The Three Stooges were an American vaudeville and comedy act of the early to mid–20th century best known for their numerous short subject films. Their hallmark was physical farce.
The Stooges were commonly known by their first names: "Larry, Moe, and Curly" and "Moe, Larry, and Shemp," among other lineups. The act originally featured Moe Howard, brother Shemp Howard and longtime friend Larry Fine. Shemp was later replaced by brother Curly Howard. When Curly suffered a debilitating stroke in 1946, Shemp rejoined the act. After Shemp's death in 1955, he was replaced by bald-headed comedian Joe Besser, after the use of stuntman Joe Palma to record several "Shemp" shorts after his death. Eventually Joe "Curly-Joe" DeRita (born Joseph Wardell) would replace him. Larry suffered a serious stroke in 1970, and was unable to continue performing. Emil Sitka, a longtime actor in Stooge comedies, was contracted to replace Larry, but no film was ever made with him in the role, although publicity photographs exist of him with his hair combed similarly to Larry's, posing with Moe and Curly-Joe (see below). However, Larry's paralyzing stroke in 1970 effectively marked the end of the act. He died in January 1975. Moe died of cancer a few months later.
Ted Healy and His Stooges
The Three Stooges started in 1925 as part of a raucous vaudeville act called 'Ted Healy and His Stooges' (a.k.a. 'Ted Healy and His Southern Gentlemen', 'Ted Healy and His Three Lost Souls' and 'Ted Healy and His Racketeers'—the moniker 'Three Stooges' was never used during their tenure with Healy). In the act, lead comedian Healy would attempt to sing or tell jokes while his noisy assistants would keep "interrupting" him. Healy would respond by verbally and physically abusing his stooges. Brothers Moe and Shemp were joined later that year by violinist-comedian Larry Fine, and Fred Sanborn joined the group as well.
In 1930, Ted Healy and His Stooges, including Sanborn, appeared in their first Hollywood feature film: Soup to Nuts, released by Fox Studios. The film was not a success with the critics, but the Stooges' performances were considered the highlight and Fox offered the trio a contract without Healy. This upset Healy, who told studio executives that the Stooges were his employees. The offer was withdrawn, and after Howard, Fine and Howard learned of the reason, they left Healy to form their own act, which quickly took off with a tour of the theatre circuit. Healy attempted to stop the new act with legal action, claiming they were using his copyrighted material. There are accounts of Healy threatening to bomb theaters if Howard, Fine and Howard ever performed there, which worried Shemp so much that he almost left the act; reportedly, only a pay raise kept him on board. Healy tried to save his act by hiring replacement stooges, but they were inexperienced and not as well-received as their predecessors. In 1932, with Moe now acting as business manager, Healy reached a new agreement with his former Stooges, and they were booked in a production of Jacob J. Shubert's The Passing Show of 1932. During rehearsals, Healy received a more lucrative offer and found a loophole in his contract allowing him to leave the production. Shemp, fed up with Healy's abrasiveness, decided to quit the act and found work almost immediately, in Vitaphone movie comedies produced in Brooklyn, New York.
With Shemp gone, Healy and the two remaining stooges (Moe and Larry) needed a replacement, so Moe suggested his younger brother Jerry Howard. Healy reportedly took one look at Jerry, who had long chestnut red locks and a handlebar mustache, and remarked that he did not look like he was funny. Jerry left the room and returned a few moments later with his head shaved (though his mustache remained for a time), and then quipped "Boy, do I look girly." Healy heard "Curly," and the name stuck. (There are varying accounts as to how the Curly character actually came about.)
In 1933, Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) signed Healy and his Stooges to a movie contract. They appeared in feature films and short subjects, either together, individually, or with various combinations of actors. The trio was featured in a series of musical comedy shorts, beginning with Nertsery Rhymes. The short was one of a few shorts to be made with an early two-strip Technicolor process; the shorts themselves were built around recycled film footage of production numbers cut from MGM musicals, some of which had been filmed in Technicolor. Soon, additional shorts followed (sans the experimental Technicolor), including Beer and Pretzels, Plane Nuts, and The Big Idea.
Healy and company also appeared in several MGM feature films, such as Turn Back the Clock, Meet the Baron, Dancing Lady, Fugitive Lovers, and Hollywood Party. Healy and the Stooges also appeared together in Myrt and Marge for Universal Pictures. In 1934, the team's contract with MGM expired, and the Stooges parted professional company with Healy. According to Moe Howard in his autobiography, the Stooges split with Ted Healy in 1934 once and for all because of Healy's alcoholism and abrasiveness. Their final film with Healy was MGM’s 1934 film, Hollywood Party.
