The Three Stooges put the slap in slapstick.
For over 30 years in shorts and films, the Stooges poked, pummeled, slipped and slid into moviegoers’ hearts. The Farrelly brothers even tried to re-create their magic of mayhem this year in the comedy “The Three Stooges” with uneven success.
Arguments persist over whether the Stooge comedies starring Moe Howard, Larry Fine and the beloved Jerome “Curly” Howard were the funniest or if the later comedies with Moe and Curly’s oldest brother Shemp — he took over in 1946 after Curly suffered a stroke — had the most guffaws.
Both Curly and Shemp are a part of the Alex Film Society’s “Three Stooges Big Screen Event,” which takes place Saturday at the venerable old Alex Theatre in Glendale. It’s the 15th annual Three Stooges post-Thanksgiving extravaganza at the site, and in most years the matinee and evening screenings are sellouts.
This year’s theme is “Stooges — Location, Location, Locations!” Stooges expert Jim Pauley, the author of the new “The Three Stooges — Hollywood Filming Locations,” will be on hand to sign copies of his book. Pauley noted that before each Stooges short there will be a brief presentation of what audiences can expect to see in reference to outdoor film locations.
In fact, one of the five shorts screening in 35mm prints is 1936’s “Movie Maniacs,” which has a connection to Glendale. “You see a steam locomotive pull into what was then and still now is the Glendale train station,” said Pauley.
Besides “Movie Maniacs,” the lineup this year includes three more Curlys — 1941’s “An Ache in Every Stake,” 1935’s “Pop Goes the Easel” 1934’s “Three Little Pigskins” — and a Shemp short, 1951’s “Merry Mavericks.”
The first Stooges event began as a one-time event because the Alex Film Society was able to get the theater the Saturday after Turkey Day. It was so successful that a tradition was born, according to Frank Gladstone of the Alex Film Society, who started the event.
Gladstone said they initially thought the event would appeal mainly to men and boys because males tend to enjoy the act’s rugged slapstick. “The Stooges are an acquired taste,” he acknowledged. “But we have discovered that there are a fair amount of women in the audience. There are a lot of people who like the Stooges across any generation or gender lines.”
Audiences are discovering that the boys are more than just eye pokes — their 1934 Columbia short “Men in Black” earned an Oscar nomination for comedy short. They had honed their craft for years in vaudeville and even Broadway and were masters of “timing and staging,” said Gladstone.
“They were very careful about their gags. Their timing and staging were done carefully so the laughs would be the best laughs you could get.”
The Stooges made 190 shorts at Columbia between 1934 and 1958, when the studio closed down its short-subject division.
“They never got a raise in all of their years at Columbia,” said film historian/archivist Stan Taffel. “But what Moe was able to achieve was he got a contract that allowed them to make personal appearances. They made far more money doing personal appearances than they did making films.”
But by the time they ended with Columbia, they were more popular than ever because the studio had sold packages of their films to television. And that’s when the Curly versus Shemp argument was born.
The first shorts released on TV featured Curly, and kids who were discovering the group for the first time went head over heels for his character — the frenetic “patsy” with the high-pitched voice that uttered such nonsensical sounds as “woob woob woob” and “nyuk nyuk nyuk.”
But when Columbia sold the Shemp shorts to television, kids didn’t respond to his less antic personality. “It was like watching a TV show and then all of a sudden, a main character is replaced,” said Taffel.
“He was the more polished comedian,” said Gladstone of Shemp. “But Curly was more of a natural … he had all of this energy.”
“Shemp got a bad rap just because he wasn’t Curly,” said Taffel. “But in actuality, if you watch Shemp shorts, you are watching every bit of a comic genius.”