The Three Stooges : Two Reels At a Time
The Three Stooges aren't as popular as you'd think.
Or, they're exactly as popular as you'd think.
In short, I don't know what you think.
I've never known anyone my age (other than Jess, maybe) who's had any interest in this institution of classic Hollywood cinema - let alone an intimate knowledge brought on by a lifelong love & fascination with it/them. In fact, the only people I've ever known to enjoy and comprehend it on the same levels as myself are from generations twice removed, and beyond, and are (stereo)typically male.
And there's a sort of conservative charm in that - which understandably results in their likenesses alongside golf, beer, and guns. And that very cultural mutation may be the reason they might seem foreign or antiquated to millennials - which is fair. But like any artistic enterprise (or anything at all from the past), stuff gets misguided into caricature and boiled down into soundbites, and if you or someone were to watch them for the first time, you or they may be influenced by those distortions.
So that's why I'm here: your friendly neighborhood Brighto salesman, here to make old bodies new & get at this thing the right way.
Most everyone already knows them on some basic superficial level: three "funny looking guys who hit each other a lot." And even to the casual fan, that's enough. But like anything else, the more you familiarize yourself with it, a subtext begins to emerge - intentional or not.
There are nuances in the performances, the stunts, the stories, the sets and the locations that not only add 'layers' in cinematic terms, but also make it a lot funnier.
More simply: they may be the pinnacle of 'broad humor', but if you care to look closely, there are details and subtleties and moments of comic timing that elevate them to the highest thermosphere of comedy.
I'll spare you (most of) the history lesson - who they were, their vaudeville roots, breaking away from Ted Healy, the studio battles, etc. - and swing it right into the shorts.
Naturally I've omitted some gems to successfully cork it to a numerically pleasing number. So, here are 20 of my favorites - in the order of when they were released - and most importantly, what makes them 'favorites' above all nearly 200 films.
Punch Drunks (1934)
One of the rare setups where the three of them start out as strangers to one another.
A boxing manager (Moe) discovers a waiter (Curly) who possesses superhuman fighting capabilities triggered only by the tune of "Pop Goes the Weasel." With the aid of a street musician (Larry) and his violin, Curly becomes a heavyweight contender under the name "K.O. Stradivarius."
The championship is a lock - until Curly stumbles out of the ring and crushes Larry's violin - thus eliminating the only means of playing the imperative song.
It may be the earliest on the list (it was only their second short), but I'll usually say it's my favorite one. While they were still fine-tuning their timing, rhythms, and overall acting abilities, their energy was particularly high in this, their inaugural year. And while Moe is consistently my favorite Stooge throughout their career, and Curly is an undeniable force of comedic showmanship (especially throughout the 1930s), Punch Drunks is Larry's best stuff. Generally the cerebral one and rarely at the forefront of the physical stuff, this movie gives him plenty to do: at one point head down in a muddy pond - inexplicably at first - only to be pulled out by the others, soaking wet and gasping for air, before he proudly produces a large fish from his trousers and announces, "Look at that!"
Men In Black (1934)
Moe, Larry, and Curly are freshly graduated doctors scurrying around Los Arms Hospital, from patient to patient, from vignette to vignette, with no true thread to connect them, and each one framed by banter with the superintendent of the hospital, followed by the boys rushing into a supply closet each time to acquire a different mode of transportation to move about the hallways: horses, go-carts, a three-person bicycle, etc.
The only short nominated for an Oscar.
This one is best for its one-liners and its relentless pace. The whole setup is a maddening loop of repetition, enveloped by the now-famous "Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard!" chant on the hospital loudspeaker. And while there are several exchanges of razor-sharp wittiness, the lowbrow and bizarre sometimes win out: Larry successfully cheats at a coin toss when he asks Curly to call 'heads or tails,' to which Curly replies 'Nung!' Which, naturally, is the right answer.
Uncivil Warriors (1935)
As soldiers for the North in the American Civil War, they're sent behind enemy lines under the aliases of Lieutenant Duck, Captain Dodge, and Major Hyde (Larry, Moe, and Curly, respectively) to get a numerical estimate of Southern soldiers. They're successful in deceiving their way into an enemy general's mansion for a dinner party, where they predictably slip up and reveal their identities as spies.
