Friday, January 4, 2013

Legalized Shemp

When Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released the first of several DVD collections of the Three Stooges' comedy two-reelers in October 2007 (with subsequent releases in chronological order), the company had mentioned the possibility of including in these box sets extras in the form of the “solo shorts” featuring the various “third Stooges” that replaced Jerome “Curly” Howard, the shaven-headed clown who was forced to retire from the team’s face-slapping antics after suffering a stroke in 1946.  His brother Shemp, and later Joe Besser and Joe DeRita, had all appeared in comedies for Columbia previously during the 1940s/1950s before asking to assist Moe Howard and Larry Fine…and for many years, the only way to obtain any of these was to avail yourself of the services of your friendly neighborhood bootlegger.

Sadly, Sony waited until they released a larger box set—entitled The Three Stooges: The Ultimate Collection—in 2012 to include these shorts (along with two previously unreleased feature films, 1945’s Rockin’ in the Rockies and 1959’s Have Rocket Will Travel) among the 190 two-reel comedies that define the cinematic legacy of the comedy team.  But to give the company proper credit, they announced that these “bonuses” would be also made available separately and they backed up that promise with the release of The Three Stooges: Rare Treasures from the Columbia Vault a few months afterward.  If you had already purchased the previous chronological collections—which I had—then this was all you needed to complete your library.  I found it on sale at before the Christmas holidays, and convinced my folks that it would make a lovely present despite the fact that both of them tend to roll their eyes at anything Stooge.

I’ve since opened up the set and glanced at some of its contents—with a special emphasis on the Shemp Howard shorts.  I have said this many times on the blog in the past, and will probably continue to say it long after I’ve shuffled off this mortal coil—but I enjoy the shorts that Shemp made with the team more than the Curly efforts.  I don’t dislike Curly; many of his shorts are among my favorite Stooges comedies (Horses’ Collars, Pardon My Scotch, Tassels in the Air, Violent is the Word for Curly, etc.) but I’ve often argued that as talented and underrated as Curly was…he was sort of limited in his scope.  He wasn’t going to be anything beyond Curly of the Three Stooges…not that this is a bad thing, you understand.

Shemp, on the other hand, had a great deal more versatility.  He had his own starring series of shorts at Warner Bros-Vitaphone during the 1930s (after appearing in several of the comedies that Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle did there before the comedian’s death in 1933) and worked alongside the likes of W.C. Fields, Abbott & Costello and Olsen & Johnson while at Universal in the 1940s.  Shemp’s employment at Columbia began when he worked on a Buck Jones B-western, Hollywood Round-Up (1938) and not long after that Jules White, the head of the studio’s shorts department, began using him as support in a few of the two-reelers with one of Columbia’s comedy stars, Andy Clyde.

Shemp’s first outing with Andy was Not Guilty Enough (1938)—which isn’t included on the Rare Treasures collection, because Columbia couldn’t locate the master.  (The short was a remake of a short Clyde did while at Educational Pictures, Half-Baked Relations, and was later reworked for Moe, Larry and Curly as Idiots Deluxe.)  So the first representation of Shemp is found in another Clyde outing, Home on the Rage (1938)—in which he plays Andy’s obnoxious brother-in-law.  Andy overhears Shemp and his wife (Andy’s, not Shemp’s…played by Lela Blis) plotting to do away with Andy’s unruly dog and becomes convinced that the two of them really want to murder him.  It was part of a winning formula for the two comics, so much so that Shemp turned up again to cause bro-in-law Andy trouble in 1940s Boobs in the Woods (this time he, Andy and wife Esther Howard—no relation—take a much-needed vacation).  Both of these shorts are entertaining if not particularly remarkable—what I enjoyed most about them was seeing them in better-looking prints than the copies I had in my collection.  (This is probably going to sound kind of odd, I know—but for some reason even weak comedy shorts improve if the print you’re watching is nice and clear.)

