NEW YORK — The sound of “nyuk, nyuk, nyuk” will be heard across the land when “The Three Stooges” — the Farrelly brothers’ long-awaited tribute to the slapstick comedy legends — opens Friday, introducing the trio to a new generation of knuckleheads. Although Western civilization has long been divided by certain insoluble cultural questions (Ketchup or mustard? Betty or Veronica? Toilet paper — over or under?), there has never really been any question about which Stooges to bring to the big screen.
“You can’t make the first big-screen studio movie about the Stooges,” said writer-director Peter Farrelly, “without it being Moe, Larry and Curly.”
The fact is, there were a lot of Stooges, if you count everybody who got bopped, boinked and banged around since the act started in 1922.
But the Farrellys are purists — of a sort: Their own Stooge-inspired oeuvre includes “Dumb & Dumber,” “There’s Something About Mary,” “Me, Myself & Irene” and “Hall Pass.” At the same time, in their version of “The Three Stooges,” the characters have a backstory: The three brothers (it was never clear that Larry was anybody’s brother) are not, for instance, dropped on the doorstep of the Sisters of Mercy orphanage. The duffel bag they’re in is thrown from a speeding car. (Upon opening said bag, Sister Mary-Mengele, played by Larry David, gets poked in the eyes by Baby Moe.)
Essentially, said Peter Farrelly, the movie’s stars — Chris Diamantopoulos (“Up All Night,” “24”) as Moe; Sean Hayes (“Will & Grace”) as Larry, and TV vet Will Sasso as Curly — are intended to be “clones” of the originals. This strategy presented one more obstacle to a movie that, since the mid-’90s, has been the subject of discussions that occasionally included the casting of such unlikely personages as Sean Penn and Robert De Niro.
“We’d meet with big movie stars,” Farrelly said, “and they’d say, ‘I want to do my take on Larry.’ And we’d say ‘Uh, no … we want you to do Larry as Larry, copy his every mannerism, his nasal voice, his Philadelphia accent,’ and they didn’t like that. It was daunting for an actor. We kept losing our people.”
And the studios simply didn’t get it. “They didn’t see how to bring characters who made films 70 years ago into a present-day setting,” he said. “And there was some bad luck, too: The project was at MGM, and MGM went bankrupt. It’s been delayed for a lot of reasons.”
One of the problems with getting anybody to greenlight a Stooge project was that the late-inning Stooge features weren’t very good. Actually, they were awful. “Snow White and the Three Stooges.” “The Three Stooges Meet Hercules.” “The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze.” As Curly might have said, “Woo-woo-woo-woo!”
“Studios would say, ‘Didn’t they try feature films? And they didn’t work,’” Farrelly said. “But the movies they did at the end weren’t well-written. The guys were too old to do the slapstick stuff. They’re not good. But it’s not fair: It would be like putting Willie Mays at the plate today and saying, ‘He’s not as good as I heard he was.’”
“The Three Stooges” involves the boys trying to save their childhood orphanage (the “Blues Brothers” connection ends there, Farrelly said). The nuns are played by the likes of Jane Lynch, Jennifer Hudson, Kate Upton and, as mentioned, Larry David. The “aesthetic,” so to speak, seems to be pure Stooge: violence and comedy. “First and foremost, we wanted to please hard-core Stooges fans,” Farrelly said. “We figured if we did that, everything else would fall into place.”
For all the hilarity, the real-life Three Stooges story is one tinged with sadness. In addition to the debilitating sicknesses that plagued the group, they were never aware of how popular they were: Columbia Pictures chief Harry Cohn always talked down their popularity to keep them from demanding more money, while at the same time using the Stooges’ box-office clout to extort theater owners into booking inferior Columbia films.
“You know what makes me mad?” Farrelly said. “These guys online who complain that it’s a sacrilege that we’d be making a Stooges film. What’s a sacrilege is that a lot of kids don’t know about them at all, and that they never got their due. They never got the first-class treatment they deserved. They weren’t Laurel and Hardy, they weren’t the Marx Brothers. They were second-rate. Yet to us they were the funniest. And they influenced us the most.”
Moe, Larry and several others
In 1922, Moe Howard (nee Harry Moses Horwitz) and his older brother Shemp Howard (Samuel Horwitz) joined a vaudeville act that would become known as Ted Healy and His Stooges (or, sometimes, Ted Healy and His Southern Gentlemen or Ted Healy and His Racketeers). Larry Fine (Louis Feinberg) joined in 1925. In 1930, they made their first feature, “Soup to Nuts,” and while neither the movie nor Healy was well-received, the Stooges were.
But Healy was apparently a difficult customer, and Shemp — who would later appear in such non-Stooge classics as W.C. Fields’ “The Bank Dick” — got fed up and left the act in 1932. In a providential moment for the history of American screen comedy, he was replaced — by the youngest Howard brother, Jerome Lester Horwitz, aka Curly.
Though the boys wouldn’t completely separate from Healy until 1934, the trio in its “classic” formation — Moe, Larry and Curly — went on to become one of the most popular screen attractions of the ’30s and ’40s, almost exclusively in the arena of comedy shorts (they made a total of 190 at Columbia Pictures but were in only five features in that time).
When Curly suffered a stroke in 1946, Shemp rejoined the act. When Shemp died of a heart attack in 1955, the act’s unfinished films were completed using some Shemp clips and an actor named Joe Palma (shot only from the back). Comedian Joe Besser then joined the group, but the Stooges were unceremoniously dumped by Columbia in 1957, after 24 years of service.
Television, however, had discovered that they were a seemingly unbeatable resource for attracting kid audiences. Revived, in a sense, the Stooges — now with Joe “Curly-Joe” DeRita in the third-Stooge position — regrouped for some distinctly unmemorable feature films.
The act itself was more or less finished off by Larry’s stroke in 1970, although Moe tried to resuscitate it one more time, with comic actor Emil Sitka (who had appeared in nearly 40 Stooge shorts) in the Larry chair. Both Larry and Moe died in 1975.
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