MOSES HARRY HORWITZ, AKA MOE HOWARD…AND ALL THE OTHER CHUCKLEHEADS
I admit, maybe with a tinge of embarrassment — or not — that The Three Stooges were my heroes.
I loved ’em.
As a child of the ’50s and ’60s.
And yup; even now.
Their schtick then was timeless, though today, perhaps not so much.
After all, nuthin’ lasts forever.
The Three Stooges, an American and Vaudeville comedy team, active from 1922 until 1970, are best remembered for their 190 short subject films, produced by Columbia Pictures.
Their vaudeville humor had a profound impact on the industry, and although they were victimized financially — screwed — in their earlier years by Columbia co-founder Harry Cohn and their personal manager Harry A. Romm, they managed to rise to the top, in spite of it all.
The slapstick style, frenetic farce, physical foolishness and silly sound effects — zany hijinks combining to form the foundation of the shorts — overpowered and sometimes obscured the satirical storylines which dealt with social commentary and class struggles.
There was also a long tradition of Jewish comedy interwoven; their humor was inspired by Eastern European Yiddish archetypes, role-playing the ‘schlemiel,’ the ‘schlimazel’ and the ‘persecutor.’
The Stooge nonsensical razzmatazz deeply permeated all 190 episodes.
Some of their dialogue — the ditties, remarks and rejoinders (not to mention, all of the sound effects) — were, and still are, seared into my brain.
“We baked you a birthday cake, [an’] if you get a tummy ache, and you moan and groan and woe, don’t forget we told you so!!”
“We’re trapped like rats!” “Speak for yourself, rodent.”
“How’s yours, Colonel?” Tastes like a mattress.”
“Look what came through the wall! A gopher!!” [Sound effects of hammers applied to the head of said ‘gopher’]. “That gopher sounds like Moe!!!”
“Moe, Larry help me! There was an ugly-lookin’ thing staring right at me!! Oh, whadya know? It was you!!!”
“Moe! I thought you was the Goon!!”
[After a plumbing misadventure causing leaks in the kitchen ceiling — among other places — the exasperated chef, throwing up his arms in resignation, proclaims,]
“Dinner’s called on account o’ rain.”
Physical farce and slapstick — emphasis on the slap — ruled the day.
A free-standing oak-veneered phone booth was a prop, often placed on set.
The Three Stooges and Columbia short film mainstay — foil, chief antagonist and infrequent ally — Vernon Dent, converge on an open phone booth simultaneously, and of course all are wedged in, and then stuck.
Dent has a bag of groceries in his arms, including the ingredients to make a chocolate cake.
Larry has a nickel to make a call but drops it on the floor and wiggles to retrieve it.
Eggs break, milk spills, chocolate is everywhere and the brown paper bag somehow overturns and wraps conveniently over Dent’s head, nearly suffocating him.
The ceiling light bulb, unscrewed by Moe for a reason known only to him, finds its way into Dent’s mouth.
One of the boys punches Dent in the belly, the light bulb pops out and the phone booth falls on its side.
All four extricate themselves and Shemp stands up, giddy, and spits out a mouthful of nickels.
He gleefully lets the audience know that he’s “hit the jackpot!!”
In a less complex sketch, Moe and Shemp find themselves stuck in a phone booth, and when straight man Larry arrives on the scene to assist, he’s met with a pair of right fists to the snoot, knocking him out cold, as the Stooge theme song wails in the background.
Six Stooges appeared over the life of the act, with only three in play at a time.
Moe Howard and Larry Fine — Moses Harry Horwitz and Louis Feinberg — were the mainstays throughout the team’s nearly 50-year-run.
The pivotal “third stooge,” was played by — in order of appearance — Shemp Howard (Samuel Horwitz); Curly Howard (Jerome Lester Horwitz); Shemp again; and then Joe Besser and finally “Curly” Joe DeRita.
Thumbnail sketches of the six, trace their respective background histories.
Moses Harry Horwitz — Moe Howard:
Known for distinctive, signature bowl-cut hairdo, which he styled himself with a pair of scissors…bowl-cut buffoonery took Moe — the most successful of The Stooges — to the heights, but he worked for it…dropped out of high school after two months to attend shows with his brothers, with the dream of being a performer…booked singing gigs at bars where his talent was quickly recognized, and was hired by comedian Ted Healy to play a heckler at the latter’s shows, a routine which brought huge laughs…Healy wanted to develop the bit so he hired Moe’s brother Shemp and Larry Fine, and anointed the group, “Ted Healy and His Stooges”…the act positioned Healy to bear the brunt of the stoogery and then dish out a little punishment of his own — abuse heaped physically as well as verbally — which became the trademark of The Stooges…over Moe’s 50-year Stooge career — working on a shoestring budget with no stunt-doubles — there were plenty of injuries, and he suffered broken bones, multiple concussions and the like…honored with a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame…died in 1977 at age 77 of lung cancer.
