Wednesday, April 1, 2015

THE THREE STOOGES: THE EARLY YEARS

It’s sufficient to say that the three Horwitz brothers, Moses, Jerome and Samuel (better known by their stage names as Moe, Curly and Shemp Howard), were nice, blue-collar Jewish boys from Brooklyn, born without an ounce of theatrical blood in their veins. Nevertheless, at an early age — and not unusually for working-class Jews around the turn of the century — both Moe and Shemp decided on a career in showbusiness. The pair had moderate success in a variety of burlesque shows before teaming up for the first time in 1916 to perform a blackface routine. They continued this until 1922, when they encountered an old friend from their Brooklyn days, comedian Ted Healy, then a rapidly rising star in vaudeville. Healy recruited them to be his sidekicks, and when Philadelphia musician and comedian Larry Fine was brought into the act, The Three Stooges were born.

As the Stooges’ stock continues to grow, Ted Healy has become an increasingly marginalised figure, remembered only for his poor treatment of his co-stars — who, history would have it, and have it incorrectly, outshone him from the get-go — and for the excessive drinking and wildly erratic behaviour that lead to his violent death. In fact, Healy was an enormously successful entertainer, one of the biggest stars of his era, who has been cited as a formative influence by such comedy legends as Red Skelton, Milton Berle and Bob Hope. As the young Stooges’ mentor, he practically invented the style of brutal slapstick that has made them legends, and if, along the way, he stiffed them out of their fair share of the proceeds, his pivotal role in their history deserves to be recognised. That said, there is no doubt that Healy was a terrible boss, not only tight with a buck, but an abusive, volatile drunk to boot.


In 1930, Ted Healy & His Stooges (they were never billed as The Three Stooges while they worked for Healy) appeared in the Fox Studios feature film Soup To Nuts. It was not a hit. Healy’s act, which relied heavily on ad libs and improvisation, never transferred successfully to film; neither was he exactly movie-star material, with a bulbous spud face and big boozer’s nose. The Stooges, on the other hand, impressed the Fox brass, and they were offered a contract without Healy. Furious, Healy immediately put the kibosh on this by claiming the Stooges were his employees. The offer was duly rescinded. When Larry, Moe and Shemp got word of this, they decided to cut Healy loose anyway and struck out on their own. True to form, Healy was incensed, forbidding them to use any of their old routines, which he considered his own copyrighted material, even threatening to bomb theatres if the Stooges dared to play them. In desperation, Healy made a failed attempt to salvage his act by hiring replacement Stooges.


Amazingly, in 1932, with Moe now the group’s business manager, Healy and his Stooges settled their differences and began working together again. It proved anything but a joyful reunion. Healy’s Jekyll and Hyde personality, exacerbated by his increasingly heavy drinking, so terrified the notoriously skittish Shemp that he left the act to go solo and was soon making comedy shorts for Vitaphone back in Brooklyn. This left the Stooges a man down. Shemp’s proposed solution was that Moe’s baby brother, Jerry, fill the gap. Healy was scathing. With all the foresight and perception that comes with drinking Wild Turkey for breakfast, he took one look at the future Curly Howard, the most beloved of all the Stooges, and dismissed him as not funny. Admittedly, Jerry did not much resemble his iconic alter ego at that point, sporting long red hair and a handlebar moustache. And, it must be said, neither Moe nor Larry had any confidence in Jerry’s comic abilities either. Moe stated flatly to Shemp that Jerry had “no talent whatsoever”. That changed abruptly when, at Shemp’s urging, Jerry ran on stage in the middle of a Stooges routine sporting a freshly shaved head, wearing a bathing suit and carrying a tiny bucket of water. This earned him a huge laugh from the crowd (vaudeville audiences were obviously a push-over), and one of the most gifted comic performers of the 20th century had officially arrived.

With Curly on board, Ted Healy & His Stooges signed a one-year contract with MGM to make five shorts and a couple of full-length features, none of which proved remarkable. The contract was not renewed, and in 1934 Healy and his Stooges finally went their separate ways...



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3 comments:

  1. Pope George RingoApril 2, 2015 at 7:22 AM

    I have never seen any of the Healy/Stooges shorts...I wonder if they exist or were destroyed or lost over time.

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    1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NF95lgBKhaw

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  2. The MGM shorts certainly do exist.

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