The Three Stooges: Secrets and Legacy

By 1940, the Three Stooges were at their peak when they starred in the comedy short You Nazty Spy! It was a hilarious hit piece as Moe, Larry and Curly openly lampooned Adolph Hitler.

The Nazi dictator was so outraged by the short that he officially listed Moe Howard, Jerry “Curly” Howard and Larry Fine as “favored casualties” on his personal “death list.”

The Three Stooges began as part of a vaudeville troupe known as “Ted Healy and His Stooges” in 1922. Howard brothers Moe and Shemp, along with violinist Larry were the original cast.

When the Stooges were offered a studio contract by 20th Century Fox in 1930, it was without troupe leader Healy. Healy took offense to this and saw to it that Fox withdrew the offer, claiming that the Stooges were his employees and couldn’t leave him.

With Ted Healy exerting full control over the Stooges in these early years, the trio found its professional life to be difficult. Healy was harsh and irritating.  Although he had made Moe the trio’s business manager, for Shemp the fun was gone. Shemp left the Stooges to make comedy films in Brooklyn.

Curly, Moe’s younger brother, was recruited to replace Shemp. In reality, Curly was a quiet man who kept a low profile in public and preferred the company of dogs to people. He only acted as he did on screen when he was with the other Stooges and preferred to keep a low profile.

Healy’s tyranny grew and was becoming more unbearable to be around as he began drinking heavily. A huge rift grew between him and the Stooges until 1937.

On the night his son was born, the quick tempered Healy drove to Sunset Strip to celebrate. He died mysteriously that evening, allegedly of a heart attack at age 41. Bruising on his face, coupled with reports of him starting a fight soon surfaced and coupled with his aggressive nature keep the idea of him being killed  lingering to this day.

The Stooges were soon signed by Columbia Pictures with a heavy requirement to produce at least eight short films in a period of 40 weeks. Their hard work paid off and they became immensely popular with audiences who lapped up the trio’s hilarious antics. However, the trio were purposely being kept in the dark about their fame by Columbia president Harry Cohn, who saw them as a cheap commodity with enormous market potential.

Cohn kept an open option placed in their contracts so that every year they would have to re-sign. This tactic caused the Stooges to believe they were unpopular with audiences, and thus Cohn could fire them at will.

On top of Cohn’s open contract, the Stooges were not paid as much as their box-office draw suggested. When they first signed the contract with Columbia, they earned $1,000 a week. This was good money in the 1930s, equivalent to over $16,000 in 2022. They quickly realized that they were being treated as one single performer, which meant they had to split that $1,000 between them.

It wasn’t until 1934, that the Three Stooges became Oscar nominees for their film Men in Black, which was a spoof of the Clark Gable/Myrna Loy film Men in White (1934). This was the the Stooges only nomination ever, but two good things came about:

🔹It brought heightened respect and absolutely shut their critics up at the time.

🔹Their earning, divided by three, grew to $7500 per week (2022 value is over $121,500 each week).

The Stooges were recognized for their hilariously dangerous stunts in their films. Usually these were faked for the camera, but sometimes they weren’t. In a scene when a character acted as a human dartboard, Larry got a fountain pen lodged in the back of his head. In another gag Curly had to get stitches in his forehead, and within hours he was back on set wearing a wig that covered the bruising.

While filming Three Little Pigskins (1934), the Stooges drew a line in the sand. They were supposed to be stampeded by a group of professional football players, but they stood their ground and refused. Stunt doubles were called for the scene and they ended up getting seriously injured, suffering cracked ribs and broken bones.

Curly

A common skit seen in The Three Stooges films was a manic Curly running around in circles. In later scripts this was written in on purpose because audiences thought it was hilarious. But it actually began as complete improvisation for whenever Curly forgot his lines.

The Stooges used many physical idiosyncrasies for the sake of comedy. But one of these was not faked; it was caused by a childhood accident.

Curly’s limp was a hilarious antic of his character’s appeal and he worked to make it more comical in their Shorts and Live acts. The limp was actually natural, a result of having shot himself in the ankle when he was cleaning a rifle as a child.

Jerome “Jerry” Horowitz originally shaved his head to secure the part of Curly after his older brother Moe told him a studio executive didn’t believe he looked like a person that could make people laugh. He actually had a thick mop of hair and a handlebar mustache, but shaved it all off. Although successfully funny, the shaved head embarrassed him because he felt women didn’t find him attractive. He would take to wearing hats often to cover up his bald head. This anxiety led him to drink and eat excessively when touring, and by the mid 1940s his weight was causing him serious health problems.

Moe noticed it was becoming more difficult for his little brother to perform in their films. Curly’s career came to a screeching halt in 1946 when he suffered a stroke. He was able to appear briefly in one last Stooges film as a train passenger before suffering a second stroke and spending his final years in a wheelchair. Jerry “Curly” Howard was the first of the Stooges to die, at just 48.

Moe

Moe truly was the brains for The Three Stooges and their films were always popular with audiences. To Hollywood, they were seen as B-movie pictures in the industry. Because of this, they were often forced to cut corners and work on sets that had previously been used by other films.

