`The Three Stooges': eternally sophomoronic message and medium

`The Three Stooges': eternally sophomoronic message and medium

The cyclical nature of Stooge-mania is not unlike that associated with biblical plagues, locust invasions and the reliable return of Halley's comet.

They were Healy's comets, originally. But were they the greatest film comedy team? The Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy, and Abbott & Costello would beg to differ. Yet for legions of sophomoric and sophomoronic fans, the ultimate wits -- dim or half -- will ever be Moe, Larry and Curly.

The new "Three Stooges" movie, which opened Friday on lucky April 13, is co-directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly's contemporary take on the time-tested boneheads' iconic-ironic formula, re-creating those puerile personas in a (slightly) modernized situation with a fresh set of latter-day Stooges who look and sound amazingly like the originals.

Seems that baby Moe, Larry and Curly have been left on the doorstep of a convent orphanage -- "newborn angels from heaven," say the nuns, until one of them, Sister Mary-Mengele (Larry David), gets eye-poked by Moe and goes sailing head over habit. The boys grow up nyuk-nyuk-nyuking and woo-woo-wooing to immaturity, becoming the home's inept maintenance men and meeting femme fatale-tamale Lydia ("Modern Family's" Sofia Vergara) who gets them involved in a murder plot and -- oh, never mind...

Have I told you lately about the Apotheosis of My Childhood? Thanks for asking. It was Jan. 3, 1959 -- the day the Three Stooges came to the late great Holiday House in Monroeville for their first live appearance since vaudeville days. For a 10-year-old in the Eisenhower administration, this was equivalent to the resurfacing of Amelia Earhart and an audience with the pope, combined. My cousins and I, in our best clip-on ties, strained to get autographs from three snarly old men, barely tolerating us and our flashbulb-popping Kodaks. In the spirit of the occasion, we'd drop the just-used hot ones down each other's backs -- for guaranteed howls. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk...

No wonder the Stooges' influence generated such universal parental disapproval. We were always hearing horror stories about kids who poked each other's eyes out, but we concluded that anyone dumb enough to actually "pick two" -- without putting his hand on his nose sideways -- deserved to be blinded.

No less a figure than Moe himself addressed that contentious subject, when asked by a Post-Gazette reporter at Kennywood. "The eye thing is out [of the act] now," he growled, since meddlesome groups like the Pittsburgh Jaycettes were petitioning to ban the Stooges from TV. Moe had no doubt who was to blame: "Women!" he fumed, unrepentant. "Why don't they stay home and criticize their children?"

Stooge History 101: Ted Healy discovered the Howard brothers (Moses and Samuel Horwitz, aka Moe and Shemp) during a 1922 show in Brooklyn; "Porcupine" Larry Fine (1902-1975) joined the act in 1925. Billed as "Ted Healy and His Stooges," the trio served as foils to Healy's jokes. When Shemp (1895-1955) left to go solo, Moe (1897-1975) enlisted youngest brother Jerry (1903-1952), a comic dancer and conductor on the vaudeville circuit. They would make 190 short comedies for Columbia over 25 years. In 1946, Curly's stroke on the set of "Half-Wits Holiday" tragically ended his career and prompted a string of lackluster-to-lame substitute Curlies, including Joe Besser (whose contract stipulated he could never be actually slapped by Moe -- what a wimp!).

Greatest hits among the legendary shorts:

"You Natzy Spy," filmed a year before America entered World War II, in which Moe does his immortal Hitler send-up and Curly plays fat Field Marshal Herring.

"We Want Our Mummy," set in the Egyptian tomb of King Rooten Tooten and Queen Hotsie-Totsie. When not floor-spinning in a circle, Curly -- the Rudolf Nureyev of slapstick -- takes his memorable dip in a desert-mirage ocean of sand.

"A-Plumbing We Will Go" (with the racist, bug-eyed servant refrain, "Feet, do yo' stuff!"), "Boobs in Arms," "Ants in the Pantry," "They Stooge to Conga" -- the list is endless.

But back (reluctantly) to the future-present incarnation: The three new stooges -- Chris Diamantopolous as Moe, Will Sasso as Curly and Sean Hayes (Jack on "Will & Grace") as Larry -- are not quite household names but have excellent chemistry, from the excerpts I've seen. Give the Farrelly Bros. ("Dumb & Dumber," "There's Something About Mary") high marks for verisimilitude -- of the signature gags and all-important sound effects and "boinks!" from the two-reelers that punctuate the slapstick. This effort had the real potential to bomb but doesn't because it sticks to basics.

Basic what? Basic absurd repetition and predictability. Like Clarabelle sneaking up behind Buffalo Bob with a seltzer bottle on "Howdy Doody," with the peanut gallery going bananas, trying to warn him. ("Huh? What is it, kids?" -- but he never turns around.) Basic bonking.

Which raises the age-old Gender Debate: Why do men find the Stooges so riotously funny, while precious few women do (my cousins Carole and Lynn being glorious exceptions)? It's because the Stooges do everything mothers tell boys not to do: run with sharp objects, poke people in the eyes, bash each other with shovels. They represent vicarious male rebellion, full of stupid noises, pratfalls, bad puns -- a delicious juvenile "cultural regression" that never goes out of style.

The Farrellys' homage is surprisingly enjoyable. If it corrupts -- I mean, inspires -- a new generation to Stooge awareness, who am I (or other geriatric Stooge purists) to object? Whilst we wax rhapsodic, they wax moronic into eternity. The last Stoogefest at the Syria Mosque in 1991 drew 6,000 people. Then and now, all you can say is -- "Spread out!"

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