Between Rage and Boobs, Shemp and Andy appeared in a fourth short that’s one of the best of the Clyde comedies—Money Squawks (1940).  Andy’s a railroad station agent assigned to keep an eye on a $10,000 payroll for a mining company with Shemp as his co-worker and sidekick.  The two men are robbed of the money by a gang of crooks, and Andy takes after them in a spirited chase that was lifted from an earlier Clyde comedy, Old Sawbones (1935).  There’s a hilariously funny sequence with Andy and Shemp chowing down on their lunch break that allows Shemp to do what he does best—let loose with some wild ad-libs—and it’s definitely the strongest of the Clyde-Howard collaborations.  I wrote a post back in 2008 about how sad it was that many of Andy’s two-reelers aren’t available on commercial DVD because he made many that were every bit as good (It Always Happens, Caught in the Act, etc.) as the Stooges’ efforts.  Maybe having these three shorts in this collection will spur Sony to dip into their vault for additional goodies in some sort of MOD deal.

Shemp also appeared in a pair of “Glove Slingers” comedies—a series of two-reel shorts produced at Columbia between 1939-1943.  The concept behind these comedies had a young man named Terry Kelly (played in the first entry, Glove Slingers, by Noah Beery, Jr.) who has aspirations of becoming a pugilist like his father despite his mother’s (Dorothy Vaughn) wishes.  (Terry’s fighting ambitions are abandoned after the initial short, but even while he's attending college he’s always ready to settle a scrap in the ring…with the boxing gloves always within reach.)  Shemp plays his manager uncle in the first and second shorts (the second, Pleased to Mitt You, is considered by many to be the best of the series) and while it was an interesting attempt on Columbia’s behalf to do something other than the knockabout slapstick with which it was making its reputation, the “Glove Slingers” shorts never really caught on and the studio went back to its successful formula of mechanized slapstick.  (David Durand took over for Beery in the second entry, and was replaced in the tenth by Bill Henry).  I think some of the early “Glove Slingers” comedies are very entertaining (because they dared to be different); both of the Shemp appearances are in this DVD collection…with a hilarious bit in Pleased to Mitt You as one of Shemp’s ad-libs breaks up Guinn “Big Boy” Williams to the point where he can’t help but look directly at the camera.

Shemp’s own starring series at Columbia came about via a one-shot teaming with El Brendel, the Swedish dialect comedian who had been making shorts for the studio since 1936.  Columbia was never really able to utilize Brendel’s talents during his stay there—more often than not he was cast as a simpleton whose behavior could really grate on the audience after a fashion, and they even teamed El up with second bananas like Tom Kennedy and Monte Collins in hopes of generating comic sparks.  (Though I will confess: I think El’s Love at First Fright [1941] is a funny comedy, and the first half of Ready, Willing But Unable [1941] has some laughs—though Ready had a time-tested plot that had been used before by Laurel & Hardy as Habeas Corpus, the Taxi Boys in Wreckety Wrecks…and would be reworked for Moe, Larry & Curly as Three Pests in a Mess.)  Anyway, the Brendel-Howard pairing produced Pick a Peck of Plumbers (1945), a weak entry (possibly the worst short Shemp made) that was a reworking of the Stooges’ earlier A Plumbing We Will Go (one of the trio’s best), which itself was a remake of a comedy made at Columbia with George Sidney & Charlie Murray, Plumbing for Gold.  El would be paired with Harry Langdon for a further series of mediocre shorts, and when Langdon passed away in 1945 Columbia chose not to renew Brendel’s contract.

Shemp, on the other hand, landed his own solo series beginning with Open Season for Saps (1944)—a remake of an earlier comedy made at Columbia by Charley Chase, The Grand Hooter (1937).  It wasn’t the only Chase Columbia that they refashioned for the Shempster: Off Again, On Again (1945) is a reworking (and even features recycled footage) of one of my favorite Chases, Time Out for Trouble (1938).  I hadn’t seen Shemp’s version (I remarked on this in a post also in 2008) and while it won’t make me forget Charley’s take it’s a breezy little effort.  Shemp also got to put his own spin on Chase’s classic The Heckler (1940)—which in turn was based on an earlier short produced at Mack Sennett’s laugh factory called The Loudmouth—as Mr. Noisy (1946)…and as entertaining as Charley's was I have to confess I prefer Shemp’s remake.  (It’s the perfect fit for his brash, obnoxious personality.)

