Nyuk Nyuk Nyuks From History: Remembering The Three Stooges

Whether or not you’re excited for it, you’re almost certainly aware that there’s a new Three Stooges movie coming out today thanks to the non-stop ads for the new Farrelly brothers film. For those of you too young to remember the original Three Stooges or for those who want nothing to do with the new version, here’s some history on the men that made stooging legendary.

From Stage to Screen to Drama

In 1925, The Stooges started as a vaudeville act with comedian Ted Healy (that's him to the left). During this period, they were never actually called “Three Stooges,” instead they were known as “Ted Healy and His Stooges, “Ted Healy and His Southern Gentlemen,” “Ted Healy and His Three Lost Souls” and “Ted Healy and His Racketeers.” On stage, Healy would perform jokes and songs, but the Stooges would constantly find new ways to interrupt him. In response, Healy would insult them and beat them. The original Stooges during this period were Moe and Shemp Howard, but they were later joined by Larry Fine and actor Fred Sanborn.

Five years after their formation, Ted Healy and His Stooges appeared in their first feature film, Soup to Nuts. The film wasn’t a big hit, but The Stooges were popular with those who saw the movie, so Fox offered them a contract to perform without Healy. Unsurprisingly, Healy wasn’t too happy about this, so he threatened Fox with legal action, claiming the Stooges were his employees. Fox backed down and cancelled their offer, so Moe, Shemp, and Larry all went on tour on their own. Healy claimed they used his copyrighted material and not only threatened legal action, but also called theaters claiming that he would bomb them if they let the three actors perform there! His actions intimidated Shemp enough that he almost left the act, but he stayed on after receiving a bump in pay.

Healy tried to restart his Stooges act by hiring new actors, but they didn’t do as well as the original lineup. In 1932, Moe and Healy finally reached an agreement and the group got back together to work on a new production, but Healy received a better offer for another project and found a loophole to get him out of his new contract. By this point, Shemp was so sick of Healy that he left the group and found work Vitagraph Movie Studios in New York.

Moe suggested they replace his older brother with his younger brother, Jerry, but when Jerry auditioned, Healy complained that he just didn’t look funny with his long red hair and handlebar mustache. So, Jerry left the room, shaved his head and then returned saying, “Boy, do I look girly.” Healy thought he said “Curly” and Jerry immediately had a new name to go with his new look.

(Secret) Success At Last

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After all the drama, the group was finally ready to sign a movie contract together and they were hired by MGM in 1933. They were all put in a variety of short films independently and as a group for the next year. A year later, the contract expired and the Stooges finally left Healy for good, largely due to his alcoholism and how much of a pain he was to work with. Healy went on to have a successful movie career for another three years before he passed away under mysterious circumstances. Even today, there is no real consensus about the cause of death, although theories range from head trauma related to a barroom brawl, to a heart attack, to kidney failure.

After breaking from Healy, the gang was officially named their now-famous moniker, “The Three Stooges.” They signed on to appear in short films with Columbia Pictures, receiving $600 per week on a one-year contract. With their new-found freedom from Healy, the group quickly became immensely popular, so popular that Columbia soon started negotiating with theaters, refusing to send over shorts of The Three Stooges unless the theaters also agreed to show some of the company’s mediocre B movies as well.

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Despite the group’s amazing popularity, the company did all it could to keep the boys in the dark about their success. They were constantly told that the demand for comedy shorts was dying out, despite the fact that The Stooges shorts were popular even after the format was pretty much abandoned. The group’s contract was always left open for renewal at the end of every year and executives made sure to never renew the contract until last minute, leaving the group worried that their days in the business were numbered. This kept the group from ever requesting higher pay or a longer contract. Amazingly, the deception worked for all 23 years The Stooges were with Columbia Pictures and The Stooges never once received a salary increase during that period.

The contract was rough too, requiring the team to turn out eight short films per year and allowing them only three months off, which the group would usually spend with their families or on the road performing their live act. In the end, The Stooges made 190 shorts and five feature films while at Columbia. After leaving the studio, Moe, the group’s manager, finally learned the truth and realized that their act could have earned millions more than they received.

Curly or Shemp?

While Shemp was actually one of the original Stooges, Curly is generally regarded as the most popular of the group. Funny enough, the same thing that allowed him to enter the comedy team was also the thing that made him feel most insecure –his shaved head. He soon took to excessive eating and drinking to soothe his insecurities and his weight and blood pressure both skyrocketed. By 1945, his bad lifestyle caught up with him and he became seriously ill, struggling to get through every scene. On May 6, 1946, Curly suffered a debilitating stroke that ended his career.

