Sunday, June 28, 2009

Fight Club

"When the fight was over, nothing was solved, but nothing mattered. We all felt saved." - The Narrator, Fight Club.

Yes, my friends, welcome to the original Fight Club. Watching the rough and tumble antics of the Three Stooges put me back in touch with my masculinity.

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Well, yes, except for that.

Oh, yeah, and that, too.

The point is that I was reminded of the power of the smack as I watched the new Sony release The Three Stooges Collection, Volume 6: 1949-1951. This two-disk DVD set offers 24 digitally remastered shorts, including fan favorites Who Done It? (1949) and Scrambled Brains (1951).

Who Done It? is one of the Stooges better "dark old house" comedies. Duke York plays a menacing, barrel-chested giant named Nikko. The Stooges running from room to room to evade Nikko, including their efforts to barricade a door, largely borrows action from Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which came out a year earlier. The resemblance does not end there. In Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Lenore Aubert is an alluring vampire trying to seduce Costello in an attempt to sink her teeth into his neck. Similarly, Who Done It? features Christine McIntyre as a spooky femme fatale who acts seductively towards Shemp in an effort to get him to drink a poisoned cocktail. Shemp goes into convulsions after gulping down the poison. It wouldn't seem as this would be a funny scene but only Shemp could act as if he is in death throes and make it into a wildly funny routine. The good news is that Shemp has a tough enough constitution to survive the poisoning.

Scrambled Brains, a zany and fastmoving short, is about Moe and Larry trying to help Shemp to recover from a nervous breakdown. Shemp's hallucinations allow for surreal comedy, such as Shemp sitting down to play a piano and suddenly imagining that he has four hands.

Surreal humor is also dominant in Three Hams on Rye (1950), which features the Stooges as stage hands aspiring to become actors. Larry is supposed to put on an inconspicuous disguise to conceal his identity from a theater critic. Of all the costumes available in the backstage wardrobe, Larry drags out the strangest disguise for himself. He starts out putting on a long black overcoat and then he finds an oversized stovepipe hat with eye slits, which he pulls down over his head. Only someone as spacey as Larry would think that this disguise is sensible. Shemp, taking one look at him, calls him a "black banana."

Here is another surreal gag from that same comedy.

The opening scene of A Snitch in Time (1950) is set in a workshop, where the Stooges are busy making furniture. This proves to be a dangerous place for the Stooges to be messing around. At first, the mishaps are minor. Shemp nails his glove to a highchair. Larry struggles to fit a drawer into a bureau. But then Shemp accidentally smacks Moe in the head with a board, sending Moe's face into a buzzsaw. Then, the Stooges suffers various injuries from the misuse of a hacksaw, a chisel and a wood-shaver. Shemp shoots glue into Moe's eye, which seals Moe's eye shut. The ensuing action causes Moe to get more glue on his hands. First, the glue causes a brush to get fastened to his hand. Then, when Moe simultaneously smacks Shemp and Larry, he gets his hands stuck to their faces. This comedy frightened me as a child. To this day, I shy away from home improvement projects for fear of accidentally gluing my hand to a brush or getting my nose grinded down by a buzzsaw. If not for the Stooges, I could have turned out to be one of those buff construction workers that the women love.

Or, I could have turned out looking like this.

The Tooth Will Out (1951) has more than its share of laughs. Shemp, as a student in dental school, creates a set of dentures both homely and feisty. The snaggletoothed dentures can laugh, sing, hop around, and chomp down on people's fingers. The aggressive dentures also manage to bite a tongue depressor in half and get themselves latched securely onto Moe's nose.

In Dopey Dicks (1950), it is not only the dicks that are dopey. A scientist is so batty that he constructs a mechanical man too tall to fit through doorways or get under hanging lamps. As a result, the mechanical man keeps losing his head. At the end, when the Stooges finally escape the clutches of this mad scientist, they frantically flag down a car. They scramble into the car as fast as they can and slam the doors shut behind them, only to turn around and find that the car is being driven by the headless robot.

Love at First Bite (1950) may be the worst comedy that the Stooges ever made. A running gag has to do with Shemp leaving wads of his used chewing gum around the apartment. Moe gets gum stuck to his ear when he answers the phone. Shemp tosses away a wad of gum, which lands on the tip of Larry's nose. These scenes, rather than making me laugh, grossed me out. Nothing funny about a gummy mess.

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The truth is that Moe, for all his abusive behavior, is a kinder and gentler person than mean mom Kate Gosselin.