Shemp also remade a few of the Stooges comedies in his brief solo shorts career—I’ve already mentioned Plumbers, but in addition he borrowed Moe, Larry and Curly’s Punch Drunks to make A Hit with a Miss in 1945.  (Not even a superior print to replace the one I currently own can help this one, unfortunately.)  But at the risk of committing comedic blasphemy, I actually prefer Shemp’s Society Mugs (1946) to the earlier Termites of 1938 by the Stooges; it’s a lively, funny short and just might possibly be my favorite of Shemp’s Columbia vehicles.

Shemp’s co-star in Mugs is the ubiquitous Tom Kennedy (Tom even gets billed above the title with Shemp), who also appeared with my favorite Stooge in Where the Pest Begins (1945—a sporadically funny short with some great Howard ad-libs) and the other Shemp comedy I had not seen, Jiggers, My Wife (1946).  Jiggers is your typical frenetic marital farce where Shemp’s better half (Early Cantrell) is convinced he’s cheating on her—wacky complications eventually ensue, with our hero innocently trapped in Christine McIntyre’s apartment.  Jiggers isn’t a terrible comedy but this formula was already being beaten to death at the studio by resident wolf Hugh Herbert (not to mention Leon Errol at R-K-O).  (Interestingly, Tom Kennedy gets equal billing with Shemp in Jiggers, too…even though Shemp’s pretty much the whole show.)

Shemp’s final solo Columbia comedy was Bride and Gloom (1947) (not to be confused with his classic Stooges outing Brideless Groom), an entertaining two-reeler with Shemp once again accused of marital infidelity.  It benefits tremendously from a hilarious opening sequence in which Shemp, a la Charley Chase in Limousine Love (1927), has a undressed woman in the back of his car and because he’s driving with no brakes is forced to circle the church where he’s to be married again and again and again; also, too: funny supporting performances from longtime Stooge players Vernon Dent (as Shemp’s prospective father-in-law), Christine McIntyre (as Shemp's passenger) and Dick Curtis (as her jealous hubby).

I mentioned in my “state of the blog” post that I watched a few of the Three Stooges shorts that Antenna TV unspooled over New Year’s Day and though there are those who will dismiss me as a kook I just seem to enjoy the Shemp efforts more.  Shemp benefited from the fact that Edward Bernds was writing and/or directing many of the team’s later efforts, and despite the budgetary limitations was able to produce some real jewels like Squareheads of the Round Table, The Hot Scots, Who Done It? and Punchy Cowpunchers, to name but a few.  Visiting Shemp Howard’s “solo period” was a sublime treat, and if you like-minded fans haven’t secured a copy of them for your very own I can’t stress doing so at your earliest opportunity.


Mike Doran said...

I don't know if you're familiar with Ted Okuda's book The Columbia Comedy Shorts, which carries detailed accounts of all of Columbia's two-reel output from the '30s through the '50s.

This book was particularly wselcome for me; back in the early '60s, when the Stooge shorts had hit it big in syndication, Screen Gems decided to put out a package including shorts that featured Andy Clyde and Buster Keaton, so stations could periodically spell the Stooges.

Why these comedies got the syndie nod over others in the Columbia catalog is fairly obvious: both Clyde and Keaton were still active in movies and TV (Clyde had recurring roles on both Lassie and The Real McCoys) and thus more "accessible" to the kid audience of the day.

WGN-channel 9,the Stooge outlet in Chicago at that point, welcomed the new material, and changed the format of the daily Stooge show; it now took place in an old movie theater, the Odeon, whose caretaker was a grizzled coot named Andy Starr, played by Bob Bell (when he wasn't being Bozo). Any resemblance between Andy Starr and Andy Clyde was not discouraged.

The Bell/Starr show ran on ch9 well into the 60s, but Screen Gems removed the Clyde and Keaton shorts from the package long before that.

That's kind of an abrupt end to that story, but the TV columnists we had in Chicago back then didn't care about stuff like that, and so covered it not at all.

