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The Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Stooges

Filling the shoes of the third stooge
proved no trifling matter

By Richard von Busack

My parents wanted me to grow up to be a gentleman.
Shemp Howard

THE ONCE AND FUTURE Stooge, Shemp, was originally part of the Three Stooges' vaudeville act, shooed away by Stooges ringleader Ted Healy's drinking and high-handedness. Shemp had a regular career in shorts and features (and a famous bit bartending--and whistling "Hallie"--in Mr. Fields' The Bank Dick). In those handful of films that have both the Stooges and Healy, it's distressing to see Healy stage-batter the trio--like seeing an otherwise perfect system out of balance. (Fans of the bullying Healy on stage, in reviews of the time, claimed that the movies never knew what to do with him in these early shorts, but his unfunniness seems persistent in his character roles in movies such as Karl Freund's Mad Love.)

Not long after Shemp's departure, Moe called up his brother Jerome, a minor vaudevillian in his own right, for an audition. Healy liked Jerome but didn't care for his long hair and mustache, pointing out that Larry and Moe had distinctive coifs but that Jerome needed something extra. Jerome shaved his head, returning to display himself. Moe noted that his brother "looked and walked like a fat fairy ... with tears rolling down his cheeks. My brother said, 'If you want me, you can call me Curly.' "

If you take Moe's word for it, this effeminization killed Jerome early. Moe's brother had always been a heavy partier, but after "the fact that he [Curly] had to shave his head for the act ... he felt that he had no longer any appeal for the fair sex. So he drank to give himself the courage to approach any young lady that appealed to him." Curly was married four times, once for a stretch of only three months. Drinking and obesity shortened his life, and after numerous strokes, he died on Jan. 18, 1952.

Shemp Howard took Curly's place. Shemp's stunning homeliness is a reminder of the kinship between the funny and the hideous; the fraternal feuding of Shemp and Moe propelled some of the best of the post-WWII shorts, such as the two-reel shemp d'oeuvre "Gents in a Jam."

Legend has it that Shemp himself came up with the familiar two-finger poke, during a dispute over a card game with his brothers. The gaff ("Out, vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?"--King Lear, III, vii) was usually orchestrated with sound editor Joe Henrie's plucking of a violin string instead of words.

Shemp died in the saddle as a Stooge. His was a kingly death; he dropped dead in the back of a taxi, coming back from a boxing match, the cigar still clutched in his mouth. It's significant that the fourth third Stooge, Joe Besser, known in episodes as "Joe," lasted but two years. To Besser's eternal shame, he had it written into his contract that he would not be subject to slapping or bodily harm. Besser was present at the end of the Stooges' two-reel career, a time of many remakes, two-day-long shooting schedules and terrible production values.

In early 1959, Moe would have seemed to have been at the end of his tether, locked out at the gate at Columbia by a guard who didn't recognize him even after 24 years of work for the studio. Larry, always bad with money, was near bankruptcy. In the spring of that year, Moe, Larry and Joe Besser were playing Bakersfield to an audience Moe later characterized as "drunk sheepherders" and hating every minute of it. If they were going to survive as comedians, there'd be plenty more clubs like it, and Joe had an ailing wife and didn't want to travel.

At this point, Screen Gems, Columbia's TV arm, was distributing the old two-reelers to TV stations looking for inexpensive product. The Stooges sold fast--13 markets in two weeks. Children watched, and sometimes--to the outrage of parents--learned. (Mom always said television was bad for your eyes--now Moe Howard would prove it.)

The two-reelers began a new cycle of films and personal appearances. A few years after Bakersfield, the septuagenarian Moe, Larry and their new partner du jour, Joe "Curly Joe" De Rita, drew a record audience of 85,000 at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1963. At that distance, all you could distinguish, in silhouette, were the familiar profiles of Moe, Larry and some vague lumpy third-banana. Which is, in essence, the best way to remember De Rita.

Thus, from the time of their beginning as short-subject artists at Columbia to their fading away into unrealized independent projects circa 1970, the Third Stooges on screen: [Larry, Moe and] Curly (1932­47), Shemp (1947­56), Joe (1956­59) and, lastly, Curly Joe (1959­70).

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From the January 16-22, 1997 issue of Metro

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