In 1932, Jerome Howard (soon to be universally known as “Curly”) joined The Three Stooges comedy team. He was replacing his older brother, Shemp, as the third Stooge, joining his older brother Moe and frizzly haired Larry Fine.
In 1934, the team signed with Columbia Pictures and began churning out the series of comedy slapstick shorts that brought hilarity to the world. Within a year, Curly had established himself as the comedy star of the act. His “woo-woo”s and “n’yuk nyuk”s, as well as his incredible gift for physical, inventive, surreal comedy, made Curly Howard everyone’s favorite Stooge.
From 1934 to 1944, Curly Howard and the other Stooges made 80-odd of the funniest shorts in the history of movie comedy, but by 1945 something was obviously wrong with the brilliant Curly.
Although he was always a bad study, he was having a harder time than usual learning and remember his lines, his once graceful and quick movements now seemed slower and more lethargic, and his voice had lost its high-pitched vitality, now sounding deeper and more like a strained croak.
In early 1945, Moe Howard made an appointment for his kid brother at the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital. The test results proved shocking: Curly was suffering from high blood pressure, hypertension, a retinal hemorrhage, and obesity.
Curly loved the good life—drinking, hanging out at clubs, seeing and dating as many beautiful women as possible. Moe, attempting to help his beloved brother settle down, tried to fix Curly up with a glamorous beauty named Marion Buxbaum. Always a sucker for a pretty face, Curly married Marion after only two weeks. Curly was soon to discover that Marion was not a very nice person and was only after his money. The marriage proved a disaster, and the unhappy couple divorced after only three months together. In the terrible divorce proceedings, Marion said of Curly: “He used filthy, vile language, kept two vicious dogs, he shouted at waiters in cafes, struck and kicked me, put out cigars in the sink.” These specious accusations were disputed by all who knew Curly as a jovial, good-natured, good-hearted fellow. Curly, always a free spender, had spent a fortune buying gifts for Marion, and the divorce really shook him up. He had his first stroke soon thereafter, in early 1946.
Curly’s great vigor and boyish vitality, his comedy trademarks, sank lower and lower. Instead of enabling Curly to rest after his stroke, as Moe requested, studio head Harry Cohn kept Curly churning out new Three Stooges shorts. Sadly, these final Curly shorts show him looking very old and worn, his previously starring roles greatly reduced, and, indeed, they put a bit of a black mark on his body of otherwise amazing comedy performances. Curly’s appearance grew worse until finally, while filming his 97th Three Stooges short, “Half Wit’s Holiday,” on May 6, 1946, the straw finally broke the camel’s back. Curly was supposed to participate in the film’s final, climactic pie fight, but Moe spotted Curly sitting in his chair on the set. “Come on, Babe,” he said. (“Babe” was Curly’s nickname among his close friends.) Moe found Curly slumped over in his chair with tears running down his face; Curly had suffered another stroke. He was taken to recover to the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital, his career as a Stooge now effectively over. He was replaced in the act by older brother Shemp.
Curly finally got a happy break in 1947, when he met an attractive brunette named Valerie Newman. The two fell in love and married on July 31, 1947. Valerie was to bear Curly a daughter, Janie, the following year. She truly loved Curly and stuck by his side, through his constant downhill ride over the next few years, feeding and even bathing him as his health continued its slow deterioration in the late 1940s.
RETURN TO THE STOOGES
After his second stroke, Curly was confined to a wheelchair, but soon recovered enough to move around himself.In the days of Curly’s slightly improved health, he made a cameo appearance in a Three Stooges short (with his replacement, Shemp) called “Hold That Lion!” Moe, knowing Curly was frail, made sure the set was cleared of all but the absolutely necessary actors and technicians, in order to take any pressure off his brother. Curly, a brilliant comedian to the end, acquits himself quite well in his brief appearance, coming across as very funny, even doing his trademark “woo-woo-woo” sound effects. This brief cameo was to be the only recorded instance of the three Howard brothers—Moe, Curly, and Shemp—appearing together on film. (At left, a photo of all four in “Hold That Lion!”)
In the post-stroke days, Curly loved playing gin rummy, watching the Hollywood Stars (a local baseball team), and going to the fights at the Hollywood Legion. He and Valerie had a swimming pool built in their home, hoping Curly could use it for physical therapy. (Curly had always loved swimming.) Crazy about dogs, he enjoyed playing with his beloved pets, a collie named “Lady” and two other canines named “Salty” and “Shorty.” He watched the new device, “television,” and loved a little kids’ puppet show called “Time for Beany.” He also watched and admired a young television comedian named Jackie Gleason.
During these final years, Curly let his thick, wavy hair grow back, instead of the world-famous shaved dome he had sported as a Stooge. He liked to wear a sea captain’s hat (he had black and white captain hats) and, like any new father, he loved playing with and doting on his newborn daughter. In his last few years of “health,” Curly was still upbeat and seemed happy, not down or sad about all that had happened to him. Contemporary photos show a smiling Curly, happily puffing on his cigar (despite his weak health, Curly still did not give up his beloved cigars), posing around the house, and horsing around with his little daughter.
SHARING HIS GOOD FORTUNE
Tom Emery, a good friend of Curly, recalls going on a drive with Curly one day in the late 1940s. Curly spotted a young girl in a wheelchair and told Tom to pull over. Curly talked to the girl at some length, asking her what she liked, what she needed, etc. Tom and Curly then drove off, and Curly bought the little girl everything she mentioned, dropping all the goodies off at her home with no card.
Curly’s stay at his home lasted through the late 1940s, but his health deteriorated again, and on August 29, 1950, Curly was returned to the Motion Picture Home. Missing his pal, the collie “Lady,” Curly asked Moe if he could bring the dog to stay with him at the hospital. (Curly liked sleeping with the dog when he was at home.) Sadly, when Moe brought Lady to see Curly, the reticent dog refused to enter Curly’s hospital room, staying outside in the doorway.
During the next few months, as his health got worse, Curly became confined to bed. He was put on a strict diet of boiled apples and rice. After another stroke, he was moved to the Colonial Home, but it was soon closed down for violating local fire laws. Curly was then moved to the North Hollywood Hospital and Sanitarium.
As a consequence of his strokes, it became harder and harder for Curly to talk and communicate. One visitor during these last years recalls Curly crying because he couldn’t communicate during one visit. Curly’s sister-in-law remembered a time visiting Curly in the hospital when Curly was very frustrated by not being able to communicate as she and the other visitors tried to understand what he wanted. Finally, after a long and frustrating period of guessing, they realized poor Curly just wanted a bowl of ice cream. Another visitor recalls Curly trying to sit up in a chair and his hand continually falling off the arm of the chair. Moe, too, recalled Curly’s tough time communicating as his health ebbed.
By the end, Curly could only communicate with Moe by squeezing his hand, sometimes just by blinking his eyes. The hospital supervisor told Moe that Curly’s physical and mental deterioration was causing the hospital inconvenience and suggested that Moe move him to a mental institution. Moe adamantly refused.
Curly was soon moved to his last residence, the Baldy View Sanitarium in San Gabriel, California. It was there, on January 18, 1952, that the great Jerome “Curly” Howard passed away. He was just 48 years old. Jules White, a great director of Curly in many Three Stooges shorts, recalls one of his final visits to Curly during Curly’s waning days. White never forgot Curly’s words to him that day: “Gee Jules, I guess I’ll never be able to make the children laugh again.”