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The Three Stooges debuted on the big screen in the 1930 black-and-white feature, “Soup to Nuts,” in which they appeared opposite veteran vaudevillian Ted Healy (1896-1937).
It was Healy who accidentally discovered the Howard brothers (Moses and Samuel Horwitz, nicknamed, respectively, Moe and Shemp) during a 1922 stage performance in Brooklyn (the third member, Larry Fine, whose birth name was Louis Feinberg, came into the fold in 1925). Initially billed as “Ted Healy and His Stooges,” the concept had the trio (Moe, Larry and Shemp) act as foils, or “stooges” to Healy’s jokes. It may have been Healy telling the jokes, but The Stooges were getting all the laughs.
Constant contention between The Stooges and Healy forced Shemp (1895-1955) to leave the troupe and seek out a solo acting career, in which he succeeded, appearing on his own in dozens of features and shorts between 1934 and 1946.
In his search for a replacement, Moe (1897-1975) suggested his younger brother Jerry (1903-1952), a comedic orchestra conductor on the vaudeville circuit. Once cast, Jerry reluctantly shed his thick red hairstyle in favor of a shaved noggin, earning the nickname “Curly” when Moe misinterpreted a comment about his brother’s new coif from vaudevillian Healy.
After a series of shorts for MGM in 1933 and 1934, the trio’s popularity captured the attention of Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn, who signed the three comic actors, sans Healy, to a bona fide Hollywood contract in 1934.
Now christened The Three Stooges, Moe, Larry (1902-75) and Curly debuted for their new studio in the 1934 comedy short “Woman Haters,” the first of the 190 two-reelers they would make for Cohn over the next 25 years. (Their contract called for eight films per year). Their third title, 1934’s “Men in Black” (“…calling Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard” being its famous catch phrase) earned producer Jules White an Oscar nomination for Best Short Subject, the only such accolade ever bestowed upon their films.
In 1946, Curly, now firmly recognized as the trio’s comic star, suffered a debilitating stroke on the set of the film “Half-Wits Holiday,” which ended his acting career. He would make one last cameo appearance a year later in “Hold That Lion.” (His role in 1949’s “Malice in the Palace” was deleted).
That 1947 title marked the comics’ 100th short for Columbia, and was the only film that featured all four Stooges (Shemp relinquished his successful solo career in 1946 and reunited with Moe and Larry following Curly’s illness). Curly succumbed to his afflictions at age 48, in 1952, at which time the trio had been reborn as “Moe, Larry and Shemp.”
Upon Shemp’s fatal heart attack in 1955 at age 60, Moe and Larry recruited veteran funnyman Joe Besser (1907-1988) to step into the act. Curiously, Besser’s contract dictated he could never actually be slapped by Moe in the 16 shorts in which he appeared, the last being 1959’s “Sappy Bull Fighters.”
Following the termination of The Stooges’ contract with Columbia, Besser left the trio, after which the final member of the Three Stooges was drafted — veteran vaudevillian and comic actor Joe DeRita (nicknamed “Curly Joe,” 1909-1993), who stayed with the act from 1959 until its demise in 1970.
During his tenure with The Stooges, DeRita starred with Moe and Larry in a half-dozen feature films (but, ironically, no short films), which include ‘Have Rocket, Will Travel’ (1959), ‘Snow White and the Three Stooges’ (1961), ‘The Three Stooges Meet Hercules’ (1962), ‘The Three Stooges in Orbit’ (1962), ‘The Three Stooges Go Around the World in A Daze’ (1963) and ‘The Outlaws Is Coming’ (1965).
The threesome also made uncredited appearances in Stanley Kramer’s epic 1963 comedy, ‘It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ and the 1965 comedy-western, ‘4 for Texas’ with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
Once their big screen career waned, the trio turned to television, where their original two-reelers had found a new home (and audience) in reruns when the Columbia subsidiary, Screen Gems, syndicated a package of 78 original short films in 1958. In 1965, The Three Stooges debuted on the small screen in a new animated TV series entitled ‘The New Three Stooges’, for which the troika voiced their movie characters.
Another TV pilot (a travelogue featuring The Stooges called ‘Kook’s Tour’) was filmed in 1970, during which Larry suffered a paralyzing stroke, ending his career and the anticipated TV series. Moe proposed longtime comedian Emile Sitka as Larry’s replacement, an idea that never materialized.
As plans developed for another Stooges feature, ‘Blazing Stewardesses’, Moe was felled by lung cancer and succumbed to the disease in May 1975. (The Ritz Brothers, another popular comedy team of the 1930s and 1940s, replaced the Stooges in the 1975 film.)
DeRita attempted to redefine the Three Stooges in the early ‘70s, recruiting burlesque and vaudeville veterans Mousie Garner and Frank Mitchell to replace Moe and Larry for nightclub engagements. The act failed and DeRita retired.
With the renewed popularity of the comedy trio in syndicated television, it made sense to revive the franchise in a brand new motion picture.
“It’s been quite a journey, there’s no question about that,” states Earl M. Benjamin, President and CEO of C3 Entertainment, the official licensing and merchandising company for The Three Stooges brand. Benjamin is one of the new film’s executive producers and happens to be DeRita’s stepson.
“The movie project dates back at least fifteen years,” Benjamin continues. “We wanted to reinvigorate the franchise. The Three Stooges are the greatest comedy trio of all time. Sadly, we can’t make any more films with the original guys. But we wanted to bring the great comedy routines of The Three Stooges to a new and younger generation. The best way to do that was to make a whole new film with Moe, Larry and Curly – as a great tribute to the original guys.”
“The Stooges always wanted to make feature films,” Benjamin states in reference to their long tenure at Columbia Pictures, where studio boss Cohn relegated their comedy formula to the two-reel format. “Feature films were always their passion. It wasn’t until the 1960s that they finally got to make feature films. Unfortunately, Curly and Shemp had passed away.”