Both Healy and the Stooges went on to separate success. Healy died under mysterious circumstances in 1937.
The Columbia years: Moe, Larry and Curly
The same year, the trio (now christened The Three Stooges) signed on to appear in two-reel comedy short subjects for Columbia Pictures. In Moe's autobiography, he said they each got $600 per week on a one-year contract with a renewable option; in the Ted Okuda–Edward Watz book The Columbia Comedy Shorts, the Stooges are said to have gotten $1,000 between them for their first Columbia effort, Woman Haters, and then signed a term contract for $7,500 per film, to be divided among the trio. According to Moe, Columbia Pictures studio head Harry Cohn would always wait until the last minute to renew the contract. The Stooges, too worried about keeping their jobs in an increasingly declining short-subject market, would not dare ask for a raise during the 23 years they worked for Cohn. The Stooges appeared in 190 film shorts and five features under the "original" contract with Columbia. Del Lord directed more than three dozen Three Stooges shorts. Jules White directed dozens more, and his brother Jack White directed several under the pseudonym "Preston Black". (In the early shorts, Curly was billed as "Curley", and also as "Jerry Howard" when receiving a writing credit.)
According to a published report, Moe, Larry, and director Jules White considered their best film to be You Nazty Spy!. This 18-minute short subject starred Moe as "Moe Hailstone", an Adolf Hitler-like character, and satirized the Nazis in a period when America was still neutral and resolutely isolationist. Curly played a Herman Goering character, replete with medals, and Larry a Ribbentrop-type ambassador. You Nazty Spy! was the first Hollywood film to spoof Hitler, as it was released in January, 1940, nine months before Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator. Reportedly this film caused the Stooges to be placed on Hitler's so-called "death list" because of its anti-Nazi stance. Chaplin, along with Jack Benny, would also be on this list due to their later anti-Nazi films.
The Stooges made occasional guest appearances in feature films, though generally they stuck to short subjects. Columbia offered theater owners an entire program of two-reel comedies (15 to 25 titles annually) featuring such stars as Buster Keaton, Andy Clyde, Charley Chase, and Hugh Herbert, but the Three Stooges shorts were the most popular of all.
Curly was easily the most popular member of the team. His childlike mannerisms and natural comedic charm made him a hit with audiences. The fact that Curly had to shave his head for the act led him to feel unappealing to women. To mask his insecurities, Curly ate and drank excessively and caroused whenever the Stooges made personal appearances, which was approximately seven months out of the year. His weight ballooned in the 1940s, and his blood pressure was dangerously high. His wild lifestyle and constant drinking eventually caught up with him in 1945, and his performances suffered. In his last dozen shorts, he was seriously ill, struggling to get through even the most basic scenes.
During the filming of Half-Wits Holiday on May 6, 1946, Curly suffered a debilitating stroke, and the film was finished without him. (He is absent from the last several minutes of the film.) Curly's health necessitated a temporary retirement from the act, and while the Stooges hoped for a full recovery, Curly never starred in a film again. He did make one brief cameo appearance in the third film after Shemp returned to the trio, Hold That Lion!. It was the only film that contained all four of the original Stooges (the three Howard brothers and Larry) on screen simultaneously; Jules White recalled Curly visiting the set one day, and White had him do this bit for fun. (Curly's cameo appearance was recycled in the 1953 remake Booty and the Beast.) In 1949, Curly was supposed to play a cameo role in the Stooge comedy Malice in the Palace, but he was physically unable to perform. His chef role was played by Larry.
Moe Howard turned to his older brother Shemp Howard to take Curly's place. Shemp, however, was hesitant to rejoin the Stooges, as he had a successful solo career at the time of Curly's untimely illness. However, he realized that Moe's and Larry's careers would be finished without the Stooge act. Shemp wanted some kind of assurance that his rejoining was indeed temporary, and that he could leave the Stooges once Curly recovered. Unfortunately, Curly's condition declined until his death on January 18, 1952.
