Monday, April 23, 2012

Movie Monday: The Three Stooges

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This week's Movie Monday selection is The Three Stooges!

No, not the brand new Farrelly Brothers movie, and not any of the classic shorts from the Golden Age of Hollywood. We're talking the about the 2000 TV movie (produced by Mel Gibson!) that purports to tell the true story of Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp, and How They Came To Be.

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The Three Stooges opens in 1959, inside the home of Moe Howard, played by Paul Ben-Victor (Entourage), as he sets off on his job...as a delivery man. While dropping off some food, he overhears one of the old Stooges shorts playing in a theater for some studio execs, who are laughing uproariously:
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One of the younger execs notices that Moe Howard--Moe--is sitting right next to him! We follows Moe out, asking if he is who he thinks he is. Moe brushes him off, denying who he is, and goes about his business.

Moe makes his sandwich delivery to another exec, and inquires why the old Stooges shorts are being played again. The indifferent exec tells him that the Fox Studio is considering selling the shorts to TV for a pretty penny. Unfortunately, due to a lousy contract signed years ago, Moe or any of the other Stooges won't see any money from this bonanza. Moe dejectedly returns home.

It's here that the film flashes back to 1929, and we see the Stooges' early days, as the comedic back-up to vaudeville performer Ted Healy. While Healy is the main attraction, it's the Stooges who get all the laughs, and Healy is cruel on stage to his co-stars and cheap with them off. Shemp Howard (John Kassir, Tales From The Crypt) is the most upset over Healy's treatment of them, but Moe tries to keep his brother in line, for the sake of the act.

Soon after, they all stumble on the act of another comedian, Larry Fine (Evan Handler, Sex and the City), who is doing a slightly more risque bit involving a beautiful girl. They ask Larry to join, which he does with zeal--when asked if he'll part with the violin he plays on stage, he responds by smashing it to bits.

Healy and the Stooges get an offer to come to Los Angeles and make shorts for for a movie studio, and they all head off to California. Unfortunately, Healy's penchant for cruelty and drinking too much causes more trouble between him and the Stooges, so when a movie exec offers Moe a contract just for the Stooges, they accept--only to have Healy threaten the Stooges' lives! He promises they'll never work in Hollywood, and makes good on his threat--soon the studio calls and cancels the offer.

Moe decided to take the act back to vaudeville, but under bomb threats(!) from Healy toward any theater that will book them on the East Coast, the Stooges decide to travel the country. Unfortunately, Shemp's nerves simply can't take the stress, and he quits the act. Larry wonders if they're finished, but Moe promises, "I haven't run out of brothers yet":
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Despite the protests of their parents, Curly (Michael Chiklis) joins the act, and his childlike energy rejuvenates the act. When Columbia executive Harry Cohn sees the Stooges perform at a club, he is so impressed he offers them a contract to make movies for him--and the rest is history.

At this point, The Three Stooges does a good job recreating the manic energy of the boys--Handler's Fine has that slight hangdog feel, and Chiklis is particularly good as Curly. We see recreations of some of the Stooges' shorts, and their rise to fame, but the details the movie provides that are really valuable is what happened backstage and after---how Cohn tricked the Stooges into a lousy contract, literally shielding them from knowing how popular they were, how much money they were generating, and glossing over the little fact that the Stooges would not have any share in the profits.

Years pass, and while the Stooges continue to perform, small fissures between the boys begin to develop. Larry and Curly spend their money with little thought of the future, with Moe having to look out for both of them, financially and emotionally. There's a painful scene where Curly, coming back to a hotel drunk, gets punched by a fan who enjoys their physical antics, not realizing it actually hurts.

While shooting one of the shorts, Curly has a stroke. While emotionally devastated, Moe soldiers on with the act, bringing Shemp back into the fold. Curly continues to deteriorate, eventually passing away. Sadly, Shemp dies just a few years later, necessitating the addition of a new Stooge, Joe Besser, who is portrayed here as fussy and not a good fit (he's even unwilling to take a piece in the face!). Besser is soon replaced by "Curly Joe" DeRita, who is much better selection, working perfectly with with Moe and Larry.


