In 1932, Jerome Howard, soon to be universally known as "Curly" joined The Three Stooges comedy team. Curly was replacing his older brother Shemp as the third stooge, joining his older brother Moe and frizzy-haired Larry Fine. In 1934, the team signed with Columbia Pictures and began churning out the series of comedy slapstick shorts that were to bring hilarity to the entire world. His "Woo-woos" and "Nyuk-nyuks," as well as his incredible gift for physical, inventive, surreal comedy, make Curly Howard "everyone's favorite Stooge."
From 1934 to 1944, Curly Howard and his comedy partners made 80-odd of the funniest shorts in the history of movie comedy. But by 1945, something appeared obviously wrong with the brilliant Curly. He was having a harder time than usual learning and remembering his lines (Curly was always a bad study, anyway). His once graceful, quick movements now seemed slower, 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 hospital 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, trying 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 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 resting after his stroke, as Moe requested, studio head Harry Cohn kept Curly churning out new Three Stooges shorts. Sadly, this final handful of Curly shorts show him looking very old and worn, his previous starring roles are greatly reduced, and indeed, they do put a bit of a black mark on his otherwise classic body of amazing comedy performances.
Curly's appearance became worse and worse until finally, while filming his 97th Three Stooges short Half Wits 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, and 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.
Curly was taken to the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital to recover. His career as a Stooge was now effectively over. He was replaced in the act by his older brother Shemp.
Curly finally got a happy break in 1947. 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 was to stick by hs side, through his constant downhill ride over the next few years. Valerie was by Curly's side 24 hours a day, feeding and bathing him as health continued its slow deterioration in the late 1940s.
After his second stroke, Curly was confined to a wheelchair, but he soon recovered enough to move around himself. Interestingly, in these final 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 absolute most 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 very funnily, 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.
Despite his weak health, Curly still did not give up his beloved cigars. He and Valerie had a swimming pool built in their home, hoping Curly could use it for physical therapy (Curly always loved swimming). 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's hats) and, like any new father, he loved playing with and doting on his newborn daughter.
Interestingly, in these final few years of "health," Curly was still upbeat and seemed happy, not down or sad at all that had happened to him. Contemporary photos show a smiling Curly, happily puffing on his cigar, posing around the house and horsing around with his little daughter.
Tom Emery, a good friend, 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 went over and talked to the girl at some length, asking her what she was into, what she liked, what she needed, etc. They drove off and Curly bought the little girl everything she had mentioned. He dropped 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 instead.
During the next few months, as he 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 him 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 recalls visiting him at the hospital and remembers an instance 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 period of frustration and guessing, they realized poor Curly just wanted a bowl of ice cream. Another visitor recalls Curly trying to sit up in a chair, and remembers Curly's hand continually falling off the arm of the chair.
Moe was also to recall that Curly had a very tough time communicating as his health ebbed. By the end, Curly could only communicate to Moe by squeezing his hand, sometimes just blinking his eyes.
A hospital supervisor went to Moe and told him that Curly's physical and mental deterioration was causing the hospital inconvenience and suggested 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 was to pass away. He was just 48 years old.
Jules White, a great director of Curly in many Three Stooges shorts, was to recall one of his final visits to Curly in his waning days. He never forgot Curly's words to him that day: "Gee Jules, I guess I'll never be able to make the children laugh again."
From the comments:
Little did Jerome know he is still making the kids laugh, and will continue for generations to come.