A running gag that appears in several shorts is: disastrous food preparation that goes unnoticed until it's too late. Whenever they get the opportunity to cook, one or all of the ingredients get lost in translation (soap, alum, bubblegum, jewelry, a decorative wooden fish). In Uncivil Warriors, a pot holder is mistaken for a cake. Icing is applied, and it's served and eaten - resulting in a slow, ominous build up to an inevitable orgy of coughing and screaming and feathers.
Pardon My Scotch (1935)
While the Stooges are left to mind a drugstore while the owner is away, a customer comes in asking for a "pickup." The boys pour a bit of every medicine into a rubber boot, which bubbles and rumbles and smokes - though the customer is elated with the effect the drink has on him and offers to distribute their concoction as their own brand of Scotch. They bring a barrel of the mixture to a party for a public taste test, and of course when they attempt to tap the barrel with a mallet, it explodes.
So rarely do they build, fix, or clean something with any amount of success, but in Pardon My Scotch, they do exactly that (even though it eventually blows up in their faces). But under all the mayhem of this one is a subtle subplot which finds Moe in an Ahab-like battle of spirit and stamina against the volatile elixir he helped create - literally pleading with the drink when it acts up ("Now, hold on now!") and strategizes on how to overcome it ("Sneak up on it slow..."). And in the end, he throws his entire body and soul into one final battle against the booze - and like Ahab, he is spectacularly defeated on an epic scale.
Hoi Polloi (1935)
Two wealthy professors make a wager that they can convert someone of lower class into high society. Enter three crude sanitation workers to set the premise in motion. What follows is the necessary series of etiquette training (table manners, dancing) leading up to the ultimate test: a high class shindig where the guys get to show off their newly acquired social skills. All does not go well.
Things start to deteriorate at the party when Moe and Curly have a very public altercation regarding a bottle of champagne. But the best part of this is that Larry watches for a moment from across the room, and then makes his way over to them and attempts to intervene by authoritatively asking "What happened here?!" And just as those three words leave his lips, Moe unleashes a swift and powerful punishment on Larry that has to be seen to be believed.
Three Little Beers (1935)
The Panther Pilsner Beer company has hired "three new men" in their delivery department, and "everything's going to be all right now!" But when the trio haul a truckload of beer barrels to the Rancho Golf Club, they immediately abandon their duties and attempt to learn the game of golf in an attempt to win a hundred bucks in a tournament. They quickly learn the rules (and fashion) of the game, though talent and sportsmanship eludes them: driving balls into other players, digging up the grounds, and chopping down trees.
The joy of this one is that it's solid all the way through - each sequence is a standout. And I think that goes for any short where, at some point, the three of them go off on their own to cause their own particular brand of chaos, at which point it becomes a sort of Altman-esque mosaic of storytelling. Probably the best thread in this one is Moe's, who attempts to hit the same golfball in what seems to be hundreds of times, until the entire green is hacked to pieces. When he's approached by a furious groundskeeper, Moe reassures him, "I'm gettin' better! See? The pieces are gettin' smaller!"
Movie Maniacs (1936)
On a freight train bound for Hollywood, Moe, Larry, and Curly dream of making it big as movie stars. After sneaking their way onto a studio lot, a series of fortunate circumstances and mistaken identity lands them with complete control of all production - including a movie shoot already in progress, which causes its stars and director to quit. As a result, Larry and Curly take over as the romantic leads (with Curly in drag) and Moe as director. Eventually the mixup is straightened out and their own film crew (plus a lion) chase them off the set.
The Boys' home on the train is classic depression-era Stooges - setup with a bed, clothesline, and stove (which all play into a series of physical bits). On the way to L.A., Curly understandably asks, "How are we gonna get in pictures? We know nothin' about movies." To which Moe replies with a smirk, "There's a couple thousand people in pictures now who know nothin' about it... Three more won't make any difference." Timeless.
Also, Curly (like Bugs Bunny) always looks good in makeup and a dress - especially when he's plucking his eyebrows with a pair of pliers.
A Pain In the Pullman (1936)
The Three Stooges are a comedy team (no stretch there), complete with a performing monkey named Joe. When they get news of work abroad, they catch a train - sneaking Joe on with them - and spend the rest of the movie confronting and irritating the other passengers, losing and chasing Joe, and struggling to sleep.
