As a dedicated Marx Brothers aficionado, my comic loyalties never rested with the Three Stooges, the ultimate lowbrow comedy team. But millions of Stooge fans can't be wrong, can they? Sony has given them a wonderful gift in a series of DVD collections that, for the first time, restore the Columbia Stooges short films (190 in all) in high-definition transfers and present them in chronological order. The sets are also a prime opportunity for the curious to evaluate the silver-screen clowns puported to define the archetypally male sense of humor.
The knockabout knuckleheads Larry Fine, Moe Howard, and Curley Howard (the lineup represented in the 1937-1939 collection) constitute a live-action Punch-and-Judy show. The humor isn't verbal but situational, and the jokes are primarily physical punishment doled out back and forth between the three men as they stumble together toward some prize. What could charitably be called the "brains" of the outfit belonged to scowling straight man Moe, frequently and accidentally crossed by hapless idiot Curley, with dim-bulb Larry always managing to stay in the middle of trouble.
The defining element of the Stooges' comedy were the mutual slappings and slapstick beatings. Punchy sound effects, like noggin collisions that sound like coconuts striking, were a staple. In fact, the high-voiced Curley was a walking comedy sound-effects library, with his "nyuk-nyuk-nyuk" laugh and "woo-woo-woo" choruses (Curley was also the purveyor of Stooges catchphrases like "Hey Moe!" and"I'm a victim of coicumstance!"). The Stooges were carrying on a physical-comedy tradition that passed from vaudeville to silent film to sound film and television. Every time you see a comedic eye-gouging or an errant board swinging around and catching someone in the face, it's a passed torch that was held for decades by the Three Stooges.
The period from 1940-1942 finds the most popular lineup of Stooges in some of their most daring and fondly remembered misadventures. The Stooges attempted more high-concept outings in this batch, most prominently with 1940's "You Nazty Spy!", in which Moe Howard became the first American to play Hitler on film (neck and neck with Brit Charlie Chaplin in 1940's The Great Dictator). Producer-director Sam White brainstormed the concept of Moe as Hitler, Curly as Göring, and Larry as Goebbels, promising, despite the dark reality, "I'll make it funny." Moe reportedly considered the finished result is favorite Stooges film (it also inspired the 1941 sequel "I'll Never Heil Again," also included in this set).
Curly's personal favorite outing is also among the gems in Volume Three: 1940's "A Plumbing We Will Go." It's vintage Stooges havoc, with waves of errant water and gales of slapstick. Though produced swiftly and on tight budgets, the films are impressively resourceful and the boys' performances crisp.
"You Nazty Spy!," "Rockin' Thru the Rockies," "A Plumbing We Will Go," "Nutty But Nice," "How High is Up?", "From Nurse to Worse," "No Census, No Feeling," "Cookoo Cavaliers," "Boobs in Arms," "So Long Mr. Chumps," "Dutiful But Dumb," "All the World's a Stooge," and "I'll Never Heil Again."
"An Ache in Every Stake," "In the Sweet Pie and Pie," "Some More of Samoa," "Loco Boy Makes Good," "Cactus Makes Perfect," "What's the Matador?", "Matri-Phony," "Three Smart Saps," "Even as I.O.U.", and "Sock-a-Bye Baby."
Sony's two-disc set lacks any bonus features, but the films have never looked better. The detail is excellent, film grain is put in its place, and the source material has been both preserved well and cleaned up very nicely. Sound is a perfectly adequate stereo track. Each disc has a thoughtful "Play All" option as well as a menu of film selections, each being its own single chapter.
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