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 1937-1939 finds the most popular lineup of Stooges in some of their most memorable misadventures. Appropriate to the Depression-era times, these popular shorts depicted the Stooges as working-class stiffs always close to the bottom of the social heap, though they would tangle with stuffed shirts in comedies like "Termites of 1938" (great title), which finds the boys working as exterminators but mistaken for high-class escorts. Fan favorite "Dizzy Doctors" finds the boys shilling miracle medicine "Brighto," all the way into an operating room. Though produced swiftly and on tight budgets, the films are impressively resourceful and the boys' performances crisp.
"Grips, Grunts and Groans," "Dizzy Doctors," "3 Dumb Clucks," "Back to the Woods," "Goofs and Saddles," "Cash and Carry," "Playing the Ponies," "The Sitter-Downers," "Termites of 1938," "Wee Wee Monsieur," "Tassels in the Air," "Healthy, Wealthy and Dumb," and "Violent Is the Word for Curly."
"Three Missing Links," "Mutts to You," "Flat Foot Stooges," "Three Little Sew and Sews," "We Want Our Mummy," "A-Ducking They Did Go," "Yes, We Have No Bonanza," "Saved by the Belle," "Calling All Curs," "Oily to Bed, Oily to Rise," and "Three Sappy People."
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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