Three Jews are in a room screaming at one another, poking each other in the eyes, hitting each other on the head with objects ranging from frying pans to anvils. It’s either a meeting of the synagogue’s board of trustees or a Three Stooges film festival. Fortunately, this time, it’s the latter, a quick but lethal — and lethally funny — display of Stoogehood by the American Cinematheque as part of its year-end festivities from Dec. 28-Dec.30.
Why the Stooges? Well this is the 70th anniversary of the inestimable trio’s signing by Columbia Pictures, the momentous contract that locked them into the comfortable prison block of the short-films unit at the studio. (Given that the Stooges started with the “Lady With the Lamp” in 1934 and released their first short for Columbia, “Woman Haters,” that year, logic would seem to dictate that this is the 71st anniversary, but logic seldom came onto the horizon where the Stooges are concerned.)
The Stooges would toil long and hard making films that ranged from 15 minutes to the much rarer expansiveness of 20 minutes. By the time the boys had reached the pinnacle of the industry, Jerome and Samuel Howard (better know as Curly and Shemp) had been dead several years, and Moe Howard (ne Horwitz) and Larry Fine (ne Feinberg) were well past their prime. Adding Joe Besser and Joe DeRita (a.k.a. Curly Joe) in succession as third Stooges did nothing to help, and the scripts that the boys were saddled with can best be judged by a trip to Cinematheque for “The Three Stooges Meet Hercules,” a woeful 1962 extravaganza that suffers from too little money, too few gags and too much running time.
The Stooges shorts are sharp, savage, funny and, yes, vulgar. The comedy short never lent itself to great sophistication. When geniuses like Keaton and Chaplin wanted to explore more complex modes of moviemaking and richer thematic relationships, they moved into features.
The Stooges were never so fortunate, but the best of their shorts, like “You Nazty Spy!” is pointed in its satire of Hitler (here played by the oldest Howard brother as Moe Hailstone of Moronica), and goes for his jugular with a gusto that prestige features of the time didn’t dare. Were the Stooges comic geniuses? No, but they had the sterling comic timing of the professional funnyman, hard-won in a thousand tank towns on the vaudeville circuit, and that is more than enough.
The American Cinematheque is showing the Three Stooges in “You Nazty Spy!” before the screening of “The Cocoanuts” on Wednesday,Dec. 28 at 7:30 p.m.; “The Three Stooges Meet Hercules,” preceded by “We Want Our Mummy” will be shown the following night at 7:30 p.m. Finally, on Friday, Dec. 30 at 7:30 p.m., the Cinematheque comemorates “The Three Stooges’ 70th Anniversary with a program of six of their best shorts, “Men in Black,” which merited their only Oscar nominee for best live-action short “Horses’ Collars.” “From Nurse To Worse,” “Squareheads Of The Round Table,” “An Ache in Every Stake” and “In the Sweet Pie and Pie,” which concludes with of the greatest pie-fight sequences ever perpetrated. All programs will be shown at the Aero Theater (1328 Montana Ave. at 14th Street) in Santa Monica. For more information visit http://www.americancinematheque.com/Aero/tickets.htm’Tickets.
George Robinson is film and music critic for Jewish Week. His book, “Essential Torah,” will be published by Shocken Books in fall 2006.