The Three Stooges (Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Curly Howard) hit their stride in their third short feature for Columbia Pictures, Men in Black. The title is a play on “men in white,” referring to hospital staff doctors in white coats. The Stooges play three bumbling physicians who are graduated from medical school and hired at a hospital only because they have been repeating their senior year for too many years. The Stooges’ formula, that was to remain un-altered for years, is completely in place here, replete with head knocks, eye pokes, and Curly’s signature “woop-woop-woop.”
The Three Stooges were unlikely movie stars. After years of vaudeville and spotty film appearances, they reached their fame later in life than most stars (Moe was 36 when the Columbia Pictures series of Three Stooges comedies was launched.) Unlike Laurel & Hardy, they were a trio, not a duo, which was a combo that even in more modern times, has only had staying power for a few outings (such as The Ghostbusters and the Hangover crew.) Their physical antics appeal more to men (or the boys in men) than to the wives and girlfriends that are likely to accompany them to the movies. Moe has always come off as somehow unwashed and uncouth; Curly as too overtly obese; and Larry. . .well, he might be my favorite with his crazy hair and more subtle, nuanced acting than the others, so no criticisms with Larry.
The head knocks and eye pokes are famous, but they are the least enduring parts of The Stooges’ schtick. The comic set-ups and unbridled randomness of their plots stand out more than the constant violence. All the pratfalls and variations on beating each other up probably worked better on the vaudeville stage than they do in the movies.
The best piece of business in Men in Black has the Stooges breaking the glass door to the hospital superintendent’s office, only to have the door be fixed over and over again, always to be re-broken by a Stooge slamming the door. Finally, the glass repairman just smashes the door himself when he sees The Stooges running towards it.
The Three Stooges made 220 films, mostly short features over the course of their career, their most famous being 190 for Columbia Pictures between 1934 and 1957. Harry Cohn, president and authoritarian monarch of Columbia Pictures, kept them on a tight leash and limited their attempts to branch into feature films and television. It is said that Cohn kept them in the dark about how much money they were making for Columbia. The Stooges never collected residuals on their Columbia work, were paid a salary that was essentially unchanged for 23 years, and were kept in fear that the short features market was drying up and that they might be terminated at any time. Only when Cohn died did they realize that they had lost out on the chance to earn millions more than they had.
Men in Black features the classic Three Stooges line-up of Moe Howard (1897-1975), Larry Fine (1902-1975), and Curly Howard (1903-1952). Moe and Curly were brothers, originally named Horwitz. Shemp Howard (1895-1955), who replaced the ailing Curly in 1946, was a third brother who had been with the troupe when they were on stage (1923-1932) as “Ted Healy and his Stooges,” had a solo career as a screen comic, and then rejoined the Three Stooges for their short features from 1946-1955.