It was during the filming of Half Wits’ Holiday (1947)—the ninety-seventh two-reel comedy that The Three Stooges made for the Columbia shorts department—that on May 6, 1946, “third stooge” Jerome “Curly” Howard suffered a stroke between takes…effectively ending his movie career with longtime partners Larry Fine and brother Moe. (He did, however, make cameo appearances in two later Stooge efforts, Hold That Lion  and Malice in the Palace , though his scene from the latter short was edited out at the last minute and is believed to be lost.) Though Columbia had reservations when Moe suggested that his brother Shemp (who had actually been in the act before their success at Columbia) replace the departing Curly (the studio felt he looked too much like Moe), Shemp was added to the roster and made an additional seventy-seven two-reelers as a stooge—the last four even cranked out after his death in 1955!
Not many people are aware that Shemp was a star in Columbia shorts before being lured back into the Stooges’ fold. The Shempster was working on a pair of Buck Jones westerns at the studio in 1937 when he was also asked to appear in a few Andy Clyde two-reelers playing Clyde’s obnoxious brother-in-law (Not Guilty Enough, Home on the Rage). He also turned up in a few of the early shorts in Columbia’s Glove Slingers series (Glove Slingers, Pleased to Mitt You) and by 1944, shorts department head Jules White asked him if he would star in a series of his own after being paired with El Brendel in Pick a Peck of Plumbers (1944). Thus, the Shemp Howard series was born.
I’ve stated on many occasions that I believe Shemp was funnier than Curly, even though that may sound like blasphemy to Stooge fans. “Curly” Howard was a very funny and very talented comedian (who never truly received his critical due) but without Moe or Larry to keep him in check he could be pretty overbearing…and when you give it a good deal more thought, he really wasn’t going to be anything but Curly of The Three Stooges. Shemp displayed a great deal more versatility, starring in a series of bizarre (but funny) two-reelers for Vitaphone during the 1930s and being an effective second banana up against the likes of W.C. Fields and Abbott & Costello. It’s a shame, then, that the shorts Shemp made for Columbia really don’t showcase his talents to the fullest extent—several of them are extremely riotous but the majority of his vehicles are pretty humdrum affairs.
Pick a Peck of Plumbers may be the worst short Shemp ever made at Columbia. I’ve discussed previously that the studio often teamed up comedians with little regard as to whether they had any chemistry, and while Shemp holds his own in Plumbers (thanks to a few choice ad-libs) he’s forced to drag the painfully unfunny El Brendel around like an albatross affixed to his neck. (It also doesn’t help that Plumbers is a vastly inferior remake to one of the Three Stooges’ all-time best outings, A Plumbing We Will Go .) Shemp’s first starring short was only a mild improvement; Open Season for Saps (1944) is virtually a scene-for-scene remake of Charley Chase’s The Grand Hooter (1937)—except Shemp doesn’t sing—and while it’s pleasant, it’s not going to make anyone forget the original any time soon…which is no great shakes to begin with. Shemp followed this up with Off Again, On Again (1945), another Chase remake (Time Out for Trouble ) that I have unfortunately not been able to see.
In Where the Pest Begins (1945), Shemp is teamed with Tom Kennedy in a breezy outing that, once again, relies on his ad-libbing to keep it from being too dreadful (he plays Tom’s obnoxious neighbor, who attempts to help Kennedy invent a wartime explosive). But he struck out with another abysmal short, A Hit with a Miss (1945), whose only purpose is to remind viewers how good the original (the Three Stooges’ Punch Drunks ) was. He then rebounded with what many Shemp fans consider his best solo short, Mr. Noisy (1946)—a remake (third time’s the charm!) of Charley Chase’s The Heckler (1940; itself a reworking of a 1932 Mack Sennett two-reeler, The Loud Mouth). Shemp plays an insufferable (well, the guy was typecast—what are you going to do?) sports fan whose grating tones (“Watch him miss it!”) rattle a baseball player into keeping him off his game. Two gamblers decide that Shemp could come in handy in winning a few bets, but on the day of the big game he catches cold and his voice can barely reach whisper status…a visit to the doctor then results in Shemp’s voice sounding like a six-year-old girl. It was one of Chase’s best Columbia shorts, but Shemp improved on the material tremendously with his lovably obnoxious personality.
