Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Three Stooges: Movie and DVD Review

The Three Stooges
I grew up watching The Three Stooges. Thanks to rabbit ears and a TV antenna, which did not limit me to the number of channel choices our local cable provider offers, I was able to pick up channel 17 or 29 from Philadelphia and tune in each week to watch three classic comedies. It wasn't until I was about twelve when I read an interview with Emil Sitka in Filmfax, that the shorts were originally created as fillers for Columbia motion-pictures and not for television broadcasts. (Hey, I was 12 at the time. I know better now.) 

The Three Stooges were not the only comedy shorts being produced by Columbia Pictures. Vera Vague, Hugh Herbert, Charley Chase and many others were filmed on rotation. But it is The Three Stooges that seemed to have remained popular over the years. Which makes me question whether or not Charley Chase and Hugh Herbert would be as popular among the mainstream market as The Three Stooges had the studio over the last few decades actually marketed their entire comedy lineup. Imagine what the studio would have accomplished had they released three shorts for every hour-long block with the middle comedy from one of the other comedians...

Anyone for a round of golf?
Just this past year I was privileged to be among a handful of people to watch Surprise, Surprise! (1937), a Columbia comedy short shot in color with Moe, Larry and Curly. It was screened at the 32nd Annual Cinefest Film Festival. It was, briefly, a comedy short specifically designed to promote Farina breakfast cereal, manufactured by Pillsbury. The theater audience was reminded to pick up two boxes of the fluffy stuff on the way back home and their purchase would qualify them to acquire a toy movie viewer. Pillsbury and Columbia put a lot of work into the short and The Three Stooges certainly do not appear as to have just walked off one set in costume and began filming another. Pillsbury, in 1937, even promoted the toy movie viewer in newspapers, store displays and during the commercials of Today's Children, a radio program Pillsbury was sponsoring at the time. This comedy short has rarely been mentioned or listed in Stooge filmographies or reference books, hence the rarity of the short. Until recently, it was thought that the short was not known to exist and was "lost."

Curly Howard, Moe Howard and Larry Fine
Fans of the shorts believe the comedy went by the wayside when Shemp Howard came into the pictures, but in fairness, the Shemp shorts are funny. Moe, Larry and Curly had just as much chemistry as Moe, Larry and Shemp. But one has to remember that The Three Stooges were created during the height of the Depression. You can tell by watching the first half dozen shorts that they were unable to figure out how to create the comedies. In "Women Haters," the boys are doing their schtick in rhyme. In "Men in Black," they were attempting to be as zany as the Marx Bros. Eventually they discovered a formula that worked with Laurel and Hardy and the Our Gang comedies: become victims of the Depression and routinely create disaster for the wealthy, upper class. This is why The Three Stooges are painters, plumbers, milk men, ice men, garbage men, pest exterminators, and so on. The upper class laughed at the "stooges" on the screen and the lower class laughed at how they messed up the rich woman's plumbing or crashed a wedding party with a cake fight. It was a formula that steered off in another direction by the time Curly was making his departure and Shemp was entering the picture. Now they were the owners of a respectable tailor shop and knights attempting to rescue a princess. The formula worked best when they were Depression-era stooges.

When I was a kid, I enjoyed the slapstick. As an adult, I now enjoy the one-liners. When the Stooges enter a mansion owned by a wealthy industrialist, Moe remarks, "Just look at the joint!" And Larry adds, "Kind of reminds me of reform school." When the Stooges were doctors and asked, "What did you do for the patient in room 234?" Moe remarks, "Nothing. What did he ever do for us?" This I find funny.

The Chronological Series -- a must have!
On the plus side, from 2007 to 2009, Sony Entertainment released all of The Three Stooges comedy shorts on DVD, in chronological order. Prior to their recent release, Columbia put them out on DVD with three shorts on each disc, sometimes offering the option of colorized versions instead of black and white. The Columbia releases were not in chronological order and worse, the prints they offered were no different than the versions screened on television over the past few decades (and still are on AMC). The chronological versions released through Sony offer about 24 comedy shorts in each volume. Do your math: the price is a bargain compared to the former versions. And the best thing about the chronological releases is they are re-mastered from the archival 35mm masters. Which means they are not uncut (not cut like the TV airings). War bond promos are back on the shorts during the war years, anti-Japanese and anti-German references are not edited out. The picture quality is sharp and crisp. It doesn't get any better than this....

So you can imagine my surprise when, as a fan of The Three Stooges, the Farrelly Brothers finally managed to get their big screen adaptation up on the big screen. For more than a decade, the Farrelly Brothers attempted to revive the classic shorts in a motion-picture. At one time Sean Penn was interested in playing Larry, alongside Jim Carrey as Curly and Benicio del Toro as Moe. Warner Bros., MGM and Columbia were interested at one time, but it was 20th Century Fox that finally helped bring their project to fruition. And having just watched the film this past Tuesday, I can report that the movie was worth the high expectations and long wait.

The Three Stooges (2012 movie)
My wife and I were laughing and found the movie very funny. But in fairness, after more than a decade and assuming the Farrelly Brothers tweaked the script over the years with more added humor and one-liners, the film could have been funnier. But it works on many levels... especially placing three Depression-era characters into a modern-day setting. Curly is looking into an "eye" phone was a hoot. The slapstick was hilarious and when Curly attempts to give the Heimlich maneuver to a dolphin (you have to see it to believe it), the results are laugh out loud funny. Sure, Larry sings like an opera star when Moe throws a lobster in his pants... Moe makes a cameo on The Jersey Shore. But if you are going to modernize something from the 1930s and 1940s, you have to take some liberties. And for that, we can forgive the Farrelly Brothers. After all, these are the same guys who practically invented the R rated comedy.

The Three Stooges Movie Poster
What might not be the buzz on the internet these days was certainly discussed many times at the Cincinnati convention last weekend. No one wanted to see The Three Stooges on the big screen until they heard a report from someone verifying there were no poop or sex jokes. I am happy to report that the movie has a PG rating and if you can get past the first ten minutes (which is silly and ridiculous), the movie is just as funny as the original shorts.

Not a spolier: I enjoyed the little touches such as the orphanage "established in 1934," which was the first year The Three Stooges came into being at Columbia.

The movie did not flop. It earned $17.1 million during the opening weekend. “This was the hardest movie to cast,” explained Peter Farrelly. “Big-name actors would say, ‘I’ll be doing a version of Larry,’ or, ‘It’ll be my take on Moe.’ And we wanted to be very specific about what the Stooges did. It had to be faithful." And thankfully, the movie strikes the right chord. The Hunger Games was losing momentum and it was still number one for the fourth weekend in a row. The Three Stooges should have done a lot better. But movie studios look at the bottom line, not the lines outside theaters. If you want to send a message to Hollywood (especially Warners, MGM and Columbia), go buy a ticket this weekend and enjoy the movie.