It wasn’t merely sets that they borrowed, but also props and entire wardrobes left over from other productions.

Curly, Shemp & Moe Howard

Being the business manager of the team, Moe was also the most money conscious of the brothers. He felt responsible for making sure the small budgets on the films made good use of their limited resources and props. Though there were many pie-throwing scenes in the films, there were not actually that many pies available on set, so Moe felt it was important to always hit his target. He developed a way of throwing the pies; he could tell by the weight of the pie how far it could travel and how likely it was to hit some unlucky person in the face.

Moe’s head was one of the most instantly recognizable of the trio’s due to its bowl-cut style. Ironically, it was Moe who had curly hair as a child, as his mother had wanted a daughter and decided to grow her son’s hair out. A nasty dose of school bullying caused Moe to cut his hair by himself, and he kept the bowl cut for the rest of his life.

Larry

Larry Fine, the most musically inclined of the three, had unique violin-playing skills. This came about when he was very young. Larry’s father was a jewelry maker and used acid to etch his jewelry. Larry tried to drink the acid one day, and his father knocked it out of his hand. Some of the acid landed on Larry’s arm, corroding its skin and muscle. To help strengthen the damaged muscles in his son’s arm, his father sent him to violin lessons, which seemed to help restore some of the damage.

As a man, Larry absolutely loved dancing. He would dance at any opportunity and was often found at the Triangle Ballroom in Brooklyn. Often, he would be late for filming and rehearsal because he was overcoming the effects of his many nights out at dance halls. In his retirement, when he was confined to a wheelchair, he would attempt to dance even though he was mostly paralyzed.

Shemp

After Curly’s first stroke, Samuel “Shemp” Horowitz rejoined the Stooges. For the films made in this era, Shemp found that directors and movie executives wanted him to play a similar role to the one played by Curly before he had left. Audiences had reacted to Curly the best, but Shemp didn’t want to mimic his brother’s style. When he did try, critics and audiences found his performance to be lackluster.

On November 22, 1955, Shemp was coming home after attending a boxing fight. He had told a joke and lit a cigar when he hunched over to Al Winston and burned his friend. He died of a heart attack. Having just completed four out of eight scheduled films, producer Jules White used stand-ins footage of them that was cut alongside pre-existing footage of Shemp to give the impression that he had completed these films.

In the years since, body doubles used to replicate an actor who has passed away has come to be known as a “fake Shemps.” Some examples include using Fake Shemps for Natalie Wood, Bela Lugosi, Bruce Lee and John Candy after their deaths during productions of Plan 9 From Outer Space, Brainstorm, The Game of Death, and Wagons East, respectively.

The 1950s were an usual time for the Stooges. On a personal level, Moe and Larry were dealing with the deaths of Curly Howard and Shemp Howard. However, professionally the act was experiencing a new rush of popularity thanks to their shorts airing on television. By 1959, all 190 Stooge shorts were airing regularly on television.

When Joe DeRita replaced the late Shemp in the mid-1950s, he wore his hair in a style similar to Shemp. Because of the awesome popularity of the group’s shorts on television, DeRita was asked first to buzz his hair, then totally shave his head in an attempt to resemble Curly Howard. He was dubbed “Curly-Joe.”

The Three Stooges remained active throughout the 1960s, appearing in full length feature films such as:

🔹Have Rocket Will Travel

🔹It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World

🔹The Outlaws Is Coming

🔹Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze

🔹The Three Stooges Meet Hercules

🔹Snow White and The Three Stooges

🔹The Three Stooges in Orbit

They filmed the pilot of a potential travelogue/comedy hybrid show known as Kook’s Tour. The series would’ve followed the “retired” Stooges to various real locations around the world. However, tragedy struck during production…

Their syndicated shorts continued on television, and they had a successful live tour. By the end of the decade, age had begun to catch up with them, making their traditional brand of slapstick stunts untenable.

They began filming a pilot program for television to be called Kook’s Tour in 1969. Before completion, Larry Fine suffered a massive stroke, paralyzing him. Fine would spend the next five years in a wheelchair. After several more strokes in late 1974, he died in January of 1975.

In 1974, the Stooges, with Moe, Curly-Joe, and the yet-to-debut Emil Sitka, were scheduled to star in the film Blazing Stewardesses. The casting was announced, and publicity photos were taken. Just prior to production, Moe Howard was diagnosed with lung cancer and had to disband the Stooges. He passed away in March of the following year.

Awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1983, The Three Stooges continue to live on in the numerous remakes, re-releases and animated adventures that have been released over time.

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From award-winning Texas author Cynthia Leal Massey.

7 thoughts on “The Three Stooges: Secrets and Legacy

  1. My childhood in the 50s would not have been the same without these guys. Slam Bang Theater and Saturday cartoon shows. It was a while before we kids figured out that hitting each other in the head with a shovel or a board, actually hurt. One or more of us lost eyes due to the finger pokes. In elementary school, we all assumed the persona of the three. We did our best to emulate their speech, which was hard because of our Texas accents. My teachers loathed the Stooges because it made us boys appear to be morons, which we were. ” Slowly I turn.”

    Liked by 2 people

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