Thursday, October 4, 2012
Getting acquainted with ... the Three Stooges
This is the latest in an ongoing monthly series in which I watch three films by one or more movie personalities I want to brush up on.
I realized soon after choosing the Three Stooges for my September Getting Acquainted that there was a reason I hadn't seen many features starring this ever-changing lineup of slapstick artists: They didn't make many features. As Stooges fans know, shorts were really their thing. So a Getting Acquainted series devoted to their movies ended up seeming like a pretty flimsy choice. But I'd already chosen it by the time I recognized their paucity of feature-length films, and choices like this are set in stone once they appear on my blog. (Except when they aren't. I actually watched only one of the three features I originally said I would watch.)
But I still considered it a worthwhile project because of the way I was going to end it: watching the Farrelly Brothers' The Three Stooges, released this past April. At the very least, watching a trio of Stooges movies would help me determine how effective Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes and Will Sasso were as Moe, Larry and Curly. And because I've been in a forgiving mood toward the Farrellys recently -- I loved Hall Pass, for example -- I thought they deserved the benefit of the doubt on this seemingly ill-conceived project.
But the original reason for focusing on them was because I wanted to familiarize myself with these icons, whose most iconic lines and finger maneuvers are known to me, but not much beyond that. If you're a person who talks pop culture, it's useful to be at least somewhat familiar with Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp and Curly Joe. And it's not just morons who like the Stooges. I know Larry David is a big fan, not only because the Stooges came up for discussion a couple times on Seinfeld, but also because David appears in the Farrellys' movie ... as a nun.
So I had to see if there was something deceptively smart about their consummately dumb brand of comedy. I found what I could and was on my way.
Soup to Nuts (1930, Benjamin Stoloff)
Watched: Friday, September 7th
One-sentence plot synopsis: A costumer is going out of business because he spends his time on Rube Goldberg inventions rather than improving his shop, and the representative sent in by the creditors falls for the costumer's niece.
My thoughts on the film: Did that sound like a rather strained plot synopsis? That's because this movie is more of a collection of bits than anything else -- welcome to the Three Stooges! This was actually their first-ever appearance, with Shemp predating Curly, and Moe being credit as "Harry." In fact, the boys were associated with a straight man named Ted Healy, appearing jointly as "Ted Healy and his Stooges." (I guess they have him to thank for their wildly successful careers, but watching the movie today, I couldn't help but think "Who does this Ted Healy guy think he is?") What interested me most about this otherwise somewhat forgettable collection of shenanigans (albeit some fun ones) was that the movie was written by none other than Rube Goldberg. (Hence the presence of Rube Goldberg devices.) Goldberg is a person whose work I have referenced on numerous occasions, but I knew almost nothing about him, let alone that he was still alive in the 1930s. For some reason I fancied him to be a 19th century personality, to the extent that I thought about him at all, but in fact he lived from 1883 to 1970. Shows what I know. Anyway, Goldberg and the Stooges seem a natural fit, but their parts of the movie are actually somewhat separate -- the Stooges play firefighters who come to put out a fire the the costume shop with all the Goldberg devices. (And really, these particular devices are pretty simple, a necessary limitation of what they could effectively reproduce on film in 1930.) Soup to Nuts made the Three Stooges famous, I guess, and I guess I can see why. Their appearance at a fire station party -- doing a variety of pratfalls and groaners, in a variety of costumes -- would have made a pretty good introduction to what we would get for the next 30 to 40 years.
Swing Parade of 1946 (1946, Phil Karlson)
Watched: Tuesday, September 18th
One-sentence plot synopsis: Faced with eviction from her apartment, an aspiring singer (Gale Storm) accepts a fee from a real estate mogul to serve a cease and desist order to the owner of the nightclub where she wants a job -- but ends up falling for the nightclub owner, who happens to be the mogul's son.
