprise seems to demonstrate the superiority of slapstick sadism from 75 years ago to the wan attempts at PG-rated roughhouse today.

Can somebody please fund a study on the debilitating effects of the worst modern comedies on the collective sense of humor of today’s youth? I’d guess that the Farrellys and their comedy kin are committing a true seduction of the innocent. (Translation: The original trio was worlds funnier than this, or these, Three Stooges.)