For one sequence, they hijack the private compartment of Paul Payne, "The Heartthrob of Millions," and dine on crab with a young lady. After a brief argument as to what the shellfish actually is (Larry thinks it's a spider, but Moe sides with Curly that it is, in fact, a turtle) they proceed to crack it open and feast on the shell while discarding "the stuffing." The following 90 seconds is a quiet, frustrating ordeal as they struggle to eat the claws, resulting in painful chewing and intermittent choking scares. As Moe studies the crab leg in his hand, he mutters softly to himself, "...I like these little points..." And after a brief moment of deep thought, he smiles and announces to everyone, "Yeah, I like these little points."
False Alarms (1936)
As firemen, the Stooges are always missing calls - this time sleeping through the alarm. The Captain warns them they only have one more chance to get it together. Later, Curly leaves to visit his girlfriend and her two friends - who both need dates. Curly summons Moe and Larry by activating the fire alarm outside her apartment. They take the Captain's new car to meet Curly and luckily arrive before the rest of the Department does, and all six of them have to flee the scene before the hoax is found out.
Too many great scenes and lines to list.
At one point, Moe pokes Curly in the eyes via telephone (much to Curly's confusion).
The packed car ride back to the station is some of the fanciest stunt driving I've seen put on film. Of course it ends in a horrible wreck before they reach their destination - leaving Moe as the only one left in the car. Miraculously, the accident placed Larry, Curly, and the three women in the trunk. When Moe pops the lid, Curly quips, "I'm sorry, there's no more room in here."
Slippery Silks (1936)
At the start, the Boys are furniture craftsmen - and almost immediately loose this job when they accidentally destroy an antique cabinet they've been commissioned to duplicate. As fortunate timing would have it, they're informed that they've inherited The Madame de France - a fancy women's fashion boutique. They turn their carpentry skills towards designing dresses, which results in all of their creations looking conspicuously like home furnishings: bureaus, hutches, etc. It all ends with one of their more spectacular pie fights.
When Vernon Dent (a regular costar) hands over a fragile $50,000 gadget to the Three Stooges, we know what will happen, but the fun is the how and the when. Only moments pass before the priceless box rides unnoticed along a conveyor and directly through a table saw. Then in a frantically sloppy attempt to piece it together, they end up gluing both halves to each of Moe's hands. After some bickering and eye poking, Curly shoves Moe, and in one terrifying second of film, Moe struggles to keep his balance without the use of his hands before quickly succumbing to fate (and gravity).
Dizzy Doctors (1937)
Moe, Larry, and Curly spend every day eating and sleeping while their wives are at work. When the women become fed up, they throw the guys out for good until they find employment. They're soon hired as salesmen - selling bottles of Brighto. And once they go out into the world to hawk this new product to people on the street, the punchline hits them: what exactly is Brighto? They split up around town applying it to people's clothes, shoes, and cars as a cleaner/polish. And after ruining plenty of property and lives, they discover that Brighto is actually medicine. So they haul a new batch to Los Arms Hospital and begin to administer it to a parade of eccentric patients in various unconventional ways.
While Curly's out on his own trying to sell to passing motorists, a man pulls up and asks, "Want a ride?" Curly answers, "No. Wanna buy a bottle of Brighto?" The man answers no, and without any hesitation and plenty of childlike glee, Curly, as he climbs into the man's car, exclaims "Then I'll take a ride!"
This is their Sgt. Pepper: they were at the height of their talents in every facet, and the story allows extra helpings of speaking parts, locations, stunts, and twists (even revisiting the site of one of their earliest shorts). With all its changes, this one could have been padded out into a feature without changing the structure. In fact, one of the tightest things about it is that it begins and ends in the same location with the same shot.
Playing the Ponies (1937)
Anxious to unload their failing restaurant, the Stooges sell the place to a couple of shady characters in exchange for their racehorse, Thunderbolt, with hopes of becoming rich at the track. They soon discover Thunderbolt is past his prime. But when curly slips the horse some spicy "pepperinos" he took from the restaurant, they cause Thunderbolt to run "like lightning" to the nearest trough. In a rare instance of inventiveness, Moe drives a motorcycle along the track with a bucket of water for the horse to chase.