Louis Feinberg — Larry Fine:
Severely burned arm with acid as a boy, and to rehabilitate and rebuild the damaged muscles, it was suggested that he take up violin, at which he became quite proficient…also was a lightweight boxer…met Ted Healy as a vaudeville violinist…Healy signed him as a Stooge, the quintessential straight man…the mediator and ‘voice of reason’ between bickering brothers, Moe and Shemp…unlike Moe, Larry was not good with money, courtesy of a gambling addiction and a big heart/poor judgment mix, demanding that he make questionable ‘loans’ to friends…joined Moe as a 50-year Stooge…a stroke relegated him to nursing home life and additional strokes took him at age 72 in 1975.
Samuel Horwitz — Shemp Howard:
Healy was becoming more abrasive and power-hungry, unwilling to allow the Stooges to branch out…they defied him and did so anyway, starting as “The Three Lost Souls”…Healy reappeared, wheedling his way back into the inner sanctum, but Shemp was angry…he took a fourteen-year hiatus (1932-’46), launching a fairly successful solo career, working alongside such comedians as W.C. Fields and Abbott & Costello…Shemp returned to the fold in ’46 when then-replacement brother Curly fell ill…what was meant to be a short-term gig became a nine-year run, as Curly never recovered…in 1955, Shemp was in a taxi on the way home from a boxing match, telling a joke — cigar in hand — and suffered a massive heart attack falling on his buddy Al Winston’s lap…he died at 60 in 1955.
Jerome Lester Horwitz — Curly Howard:
The youngest brother of Shemp and Moe and not an original member, Curly quickly made his bones, becoming the most popular Stooge, everybody’s favorite…arrived on the scene with reddish-brown hair and a handlebar mustache, an appearance which was not well received…shaved the ‘stache and his head immediately in the presence of all, and remarked that he looked, “girly”…Healy heard “curly,” and the rest is history…the bald funny man was remembered for his high-pitched voice, iconic ‘woo-woo-woo’ sound effects, unique thumb & finger snapping and a litany of other moves such as his on-the-ground shoulder spinning ( a precursor to break-dancing?) and his backward-shuffle-bounce-walk (perhaps setting the table for Michael Jackson’s moonwalk?)…weight issues and a heart condition, along with reckless partying, hardcore drinking, and an affinity for women who were no good for him, contributed to his declining health by 1944, and in 1946 Curly suffered a debilitating stroke…Moe helped take care of his baby brother and even facilitated a return to The Stooges in a series of cameo roles, when his health improved and allowed for it…on his last day on the set, he turned to Director Jules White and said sadly, “Gee Jules, I guess I’ll never be able to make the children laugh again.”…Curly died in 1952 at 48-years-old.
After Shemp’s fatal heart attack in ’55, Moe and Larry floated the idea of continuing the act as “The Two Stooges,” and were summarily rebuffed by the studio…Besser had a resume, having worked with Abbott & Costello, and also was already under contract with Columbia, but it was not a good fit…Moe wasn’t wild about Besser, and the fact that Besser had a clause written into his contract that he would not be hit excessively, exacerbated the tension…his character was viewed as whiny and annoying, and although Besser remembered his time as a Stooge (1955-’59) fondly, his role was largely a forgettable one…Joe Besser died from heart problems at 80 in 1988.
Joe DeRita — Curly Joe:
Perfected his comedy routines during WWII when he joined the USO and toured alongside Bing Crosby and Randolph Scott, performing for the troops…The Stooges actually enjoyed a bit of a renaissance with DeRita, starring in six feature-length films and launching a half live/half animated series called, “The New Three Stooges”… throughout the ’60s their popularity was restored and they became one of the highest-paid acts in the country…after Larry’s death, DeRita tried to revive The Stooges on his own, but the idea never gained traction…the last surviving member, he died in 1993 from pneumonia at age 83.
Discussing the intricacies and nuances of “Stoogery,” i.e comedic thuggery — re-creating it as we did on the playground, in school and over the summers — always yielded enthusiastic banter and engendered playful jousting, in an effort to replicate the vast repertoire of signature Stooge moves.
The physicality practiced by the boys, almost always initiated by Moe, wouldn’t fly today of course, but was the order of their time, beginning some 100 years ago.
Their harebrained schemes appealed to the inanity and puerile humor of the viewing audience.
I was — and always will be — a proud, card-carrying member of that niche audience.
“Take the stand.” “Take the stand!” “Take the stand!!” “I got it…now, what do you want me to do with it?”
“How’d your face get so dirty?” “Like this!!”
“We are morons, tried and true, and we’ll do our yell for you: ahewayeooo, bxfrmqheyoo, oohxfglmnooh!!!”
[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in May 2021.]