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Punch Line

A new Three Stooges DVD set is a true history of violence

By Richard von Busack

AFTER THE COLLAPSE of silent comedy, there were scarce few talents keeping the art alive, until the wide rediscovery of the greats in the 1950s. In the two dozen shorts collected in Sony's The Three Stooges Collection, Volume Two: 1937–1939, the Unholy Trinity demonstrate their craft. I'm not praising or burying Shemp, but nothing here disproves the rule that the "Curlies" are always the best Stooges shorts. The Three Stooges' work is augmented by sound effects, yes: the whap of the literal slapstick as Moe knocked some sense into his partners, the metallic sproing of a puncture wound and the resounding clonk of a knocked head, as if Joe DiMaggio had hit a coconut out of Yankee Stadium. But don't let the noise mislead you. The Stooges were led by silent comedy vets like Del Lord, Charlie Chase and Jules White. They excelled in most of the qualities of silent comedy: assault on a physical level, extreme disreputableness and universal appeal wherever in the world violence is considered funny. "Moe is their leader," Homer Simpson once sighed dreamily. Moe Howard was a man of fierce grimace, a Henry V haircut and the shortest and hottest slow-burn in the Industry. He was the irresistible force; his oxlike brother Curly was the immovable object. That manchild's own specialty was humming like an out of tune Theremin while destroying something valuable. And what could equal the 7.2-on-the-Richter-scale power of the Larry Fine double-take? That was the Porcupine's specialty: the skull-like goggle of horror. He was also the only one of the three who was quick enough to deliver asides. My favorite is the time Larry was selling a dubious coat to a sucker: "It's imported. Smell the ocean?"

Together, the Stooges play slapjack with the class card. So many of these 12-minute opuses begin with a rich idiot summoning them. In Termites of 1938, they are mistaken for an escort service—"I certainly hope they're discriminating," the dame of the house drawls. Perhaps the best single film here, 1939's Three Little Sew and Sews ("So and so" is an old euphemism for "sonofabitch"), has the three in the Navy. Curly appropriates an admiral's uniform. Then he compounds his crime by having Moe and Larry thrown in the brig "for assaulting an officer." The uniform earns Curly the attentions of a lady spy, who nibbles on his enormous neck; this causes him to emit the howl of a jimson-weed-fed coyote. It ends with the miniature work I've waited all my life to see: a submarine leaping out of the ocean and diving back in like a flying fish.

In 1937's parody of the Seabiscuit saga, Playing the Ponies, the group begins by operating an exceptionally horrible restaurant before acquiring a swaybacked nag. In "Dizzy Doctors," the Stooges make a lateral move into health care. (Tending a comatose patient: "Maybe he's just playing possum. They do that sometimes.") Three Missing Links (1938) finds them in Africa, with Curly in a gorilla suit, molested by an actual gorilla on aphrodisiacs. And after some sublime scrimmaging in 1937's Cash and Carry, the Three Stooges are given presidential pardons by FDR himself. Hell, he should have knighted them.

THE THREE STOOGES COLLECTION, VOLUME TWO: 1937–1939; two discs; Sony Pictures Home Entertainment: $24.96

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