Attempting to get Larry up onto the horse before the race, he falls ass-first onto a pitchfork. The struggle for the three of them to "get it out" unfolds like a physical comedy ballet with some of Curly's best stuff.
Moe on the motorcycle is one of his more heroically badass moments, and we finally get to see these three losers work together without error, and it results in one of the few happy endings they filmed.
The Sitter Downers (1937)
The boys go on strike when the father of their three girlfriends will not consent to giving away his daughters to marriage. This makes the news and draws fans for the Stooges - so much so that they receive gifts, including property and housing materials should they finally get married. When dad breaks down and gives his daughters away, new problems arise when the wives will not approve of any kinda honeymoon until their husbands actually build this house themselves.
In one of the longest setups for any gag they've ever done, Curly falls asleep with his feet in wet cement. He wakes up with a pair of concrete shoes, and Moe and Larry decide to use dynamite to get them off. The explosion sends Curly into a tree, and chunks of cement all over the worksite (including one large piece landing in a bucket of water). Moe, Larry, and the women manage to knock Curly out of the treetop with a long post, and Curly falls and lands on his wife, knocking her unconscious. Unable to wake her up, Larry runs to get the noted bucket of water and brings it to Curly. She begins to come out of it when Curly splashes a few handfuls on her, and then he hurls the whole bucket of water into her face - concrete and all - sending her back into oblivion. And apart from the sound design of the hollow knock the brick makes when it hits her, the funniest part of this is that Larry and Curly start an argument over what just happened, while Moe silently picks up the chunk of concrete with awe, trying to piece together in his mind the entire string of events that led to this moment.
Termites of 1938 (1938)
In an otherwise bizarre and convoluted setup, a wealthy woman requires a few male escorts to a dinner party, and instructs her housekeeper to get the number for the Acme Escort Service. Due to a miscommunication, the housekeeper gives her the number for the Acme Exterminators instead, and she gets three of the best. The boys show up and blend into the rest of the guests - still under the impression they're only there to exterminate pests. And when an actual rodent infestation is discovered, the boys get to work as they destroy the house in their pursuit.
Whenever the trio is forced to mingle with "regular people," their idiosyncrasies become amplified, and Termites puts their eating habits on display. Short of wearing my napkin around my neck or eating game bird with corn holders, the most important thing I took away from this one was mixing my peas with my mashed potatoes. Because of this, I've never known any other way.
A Plumbing We Will Go (1940)
On the lam after a policeman (Bud Jamison, another regular costar and chameleon) catches them trying to catch fish from a pet store aquarium, the trio hide out in a mansion (where else) as hired plumbers. To keep the charade believable, they attempt to fix the leak in the basement with some very destructive techniques: Larry digs tunnels through the yard while Curly constructs a towering maze of piping in the bathroom. Eventually Moe stops the leak by directing the water into the pipes that lead to the electrical appliances throughout the house. Eventually they're discovered and chased off the property by over a dozen cops, including a police motorcade.
They're true artists when it comes to destruction, and they leave some of the biggest and best messes in this one.
In a peculiar attempt to fix the leaky pipe, Moe instructs Larry to simply hit it with a hammer. But when Larry brings the hammer too far back, he tears a hole in a larger pipe that begins releasing steam. They find a girdle amongst the owners' belongings and use it to patch up the freshly damaged pipe: wrapping it around and hooking it up, leaving a couple extra straps dangling above them. In what may or may not have been a bit of improvisation, Moe studies the straps and asks, "What do you do with these?" Larry sheepishly answers, "You swing on 'em, you know?" He tries to demonstrate, but Moe won't be having it.
How High Is Up? (1940)
After being chased (per usual) onto a construction site, the Stooges sign on to work along the steel beams of the 97th floor of a new building. What follows is a series of near-death balancing gags and mixing up their lunch with steel rivets. Conveniently, when they're forced to evade authority from their precarious surroundings, they employ a parachute that brings them down safely into their truck - only to drive themselves immediately into a traffic accident.
A bit of the usual with plenty of good exchanges ("...That's a rivet!"), but the best part of this one isn't even part of the main story - and that's one of the reasons why it's great. Roughly 3 minutes of this 16 minute short film focuses on the fact that Curly can't seem to take off his sweater. He employs Moe and Larry to help him (either intellectually or physically) figure this out, and with a bit of yanking, some tire irons, a mallet, a pair of scissors, and plenty of confrontation, they all manage to work together to mildly succeed.