Shemp appeared with the Stooges in 76 more shorts and a quickie Western comedy feature titled Gold Raiders. During this period, Moe, Larry, and Shemp made a pilot for a Three Stooges television show called Jerks of All Trades in 1949. The series was never picked up, although the pilot is currently in the public domain and is available on home video, as is an early television appearance from around the same time on a vaudeville-style comedy series, Camel Comedy Caravan, originally broadcast live on CBS-TV on March 11, 1950 and starring Ed Wynn. Also available commercially is a kinescope of Moe, Larry, and Shemp's appearance on The Frank Sinatra Show, broadcast live over CBS-TV on January 1, 1952. Frank Sinatra was reportedly a big fan of the Stooges and slapstick comedy in general. On this broadcast, the Stooges are joined by one of their longtime stock-company members, Vernon Dent, who plays "Mr. Mortimer", a party-goer who requests a drink. The Stooges oblige with disastrous results.
Columbia's short-subject division downsized in 1952. Producer Hugh McCollum was discharged and director Edward Bernds resigned out of loyalty to McCollum, leaving only Jules White to both produce and direct the Stooges' remaining Columbia comedies. Production was significantly faster, with the former four-day filming schedules now tightened to two or three days. In another cost-cutting measure, White would create a "new" Stooge short by borrowing footage from old ones, setting it in a slightly different storyline, and filming a few new scenes often with the same actors in the same costumes. White was initially very subtle when recycling older footage: he would reuse only a single sequence of old film, re-edited so cleverly that it was not easy to detect. The later shorts were cheaper and the recycling more obvious, with as much as 75% of the running time consisting of old footage. White came to rely so much on older material that he could film the "new" shorts in a single day.
Three years after Curly's death, Shemp Howard died of a sudden heart attack at age 60 on November 22, 1955. Archived footage of Shemp, combined with new footage of his stand-in, Joe Palma (filmed from behind or with his face hidden), were used to complete the last four films of Shemp's contract: Rumpus in the Harem, Hot Stuff, Scheming Schemers, and Commotion on the Ocean.
Joe Besser replaces Shemp
Joe Besser replaced Shemp in 1956, appearing in 17 shorts. Besser, noting how one side of Larry Fine's face seemed "calloused", had a clause in his contract specifically prohibiting him from being hit too hard (though this restriction was later lifted). Besser was the only "third" Stooge that dared to hit Moe back in retaliation and get away with it; Larry Fine was also known to hit Moe on occasion, but always with serious repercussions. "I usually played the kind of character who would hit others back," Besser recalled.
With Besser on board, the Stooge films began to resemble sitcoms. Sitcoms, though, were now available for free. Television was the new popular medium, and by the time Besser joined the act, the Stooges were generally considered throwbacks to an obsolete era. In addition, Moe and Larry were growing older, and could not perform pratfalls and physical comedy as they once had.
The inevitable occurred soon enough. Columbia was the last studio still producing shorts, and the market for such films had all but dried up. As a result, the studio opted not to renew the Stooges' contract when it expired in late December 1957. The final comedy produced was Flying Saucer Daffy, filmed on December 19–20, 1957. Several days later, the Stooges were unceremoniously fired from Columbia Pictures after 24 years of making low-budget shorts. Joan Howard Maurer, daughter of Moe, wrote the following in 1982:
“ The boys' careers had suddenly come to an end. They were at Columbia one day and gone the next—no 'Thank yous,' no farewell party for their 24 years of dedication and service and the dollars their comedies had reaped for the studio.
Moe Howard recalled that a few weeks after their exit from Columbia, he drove to the studio to say goodbye to several studio executives when he was stopped by a guard at the gate (obviously, not a Stooges fan) and, since he did not have the current year's studio pass, was refused entry. For the moment, it was a crushing blow.
Although the Stooges were no longer working for Columbia, the studio had enough completed films on the shelf to keep releasing new comedies for another 18 months, and not in the order they were produced. The final Stooge release, Sappy Bull Fighters, did not reach theaters until June 4, 1959. With no active contract in place, Moe and Larry discussed plans for a personal appearance tour; meanwhile, Besser's wife had a minor heart attack, and he preferred to stay local, leading him to withdraw from the act. For the first time in nearly 30 years, the Stooges hit a dead end.
The comeback: Larry, Moe and Curly-Joe
Seeing the success of how television, in its early years, allowed movie studios to unload a backlog of short films thought unmarketable, the Stooge films seemed perfect for the burgeoning genre. ABC television had even expressed interest as far back as 1949, purchasing exclusive rights to 30 of the trio's shorts. However, the success of television revivals for such names as Laurel and Hardy, Woody Woodpecker, Tom and Jerry and the Our Gang series in the late 1950s led Columbia to cash in again on the Stooges. In January 1958, Columbia's television subsidiary Screen Gems offered a package consisting of 78 Stooge shorts (mainly from the Curly era), which were well received. Almost immediately, an additional 40 shorts hit the market, and by 1959, all 190 Stooge shorts were airing regularly. Due to the massive quantity of Stooge product available for broadcast, the films were broadcast Monday through Friday, leading to heavy exposure aimed squarely at children. This led parents to watch alongside of their offspring, and before long, Howard and Fine found themselves in high demand. Moe quickly signed movie and burlesque comic Joe DeRita for the "third Stooge" role; DeRita shaved his head and became "Curly-Joe" because of his resemblance to the original Curly Howard (also to make it easier to distinguish him from Joe Besser, the earlier Stooge called Joe).
