(ed. note: Sometimes I get tired of writing about beer and allow myself to indulge in trying something else. I assure you, we’ll be back to beer at some point in the very near future.)
When I saw the commercial during the superbowl for a Three Stooges movie, I was skeptical. Of all the comedy styles that were generated on the vaudeville circuit, slapstick has probably aged the worst. The sort of snappy patter and absurdity that the Marx Brothers cultivated have always transferred relatively well from their act. Even the song and dance comedy of the Ritz Brothers still has a place in popular culture, usually as a third act of a sitcom. Slapstick has long since been relegated to cartoons, wrestling matches and America’s Funniest Home Videos.
I think that this is partially because it provokes a binary response in people. You either love or hate slapstick comedy. I’m sure there are people who hate it when pie fights appear in a movie. The pie fight doesn’t really accomplish much of anything. It’s a bit of comedy business, regardless of whether it’s Larry Fine in a Stooges short getting a pie in his face or Harvey Korman faking his way out of one in Blazing Saddles. I guess the ultimate possible payoff of a pie fight is that some stuffed shirt gets taken down a peg momentarily.
At its more extreme end, Slapstick is obviously unrealistic. If Bugs Bunny does a high dive off a tower into a glass of water, you can suspend your disbelief because it’s cartoon. If you see Moe Howard poke someone in the eye several times over the course of a sixteen minute short, it’s hard not to wince and wonder about detached retinas. The total lack of realism puts people off. No one is going to survive a sledgehammer blow to the head.
It’s more or less impossible to consider the Three Stooges as art. You can’t claim, like you might be able to with the Marx Brothers, that the characters are some kind of representation of Freud’s Id, Ego and Super-Ego. The Three Stooges are pure Id. They run amok in pursuit of their goals, intellectually unequipped to deal with the world around them. Their appeal is their indestructible nature and their persistence, whether they’re trying to win a brewery’s golf tournament or fix someone’s plumbing. The punchline is never more elaborate than someone experiencing some kind of pain or humiliation or embarrassment.
As punchlines go, it’s a classic. Man falls down, goes boom is a perennial schtick that transcends cultures. You may be the most compassionate person in the world, but a man stepping on a rake or getting a football in the groin is probably still going to provoke a visceral reaction.
Imagine how hard it must have been to be a Stooge.
Picture being in a performing troupe in the dying days of Vaudeville. They were on the Vaudeville circuit for nine years before they started making short films for Columbia. They were on a dying entertainment circuit during the first five years of the Great Depression, while film was really coming into its own as an inexpensive night out.
By the time they started making shorts, the lineup was Larry, Curly and Moe. They signed to make 8 pictures a year for Columbia, and they did this in 40 weeks a year. They got 600 bucks a week to do that. I can practically guarantee you that they were working injured. Props don’t always give way and for a lot of the stunts they went through, there were no crash mats. Even trained stuntmen suffer bruises and concussions and broken bones with protective equipment. Larry developed a callus on his face from years of being slapped. Curly had a number of strokes and people speculate whether they were caused by brain damage.
Moe was born in 1897. By the time they started making shorts in 1934, he was in his late 30’s. He continued making appearances in various Three Stooges lineups until 1970. At one point he was a 73 year old man making a living by slapping people and calling them lamebrains! This is what happens if you’re in a specialized career path.
By the time Curly Joe was a stooge, everyone had aged visibly and you got the sense that they were doing this because they had to; because they hadn’t saved any of their money. Those shorts are painful to watch because they feel like gratuitous if understandable cash-ins.
Actually, a lot of the shorts are painful to watch. Much of the writing was bad, and it’s not necessarily the fault of the writers. You try coming up with 196 plots where three people who are inexplicably bound together are hired to perform some function. The plots are really only there are as pretext for the schtick. There’s a reason they did shorts. The writing would never have stood up to a longer format. Try watching 1961’s The Three Stooges Meet Hercules if you want to be angry with yourself for having wasted an afternoon.
The things that are memorable are the mannerisms and the schtick: Shots to the gut paired with a timpani beat. Insults and hair pulls and eye gouges and running in circles on the floor. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk. Woo, woo, woo, woo, woo.
The Farrelly Brothers used a light touch on the new film, and the number of new ideas it presents total none. They had over a hundred hours of source material to borrow from. They stole the best bits from the entire career of The Three Stooges. The casting is great. The writing and editing are better than anything the original stooges had to work with. Working with any kind of budget at all helped tremendously.
It’s about as respectful of the source material as it could possibly be. It even takes its visual cues from it. There’s a scene early in the movie where the stooges are being dragged along behind a truck. In a modern comedy, we would get the shot for two seconds and move on. In this movie, the shot remains static and the timing of the stooges being dragged along is closer to where it would have been in the 1930’s. There are moments during particularly violent bits where the stooges are clearly dummies, which is a nice visual homage. There are even stop motion frames in the same kind of situations where they would have existed in the original shorts.
It’s an homage, but I think it’s better than any of the original material. The essence of the characters is completely retained, but it’s helped by the fact that in this incarnation they’re young. It was no fun watching three fifty year old men knock each other around with a two by four for a paycheck. Here, that’s not an issue. The movie is an amalgamation of all the good things you remember about the Three Stooges, without any of the baggage.
It does one other important thing. It acts as a sort of nature preserve for slapstick comedy. I don’t know that slapstick will ever again be a major staple of movie comedy, but this attempt is a reminder that at one point it existed contemporaneously with other forms.