Later in Love at First Bite, the Stooges overplay a drunk scene, acting more brain-damaged than drunk.

Pest Man Wins (1951) is a remake of one of the Stooges' early comedies, Ants in the Pantry (1936).

1936


1951
The Stooges are pest exterminators who infest a mansion with mice, moths and ants to bring business their way. In the original, a grumpy boss forces the Stooges to create the infestation to keep their jobs. The Stooges decide that an appropriate site for their critter invasion is a mansion where a high society dinner party is being held. In the remake, Moe comes up with the idea of the infestation on his own. The homeowner is hosting a party to promote her catering business. Now, rather than destroying a snooty party to save their jobs, the Stooges are offhandedly destroying a woman's business. These simple changes in plot points and motivations shift the sympathy from the Stooges to the party hostess.

Still, it isn't the story or set pieces that make this short funny. The humor largely comes from incidental business introduced as the Stooges interact with household staff, party guests and each other. Shemp does a funny dance with a maid. Vernon Dent does an even funnier dance after a mouse has crawled down the back of his shirt. Moe snatches cheese away from Larry, managing to chew up the cheese and swallow it before Larry is able to tell him that he treated the cheese with rat poison. This last scene is interesting. The poisoning is made especially outlandish by the fact that Larry fails to display the slightest bit of urgency. Larry doesn't wince and try to grab the cheese away from Moe. No, he just stands alongside Moe with the goofiest grin before he is able to explain that the cheese is poisoned. This is markedly different from the original film, where Larry purposely feeds the poisoned cheese to Curly to test its potency. But now, fifteen years later, Larry has evolved into this daffy and clueless character.

Most of this latest batch of Stooges shorts do not work consistently from beginning to end. It is isolated scenes and random bits of business that make these comedies worth watching. Hula-La-La (1951) gets my endorsement just for a scene where Moe and Larry get beaten up by a four-armed idol. Merry Mavericks (1951) is sufficiently pleasant based on a number of funny moments, including a brief exchange where Moe challenges Larry to explain what the word "apprehensive" means. Larry responds, "It means you're scared - with a college education." And Shemp's hair is always good for a laugh.

A personal favorite of mine is Fuelin' Around (1949), which features the Stooges as carpetlayers. Moe crawls under a carpet to remove an object creating a bulge while Shemp and Larry, unaware of his whereabouts, continue tacking down the carpet. Moe becomes trapped underneath the carpet. He is struggling futilely while Shemp, trying to flatten bulges in the carpet, pounds him with a hammer. Later, Armenian spies mistake the frizzy-haired Larry for a frizzy-haired rocket scientist modeled after Albert Einstein. The idea of Larry standing in for Einstein is funny stuff.

Larry and his partners are locked in a laboratory and told they will not leave until they concoct a batch of rocket fuel. Eventually, the Stooges attempt to break out of the laboratory. Larry uses a corrosive chemical mixture to burn a hole in the floor. Moe and Larry climb down the hole first, but Shemp is only halfway down the hole when the Armenian general (Vernon Dent) grabs him around the neck. The general pulls Shemp up by the head while Moe and Larry pull Shemp down by his legs. Shemp, pulled in two directions, finds his neck and legs being stretched to impossible lengths.

The film ends with the Stooges using their very special brand of rocket fuel to start a getaway car. The car belches out a fiery backfire that disintegrates the uniforms of soldiers, leaving the military men in nothing except their long underwear. This, for sure, is an all-around funny short.

I have a couple of other complaints about the collection. They are minor complaints, but complaints nonetheless.

The Stooges' comedy had always been enhanced by sounds effects but now, in weaker scenes, a variety of sound effects was the comedy. In Hokus Pokus (1949), the Stooges are going through their morning routine. Shemp's back makes a horrible cracking sound as Shemp bends over to touch his toes. The Stooges gather together in a circle to shave. An unsettling scraping noise accompanies the sight of these straight razors running up and down their faces.

The fact that the Stooges were getting older meant that, when the action got more physical, stand-ins for the Stooges were likely to be called in. Obvious doubles became an irritating presence in these comedies. Doubles were used even for this simple scene in The Tooth Will Out where the Stooges get tossed out of various businesses.


Real Shemp


Fake Shemp

All in all, though, watching this collection of comedy shorts was a spiritual experience. "Yes," said the Narrator, "these are bruises from fighting. Yes, I'm comfortable with that. I am enlightened."

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Thank you. Come again.

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