After Noisy, Shemp started to hit his stride in the Columbia comedies—Society Mugs (1946), a remake of the Three Stooges’ Termites of 1938 (1938), once again paired him with Tom Kennedy and the short works surprisingly well, with both men making a pretty amusing team. (There are some funny lines in this one, too; my favorite is when Christine McIntyre—who’s mistakenly hired Shemp and Tom as college escorts—explains the two men’s advanced ages by remarking: “They’re seniors.”) Bride and Gloom (1947) was the last solo short for the soon-to-be Third Stooge, a sidesplitting two-reeler that cribs a good deal from the classic Charley Chase short Limousine Love (1928) but manages to put an amusing spin on time-tested material (and good direction from Edward Bernds helps, too). (Along with Off Again, On Again I’ve not seen Jiggers, My Wife , a Jules White effort whose all-too-familiar plot has Shemp’s wife suspecting him of hanky-panky.)
With Shemp’s passing, the Three Stooges (or I guess I should say the Two Stooges) soldiered on by adding comedian Joe Besser to the line-up. As luck would have it, Besser also made a handful of shorts at Columbia from 1949-1956…but since I’ve not seen any of them it would be presumptuous for me to comment on his work. Ted Okuda and Ed Watz, however, sit on their hands in appraisal of Besser’s solo vehicles in The Columbia Comedy Shorts by observing: “Like Besser’s Stooge films, his solo shorts benefit tremendously from his spirited performances, although his panache fails to salvage these uninspired, graceless comedies.” (Greg Hilbrich at The Shorts Department has five of the Besser comedies available, but the only one that I have any interest in seeing is Waiting in the Lurch , and it’s apparently missing in action as of this posting.)
When the Stooges were given their walking papers by Columbia in December of 1957 (their remaining shorts, however, were released to theaters up until 1959 due to a hefty backlog), no one could have predicted that two years later—thanks to the television exposure from their old comedies—they would once again be in demand by audiences. Besser had by then left the group (he never really fit in with the team’s roughhouse antics) and “Curly” Joe DeRita replaced him as “Third Stooge.” I guess the roster of former stars in the shorts department provided Moe and Larry with a list of potential hires because DeRita, like Shemp and Besser, had also toiled briefly in Columbia shorts—four, to be exact, produced from 1946-1948. (Just think—if Monte Collins had been alive, he might have gotten the nod.) Whatever you may think of DeRita’s contributions to Stoogedom, let me just say that Moe Howard had more foresight as to Joe’s talent than I because I think DeRita’s Columbia two-reelers are among the worst produced by the studio. Okuda and Watz dub Joe “the poor man’s Lou Costello”; though I think that should be amended to “the homeless man’s Costello” because his characterization in these comedies was indistinguishable from that of the baby-faced comic…except that he stank. DeRita kicked things off with Slappily Married (1946)—a remake of Andy Clyde’s A Maid Made Mad (1943)—it’s so bad even Edward Bernds’ usual top-notch direction can’t redeem it. (In the short, Joe has a verbal confrontation with a tall, thin man with a moustache—and any resemblance to Bud Abbott, of course, is purely coincidental.) Joe’s second effort, The Good Bad Egg (1947), was even worse—once again, they went to the well for an earlier two-reeler for inspiration (Andy Clyde’s Knee Action ) and found it had run dry.
Wedlock Deadlock (1947)—DeRita’s third vehicle—is the best of a sorry lot, which isn’t saying much. A remake of a 1936 short (Unrelated Relations) that showcased the novelty of Monte Collins going it on his own, Deadlock is sort of amusing in its first half but loses its footing and winds up on a runaway bobsled to Hell in the second. DeRita’s short-lived series ended with Jitter Bughouse (1948), which paired him with a “comic” singing trio called The Nov-Elites. (Again, to demonstrate how difficult it was to create any kind of a character for DeRita in these comedies, Bughouse was also a remake of an earlier Radio Rogues comedy produced at Columbia, Do Your Stuff .)
Once again, my profuse thanks to my pal Rodney Bowcock for giving me the opportunity to laugh at my favorite Stooge…and to scratch my head over how Joe DeRita ever got into the group in the first place. If anyone knows where I can purchase copies of “the Missing Shemps” (Off Again, On Again and Jiggers, My Wife) don’t hesitate to drop me an e-mail.