Moe immediately asked Shemp to rejoin the group, but he was hesitant since he already had a rather successful solo career going on. After realizing that Moe's and Larry’s careers would probably be over without The Stooges, he stepped up to help his brother and friend until Curly was able to return. Unfortunately, Curly’s health was far too fragile and he never returned, save for a short cameo in Hold That Lion!, which ended up being the only film where all four of the original Stooges, and all three Howard brothers, appeared on screen together. Eventually, Curly passed away from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1952.*

Shemp went on to appear in 76 more shorts and one feature film with The Stooges. While he was a funny guy and the films all did well, it was impossible for him to match the popularity of his younger brother.

Everything Must Come to an End

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In 1949, the boys filmed a TV pilot for a show called Jerks of All Trades, but the show was never picked up. After 1952, the quality of the group’s shorts dropped drastically, mostly due to Columbia’s cost-cutting measures on their short films division. Four-day shoots were suddenly cut down to two- or three-day shoots and footage from previous films was increasingly recycled into new shorts. In 1955, only three years after Curly died, Shemp died from a heart attack. Even so, the show went on and four new shorts were made using recycled footage of Shemp mixed with Joe Palma standing in as his body double (he was only shot from the back).

In 1956, Shemp was officially replaced by comedian Joe Besser, who starred in 16 shorts with the group. Unlike Curly and Shemp, Besser was known as the only “third” stooge who hit Moe back and even though Larry occasionally fought back, it was always with serious repercussions.

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The Besser films are generally considered the weakest of all The Stooges’ films and they also came out at a time when TV comedies were starting to gain popularity, making shorts seem like an obsolete format. Finally, in 1957, Columbia declined to renew the group’s contract and an era was over. While Moe and Larry discussed putting on a live tour, Besser’s wife suffered a heart attack and he soon withdrew from the act.

Rising From the Ashes Only to Fall Again

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Surprisingly, the same format that ended The Stooges career in shorts also helped boost them back into popularity. That’s because Columbia started selling packages of the troupe’s best shorts to TV stations, where they proved to be hits. Moe found his group to be in high demand again and quickly hired comic Joe DeRita to fill in as the third member of the act. DeRita shaved his head and soon started going by the nickname “Curly Joe,” distinguishing himself from Joe Besser and connecting himself to Curly at the same time.

This new lineup went on to make a number of full-length films from 1959 to 1965, all aimed at the youth market. The group also continued to tour and throughout the sixties, they were one of the highest-paid live acts in America.

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The group also filmed 41 new shorts for a TV cartoon show called The New Three Stooges. They also tried making two more TV pilots, one called The Three Stooges Scrapbook and one called Kook’s Tour. While The Three Stooges Scrapbook failed to sell, the reason Kook’s Tour failed is much sadder. During filming of the pilot, Larry suffered from a stroke that ended his career and put an end to the show as well. Three years later, in 1975, he suffered two more strokes, the last one sending him into a coma that lead to his death.

There were plans to replace Larry, but they never went forward and later that year, Moe died due to lung cancer. The Stooges, amazingly, continued, despite lacking any original members, as DeRita continued to perform live shows as The New 3 Stooges with Mousie Garner and Frank Mitchell filling in for the other Stooges. Eventually, even this group stopped performing when DeRita retired in 1979.

In the end, the group ended up appearing in 220 films. In 2004, Larry’s grandson-in-law opened a three-story museum dedicated to the group called the Stoogeum.

Bringing It To A New Generation

A lot of fans are pretty disgusted by the idea of the new movie, but what you might not know is that the film has actually been in the works for over 15 years. In fact, when the Farrelly brothers first started working on it, the Stooges were going to be played by Sean Penn, Benicio del Toro, and Jim Carrey. Instead, the actors selected were Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes, and Will Sasso –relative no-names compared to the stars originally slated to star in the film.

So, how about you guys, do you like the original Three Stooges? If so, what’s your favorite Three Stooges film? Also, are you going to see the new movie? And, would you be more excited about it if it starred Sean Penn, Benicio del Toro and Jim Carrey (I certainly would be)?

Sources: Wikipedia #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, Mental Floss

*Previously at Neatorama: Whatever Happened to Curly?

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Seriously? 23 years without a raise? Kept on the line, thinking their days were numbered? If that is to be believed, these guys really were stooges. They couldn't tell their popularity by the audiences at their live stage show? They didn't read newspapers or the trades? Did the studio keep them in a vault and lock them away from all outside stimuli? I suppose the studio could have kept reporters away from them and minimize the publicity over their popularity (no PR machines churning out propaganda), but that would only hurt grosses, in the end.
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I agree with Gregg that the inclusion of jersey shore trash in the movie is disgusting, I am a huge sean hayes fan so I may end up seeing it. I haven't decided yet.
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