An Ache In Every Stake (1941)
Moe, Larry, and Curly are ice deliverymen, driving a wagon full of huge blocks of the stuff to people who've yet to upgrade to electric freezers. Their next stop finds them at a house at the top of a concrete staircase that seems to go on forever. After several disastrous attempts to actually deliver the ice, they get into a dispute with the hired help of the house, and they make amends by stepping in as chefs/bakers/waitstaff. Curly proceeds to stuff the turkey with every ingredient in the kitchen, Larry concocts a punch of every available liquor, and Moe makes a birthday cake consisting mostly of baking powder and butter. Though when the cake fails to bake correctly, they fill it with natural gas to give it more volume. And just as the birthday candles are blown out, everything explodes.
One of their most famous films, mostly for being one of Curly's most memorable performances. In a long stretch of screen time all on his own, we watch as he stuffs the turkey (with oysters still in the shell, eggs still in the shell, canned peas still in the can, and an abused loaf of bread), but not before he's ordered by Larry to "shave some ice." As a gag unto itself, he wraps a towel around the frozen block, covers it in shaving cream, and scrapes at it with a straight razor. But the real fun of this scene is Curly's impression of mundane barber banter as he engages in a oneway conversation with the ice:
"Tell me, is it as warm in the summer as it is in the country, or vice versa?"
"Are you married or happy?"
"Did you have a pink tie on? No? Well here's your lip."
Cactus Makes Perfect (1942)
Following his invention of a 'Gold Retrieving' device, Curly (along with Moe and Larry) heads out west to put it to use in search of a supposed "lost mine." When the device actually works, they have to balance the manual labor of excavating the loot with fighting off a couple of outlaws who attempt to steal it from them.
One of the last truly great Curly films before his health (and performance) began to deteriorate. Fortunately it provides him with several opportunities to shine -- one in particular finds him with his head stuck in the mine shaft as Moe and Larry furiously attempt to free him with the use of crowbars. The shots alternate between Moe and Larry's efforts, and Curly's isolated head on the other side as he contends with the prying levers beating and tearing at his face.
Brideless Groom (1947)
Shemp stands to inherit $500,000 in accordance with his late uncle's will - under the condition that he gets married within the next 48 hours. With a bit of extra prodding from Moe and Larry, Shemp apprehensively starts calling up old girlfriends with marriage proposals, but no success. Though once word of Shemp's potential fortune makes it into the newspaper, his exes flock to his place and induce a rampage of greed and violence.
A fan favorite that's always somewhere on TV (portions of it even appear in Pulp Fiction) and very easily the best of the Shemp shorts. The chaotic climax is some of their best choreographed brutality, but the true standout sequence of this one occurs when Shemp is placing phone calls to old girlfriends. Nearing the end of his black book, he drops his last nickel on the floor of the phone booth, and Moe squeezes into the small space to help him find it. Within moments, the phone cord, the phone line connection, the chained phone book, and various other wires all become entangled between the two Stooges - annoyingly at first, then increasingly more frustrating and alarming. Eventually, escape becomes obviously ineffective and worthless to them, and they accept their fate and begin to focus their struggle on simply maintaining some level of comfort.
Baby Sitters Jitters (1951)
In one of their simplest premises, Moe, Larry, and Shemp are babysitters - watching after a child whose mother is attempting to hide him from her husband after they've split up. Though as soon as the boys fall asleep, the baby is indeed kidnapped by his father, and now the three of them must go out and try to get him back.
The real spine of this short has very little to do with the plot; in one of the better kitchen mixups - and one of his best scenes - Shemp attempts to prepare some soup from scratch. And something we learn about Shemp very quickly is that he can't seem to read so well, and once he misreads 'soap' as 'soup,' there's no turning back. The laughs come from his bizarre phonetics of each ingredient as he reads them aloud with interest: 'sage' is 'saggy,' 'cayenne' is 'canninny' ("What, no pits it that?"), 'mustard' is 'moose star,' and 'cloves' are 'gloves' (and when he pours them in, he exclaims with mild delight, "Oh, little gloves!").