This Three Stooges lineup went on to make a series of popular full-length films from 1959 to 1965, most notably Have Rocket, Will Travel, The Three Stooges Meet Hercules and The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze. The films were aimed at the kiddie-matinee market, and most were Farce outings in the Stooge tradition, with the exception of Snow White and the Three Stooges, a children's fantasy in Technicolor. They also appeared as firemen (the role that helped make them famous in Soup to Nuts) in the film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Throughout the 1960s, The Three Stooges were one of the most popular and highest-paid live acts in America.
The trio also filmed 41 short comedy skits for The New Three Stooges, which features a series of 156 animated cartoons produced for television. The Stooges appeared in live-action color footage, which preceded and followed each animated adventure in which they voiced their respective characters.
In 1969, the Three Stooges filmed a pilot episode for a new TV series titled Kook's Tour, a combination travelogue-sitcom that had the "retired" Stooges traveling around the world, with the episodes filmed on location. On January 9, 1970, during production of the pilot, Larry suffered a paralyzing stroke, ending his acting career, as well as plans for the television series. Longtime foil Emil Sitka replaced him as the Middle Stooge in 1971.
Larry Fine suffered another stroke in December 1974. The following month, he suffered a more serious one and slipped into a coma. He died on January 24, 1975, at the age of 72. Devastated by his friend's death, Moe nevertheless decided that the Three Stooges would continue.
Several movie ideas were considered, including one called Blazing Stewardesses according to Leonard Maltin, who also uncovered a pre-production photo (the film was ultimately made with the last surviving Ritz Brothers). However, Moe fell ill from lung cancer, and died on May 4, 1975.
With Moe gone, it was inconceivable that the Three Stooges would continue without a Howard. However, Curly Joe did perform live with Mousie Garner and Frank Mitchell as "The New 3 Stooges" in the mid-1970s.
Joe Besser died on March 1, 1988, followed by Curly Joe on July 3, 1993. Emil Sitka died on January 16, 1998, making him the last "Stooge" to die (though Sitka never performed on film as a member of the trio, but did appear in a few publicity shots).
1.Ted, Moe, Shemp 1922-1924
2.Ted, Moe, Larry, Shemp 1925-1932
3.Ted, Moe, Larry, Curly 1932-1934
4.Moe, Larry, Curly 1934-1946
5.Moe, Larry, Shemp 1946-1955
6.Moe, Larry, Joe 1956-1958
7.Moe, Larry, Curly Joe 1958-1971
8.Moe, Harry, Curly Joe 1971-1975
Real Name: Clarence Ernst Lee Nash
Born: October 1, 1896(1896-10-01)
Died: December 21, 1937 (aged 41)
Stooge Years: 1922–1931, 1932–1934
Real Name: Moses Harry Horwitz
Born: June 19, 1897(1897-06-19)
Died: May 4, 1975 (aged 77)
Stooge years: 1922-1927, 1928–1975
Real Name: Louis Feinberg
Born: October 5, 1902(1902-10-05)
Died: January 24, 1975 (aged 72)
Stooge years: 1925–1927, 1928–1971
Real Name: Jerome Lester Horwitz
Born: October 22, 1903(1903-10-22)
Died: January 18, 1952 (aged 48)
Stooge years: 1932–1946
Real Name: Samuel Horwitz
Born: March 4, 1895(1895-03-04)
Died: November 22, 1955 (aged 60)
Stooge years: 1922–1927, 1928–1932, 1946–1955
Born: August 12, 1907(1907-08-12)
Died: March 1, 1988 (aged 80)
Stooge years: 1956–1958
Curly Joe DeRita
Real Name: Joseph Wardell
Born: July 12, 1909(1909-07-12)
Died: July 3, 1993 (aged 83)
Stooge years: 1958–1975
Photograph features Stooges left to right, Moe Howard, Curly Howard & Larry Fine. Hand Oil Tinted by Artist Margaret A. Rogers.