Earlier this year, the Farrelly Brothers paid homage to Hollywood's longest-running comedy act with The Three Stooges, with actors portraying those masters of mayhem in a contemporary setting.
But nothing can come close to being as "nyuk-nyuk-nyuk" laughable as the real thing. The classic lineup of Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Curly Howard (and his replacements Shemp Howard, Joe Besser and Joe DeRita) produced some of the most hilarious slapstick ever filmed.
The 20-disc The Three Stooges: The Ultimate Collection (1934-1959, Sony Pictures, not rated, $95) includes all 190 film shorts the trio made for Columbia Pictures plus two feature films —Have Rocket, Will Travel (1959) and Rockin' in the Rockies (1945), which are available for the first time on DVD.
Also included are 28 pre-Stooges shorts starring Shemp Howard, Besser or DeRita, and three animated shorts featuring the Stooges.
Their humor was decidedly low-brow, but they were enormously popular in their heyday and remain so decades after their careers ended in the 1970s, thanks to cable TV and home video. The bossy Moe, the sensible (relatively) Larry and the manic Curly could make people laugh out loud with their bumbling antics, exaggerated facial expressions and trademark one-liners ("I'm trying to think, but nothing is happening," Curly was prone to say).
The wackiness was often punctuated by Moe giving the other Stooges a slap to the face, clunk on the head or doink in the eyes.
The formula worked regardless of the occupation or ridiculous situation in which they would find themselves. In Three Little Pigskins they were supposed to be promoting a college football game and wound up being mistaken for players. Hoi Poloi finds them as the subjects of a bet between college professors over whether the rubes can be turned into cultured gentlemen. In Disorder in the Court, they are disruptive witnesses at a murder trial. A Plumbing We Will Go proved how costly a pipe wrench can be in the wrong hands.
The act got its start in 1922 when brothers Shemp (Samuel Horwitz) and Moe (Moses Horwitz) joined Brooklyn neighbor Ted Healy in his vaudeville comedy act as his noisy assistants. Philadelphian Larry Fine joined them in 1925, and they made their film debut in 1930 in 20th Century Fox's Soup to Nuts. They eventually left Healy and signed with Columbia Pictures in 1934, with younger brother Curly (Jerome Horwitz) replacing Shemp, who would go on to a successful solo career.
For the next 12 years the Stooges were at their peak, but Curly suffered a stroke in 1946, from which he never fully recovered. He died in 1952 at age 48. Though reluctant to leave his own career, Shemp returned as a temporary replacement for Curly and wound up making 76 shorts before dying of a sudden heart attack in 1955. Joe Palma acted as a body double for Shemp in four movies, in which recycled Shemp footage was also used. Joe Besser was brought in as Joe, the third Stooge, in 1956, appearing in 16 films, before being replaced by Joe DeRita as Curly Joe in 1959.
The group's contract with Columbia was not renewed (as it had been annually since 1934) at the end of 1957, as the studio shut down its shorts production. But the Stooges found renewed popularity on TV and in a series of early-'60s movies. Both Moe (lung cancer at 77) and Larry (stroke at 72) died in 1975. Besser, who died of heart failure at 80 in 1988, was a regular on The Joey Bishop Show in the '60s, and did cartoon voices in the '70s. DeRita appeared in the movies and a Stooges cartoon series. He died of pneumonia at 83 in 1993. His epitaph reads: "The Last Stooge."