My thoughts on the film: I had announced Dancing Lady as the second Stooges film I was going to watch, but I realized that that would make two movies in which one of the three best known Stooges didn't appear. I didn't need two Stooges films from before Curly came on board, so I looked later in their filmography and found that although Swing Parade of 1946 wasn't available from Netflix, I could stream it on youtube. Having never before used youtube that way, I decided it was definitely time -- and might have written a separate post about it were Swing Parade not one of my Getting Acquainted movies, which I usually don't even reference until the monthly recap post. I found it a pretty good way to watch a movie -- a movie you don't care that much about, anyway. And you can leave off and pick back up anywhere you want, as long as you have a computer and the internet present. Anyway, I found this movie sort of delightful, actually. It's an example of the type of movie that was common in this era, where the plot is basically an excuse for a handful of musical numbers, the kind you'd see at a nightclub (which is the movie's setting). I had the opening number, performed by Louis Jordan and his orchestra, in my head for about a week afterward. The plot itself is minimal, giving brief screen time to such standard elements as the romantic couple meeting and falling for each other, while also devoting a decent amount of time to the Stooges (who play dishwashers) breaking dishes and getting involved in other hijinx. I didn't consider anything the Stooges did to be especially inspired, but I also didn't find their presence obnoxious. As seems to be the case in most of their efforts, they embody an essential good will and serve as an agent for steering their protagonist toward a successful outcome of his/her goal. Storm makes a very likable protagonist, and her love interest (Phil Regan) is equally likable. One funny thing that speaks to the perfunctory nature of the narrative beats is that there is literally about a minute of screen time between the thing that drives a wedge between these two and its resolution. But that's not why you see Swing Parade of 1946. Another element that speaks to the film's narrative oddity is that a significant portion of the movie's final five minutes is devoted to the impressive verbal powers of a young man who had spent the movie trying to get an audition for the nightclub. In the show's true variety show nature, he's given a moment at the end to do his remarkable impersonation of a locomotive, and other outstanding impersonations -- right as most movies would be concentrating on tying up the central plot.
Watched: Monday, September 24th
One-sentence plot synopsis: Instead of seven dwarfs, there are three Stooges, and a number of the set pieces take place on ice skates.
My thoughts on the film: The second Stooges film I said I would watch but didn't was The Three Stooges Meet Hercules, and the reason for the shift was a) I had heard this film referenced in another Stooges review I was reading as something that had high production values, and b) I found that Snow White was available for streaming on youtube as well. Also, the fact that it starred an Olympic gold medalist ice skater (Carol Fleiss) seemed too interesting to pass up. By this late stage in their careers, with Curly gone and replaced by Joe DeRita (Curly Joe), the Stooges had morphed into full-on ambassadors of good, capable of very few pratfalls and finger pokes. (As a joke early on, they are shown as traveling salesmen who try to sell a bogus potion called Nyuk that helps re-grow hair.) I didn't mind them in this mild benevolent capacity, and I thought they worked pretty well in the plot. Fleiss is a pretty capable actress, and her handsome prince charming (Edson Stroll) is as handsome and charming as you would want him to be. This too is a musical, but in addition to people breaking into song to disrupt the flow of the narrative, they break into sudden bouts of ice skating -- something I had never seen before. I found it no more peculiar than what we always accept in musicals, the sudden singing. Indeed the film has decent sets and production values overall, and I found it plenty charming. Not much more to say, really.
Watched: Saturday, September 29th
One-sentence plot synopsis: A modern-day version of the Stooges tries to raise $800,000 to keep the orphanage where they were raised from closing down.
My thoughts on the film: Since I'd heard this film praised in various quarters, I managed to be let down by something I never thought would be any good in the first place. The leads -- Chris Diamantopoulos, Will Sasso and Sean Hayes -- all do perfectly credible impersonations of the three most famous Stooges, but in the end, I decided that these impersonations weren't really such an amazing feat after all. A couple of the set pieces are marginally impressive; more of them seem pointless. The best thing the film has going for it is that its heart seems to be in the right place. The worst thing it has going for it is that it seems to have tried to prop up its fortunes in two pretty dubious ways, neither of which work. The ads for this film assumed that if you weren't otherwise interested in the Three Stooges, you'd see it because Snooki gets her eyes poked by Moe, and because Kate Upton appears in a nun bikini. Well, the film relies too heavily on the Jersey Shore bit, as Moe actually becomes a cast member on the show, and the show's idiot regulars each get far too much screen time as a result. The opposite sin is committed with Upton, as the money shot from most of the ads does not even appear in the completed film -- she's seen in her nun bikini only while sitting in a lifeguard chair, which tends to obscure much of what the audience came to see. Oh, and David's appearance basically amounts to a lot of yelling.
Conclusion: In the end, I don't feel like I actually saw any vintage examples of the Stooges. In order to do that, I needed to be steered toward their classic shorts -- which wouldn't have been a relevant assignment for this blog. That said, I found each of the films I saw pleasing enough.
My favorite of the films: Swing Parade of 1946
October: Bring on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. This is a choice inspired directly by the Sight & Sound list, where they had a staggering six films listed -- none of which I've seen. In fact, I'd say I didn't even know much about them before this list, though I later realized that I've seen a solo effort by Powell: Peeping Tom. My current plan is to see The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, though as you saw from last month, this is subject to change. Especially since one of their other films from this list, A Canterbury Tale, is available on Netflix streaming while Blimp and Shoes are not.
Until then, enjoy my usual frivolous output.