On another front:

Since you've not mentioned it anywhere here, I'll guess that you don't know that Rich Koz (Svengoolie) suffered a heart attack in early November, thus suspending production on Sven and Stooge-A-Palooza on MeTOO.
MeTV has a sufficient backlog of Sven shows to fill the schedule until Rich returns (sometime in spring), but Stooge-A-Palooza has had to go on hiatus. MeTOO is airing Stooge shorts sans intros in order to keep the contract with Sony, but for now they're not in Saturday prime time; that will have to wait until Rich gets back.

So this doesn't turn out to be a total bummer, I should mention that Rich Koz gave a phone interview to WGN radio the other night; his recovery is proceeding quite well, and as mentioned above he expects to back in the spring.

Apart from all this, I hope your holidays went well.

ClassicBecky said...

So Shemp is the King of the Curlies, eh? I won't argue -- it's your blog and your inimitable taste. (But Curley was better...oops, did I blog that out loud?)

Page said...

I'm not a Three Stooges fan at all as you know but I read your great article and I also admire that you dedicate such great and detailed posts about their work, your favorites.

I wouldn't know a Shemp, Shrimp from a Blimp but this was a fun read.

Kingo Gondo said...

"I smell something burning.

Somebody's roasting a ham.


Stacia said...

Wow, terrific post, Ivan! I am not a Three Stooges fan -- I only know of the vague concept of a "Shemp" because of the Sam Raimi connection -- but this made me really interested in the actual guy behind the stereotype.

I have been so scared to see the Brendel-Shemp short but I think I might give it a go after reading this.

Also, "Legalized Shemp?" HA! Love it, love everything about it.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

"Mr. Television" speaks:

I don't know if you're familiar with Ted Okuda's book The Columbia Comedy Shorts, which carries detailed accounts of all of Columbia's two-reel output from the '30s through the '50s.

Sure am! One of my most prized film reference books. I should also point out that Ted co-authored the book with Ed Watz; I'm friends with both gentlemen on Facebook and even though we differ in opinion on the merits of certain shorts (Ed/Ted love Hugh Herbert's One Shivery Night, I prefer Git Along Little Zombie) from time to time they are great folks to have a conversation with re: those two-reelers, and their book is a must-buy for those interested in the subject. (I've said this often on the blog but it bears repeating: the Columbia shorts were my introduction to funsters like Charley Chase, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, etc. and they made me want to seek out more of these fine film comedians' work.)

Since you've not mentioned it anywhere here, I'll guess that you don't know that Rich Koz (Svengoolie) suffered a heart attack in early November, thus suspending production on Sven and Stooge-A-Palooza on MeTOO.

I did hear about this and made a few comments about it on Facebook and the Twitter...I had planned to write something more in depth here on the blog but "something suddenly came up," as they say. More accurately, I was going to work it in when I announced that Me-TV's Svengoolie show is gonna run Cult of the Cobra this January 19, a great flick of interest to both Maverick (it's got Jack Kelly) and Fugitive (and David Janssen) fans. But you've done the heavy lifting for me. :-)

Mike Doran said...

Your acknowledgement is hereby acknowledged; my apologies to Ed Watz for not mentioning him in connection with the Columbia shorts book. Ted Okuda is a Chicagoan, with several other books to his credit on the local TV history, which is my excuse for concentrating on him.

Cult Of The Cobra is part of that Svengoolie backlog I mentioned above:
Rich Koz has been at The U for over a decade, and I would hope that some of his older shows would get an airing in this time of need.
I would love to see some of his special shows again, such as his Ed Wood tribute, Out Of The Wood Work, which is about as good a mix of the absurd and the scholarly as can be done.
Also, some of his anniversary shows, wherein local Chicago celebs (and a few national ones) joined in the rubber chicken tossing (the 100th show was called the Sventennial).
And maybe, rights issues notwithstanding, some shows where Sven had to run some real cinematic doggies, from Poverty Row and even worse.
Also some of the song parodies from Doug Graves and the Graves-Tones (actually just Doug and Rich, but what the hell).
Rich Koz has racked up so many awards and honors locally over the years; now that MeTV has taken him national, America ought to really learn what they've been missing all this time.

By the way, Ivan:
I don't know if I ever mentioned this, but I don't have either Twitter or Facebook, so that's why I didn't see your mentions of Rich Koz in those venues.
Anything you need to say to me you gotta put up here.
Sorry for any inconvenience.