We flash back to 1959, and the young exec--who has been continually chasing after Moe--shows him some startling news: the Stooges shorts have been sold to TV, for a fortune:
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Moe is enraged at Columbia's greed, leaving the Stooges out in the cold financially. After much persistence, he accepts an offer to regroup The Three Stooges for a live appearance. He's not expecting much, since he's convinced that no one remembers them. On the way to the event, even the young exec (who works in the still-new TV division) reveals his nervousness, telling Moe's wife in secret that the shorts just started airing on TV, so he has no idea if anyone will even bother to show up.

But when the Stooges step on stage, they are treated like heroes by a packed house:

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Realizing for the first time just how popular they were and continue to be, the Stooges undergo a career resurgence. The End.
 

I remember watching The Three Stooges when it first aired, and I don't mind admitting that I got just a tad bit misty-eyed at this final scene, where Moe and Larry finally get some due for all their years of hard work. I grew up watching the Stooges, and knowing they were treated so poorly while making those classic shorts saddens me. Knowing they managed to have a "second act", which had them starring in movies, makes all the bad stuff a little easier to swallow.

The movie tells us what happened to the Stooges at the end of their lives, like how Larry died in 1972 with Moe following shortly thereafter. It understandably glosses over the detail that, even after Larry's death, Moe tried to continue the act, with longtime foil Emil Sitka filling in:
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This photo just makes me sad.

On the plus side, a detail the movie gets wrong is presenting Moe as financially struggling in his later years. In truth, Moe was superb at handling money, always saving and investing, so much so that when he was always able to bail out Larry, who continued his reckless ways. So while the above photo might look like the act of a desperate man, its good to know that Moe was doing this mostly because he just loved being a Stooge, as opposed to being forced to due to finances.

The Three Stooges is a bit generic, with some of the performances a little broad (Harry Cohn talks like a gangster--but who knows, maybe he really did) and some of the historical moments a bit too pat. But overall I enjoyed it, and its a, er, fine tribute to these comedy legends.

I haven't seen the new Three Stooges movie, and I'm not sure I'll bother, since I don't think I'm up for a "straight" Stooges story. When it was first mentioned that the Farrellys were going after Benicio Del Toro, Sean Penn, and Jim Carrey (to play Moe, Larry, and Curly, respectively) I assumed it was going to be for a real-life bio-pic, a sort of big budget version of this film.

I guess that's not to be, so as it stands The Three Stooges works pretty well as the only time this particular story will be told. If you're a Stooges fan, its worth searching out. Nyuk! Nyuk!

 

5 comments:

Glenn Walker said...

I loved the 2000 telemovie, Rob, thank you for reviewing this and bringing back such great memories. I'm going to have to hunt this down to own.

The new Farrelly flick is not bad, I actually laughed out loud several times, it's very funny. Not the -real- Stooges, but still very funny.

rob! said...

Thx for the comment Glenn!

I do wish that the Stooges could get a big budget bio-pic (if Steve Prefontaine can get TWO...), but if this is all that's ever one I guess it's not too bad. The final scene is still very touching to me, since the Stooges seem like genuine nice guys.

Imagine if they were alive today--they'd be MOBBED at conventions and on social media. Moe's FB page alone would have, like, a billions fans!

bribabylk said...

Ha ha, fooled me! Great review, though. I've always felt ambivalent about the Stooges, but this made me care.

I'm reminded of the "Seinfeld" episode, "The Trip", when Kramer goes to Hollywood and meets a lady, played by Elmarie Wendell in Bette Davis "Baby Jane" drag, who likes to reminisce about her long since past acting career; you find out that the only role she ever had was in a Three Stooges short, in which the boys are looking for a missing baby, but when they find it, it's dead. Inexplicably, the short never aired. (Elmarie Wendell herself actually has had a somewhat more prolific career, having played "Mrs. Dubcek" on "Third Rock From the Sun" for five years.)

JBS

Robert M. Lindsey said...

"There's a painful scene...not realizing it actually hurts." Did you mean to do this? It's great either way.

rob! said...

JBS--Yikes!

Robert--No, it was accidental, I promise. I'm just that brilliant.