Mel Gibson is executive producer of a television movie that tries to be a love letter to his favorite comedy team – The Three Stooges.
It’s the 1959 and The Three Stooges have disbanded. Comedy shorts are no longer being made and Moe Howard (Paul Ben-Victor) is an errand boy on the Columbia Studios lot – the same lot where he, Larry Fine (Evan Handler) and brothers Curly (Michael Chiklis) and Shemp (John Kassir) made the studio vast sums of money and made audiences howl with laughter.
With the advent of television, the old Stooge shorts are becoming a money maker again and the trio are about to enjoy a popular resurgence. A young promoter (Joel Edgerton) tries to coerce Moe to step back on stage with his partners. It’s a decision Moe struggles with while reflecting back on his past and the history of The Three Stooges.
The Three Stooges was quite an exciting event for Stooge fans when this television movie was announced. The Stooges enjoyed several renaissances. Television helped revitalize their stature, which they seized on and began their own television appearances and a latter crop of movies, like Snow White and the Three Stooges, The Three Stooges Meet Hercules and The Three Stooges Go Around The World In A Daze.
During the 1980s home video became a new outlet for fans to enjoy their comedy antics. ‘The Curly Shuffle’ by Jump ‘N’ Saddle Band hit radio stations. The 1986 film Stoogemania was about a hardcore Stooge fan – where the only highlights were the clips of the actual Stooges that were used in it. Television and cable stations began to have annual holiday marathons of the Stooge shorts, Stooge t-shirts and merchandise started showing up in malls. You could see their comedic influence pop up all over the place.
The Stooges never really left. The popularity of The Three Stooges has only increased over time to the point they have become pop culture icons and their names are now shorthand for comedic mayhem.
So, finally getting a film in 2000 about the lives and history of the Stooges was thrilling. I was very anxious to see it. I still have the 3-part TV Guide edition where all three covers showed one giant photo of the boys. I was very excited to watch it the night it premiered on ABC.
It’s a shame the movie didn’t quite deliver on the expectations. It’s not a complete washout, the film has good intentions and means well, yet, it ends up being rather bland and unmemorable.
That’s the most ironic thing to me about it. Here’s the story of a comedy act that captured people’s attention. Beginning on vaudeville stages then eventually transitioning to film. They were taken advantage of by their employers, weren’t respected during their heyday. They got a later resurgence in life and have gone on to become one of the most beloved and revered comedy acts in showbiz history – and this television movie doesn’t manage to capture much of that fascinating story.
Granted, it’s a very long story covering decades of story. Squeezing that into a ninety minute TV movie is no easy task. So rather than allowing itself time to explore the drama and characters in a more slower paced narrative, the film becomes more of an informational rundown of Stooge history. It’s almost like the film had a check list of ‘Stooge Stuff’ it wanted to include and it was all getting in there no matter how little time or attention they could spend on it.
What’s even worse to Stooge fans is how much of the film gets wrong about their story.
The film plays very, very loose with accuracy. For instance, Moe was never in such dire straits that he was parking Harry Cohen’s car. He was actually quite a savvy businessman who looked out for the other Stooges. He had saved quite a healthy nest egg by the 1950s and was living comfortably. At the time having the Stooges return was not as much of lifeline as the film depicts and he never wanted to distance himself from the act. He was happy to step into his Moe shoes again, because he loved it.
Moe’s portrayal here doesn’t resemble the truth. But I suppose the film felt taking such dramatic license with him was vital for an hour and half television movie narrative than the real story. I never felt this part of the film worked very well and wasn’t a satisfying a conclusion to the film. I think it would’ve worked better had they dropped it and presented a more linear story.
Ben-Victor is the main lynchpin in the story, since so much of the focus is on him later in his career and we’re seeing the story unfold from his perspective. I don’t think Ben-Victor manages to create a very interesting Moe. At the start of his career Moe is presented as willing to sign any contract in order guarantee the safety of work, even if he knows the Stooges are worth more. He’s the brains of the act, he pushes his pals to perform. He then later morphs into a gruff and pessimistic old man, not willing to put the act back together.
He doesn’t resemble or sound like Moe to me either. When I look at him I don’t think of ‘Moe’. He dons the haircut fine, but his attitude, his voice, just doesn’t strike any chords with me.
I’m not sure what supposedly the movie is saying happened to Moe to make him to make him so resistant to perform again. Both things are not accurate about the real Moe by the way. You can just watch one of this later interviews in his life and he’s worlds removed from the way he’s written and portrayed in this film. I’m assuming it’s just artistic license for the film to give him a personal struggle to overcome and to help illustrate the satisfying later comeback they enjoyed and end the film on a high note.
I’m sure there are others out there that have examined and pointed out all the inaccuracies the film contains. So, I’m not going to bother to go down that road. Let’s just say, don’t believe everything that is presented in the movie as fact.
Chiklis has the tall order of playing Curly and he does a terrific job and is the highlight in the film. He emulates many of Curly’s comedic animated quirks, conveys the lonely, adolescent animal-loving soul he was and manages real sympathy when he’s struck down from his stroke. His scene in the hospital being unable to communicate is a heart wrencher.
Handler’s Larry comes off as an affable, easy going member of the group, but not really much of a vital part of the story. The main focus on the story is Moe and his relationship with his brothers Curly and Shemp. So, there’s not much room for Larry other than being the third member of the group at each stage of their careers. He’s not given much to do other than stick by Moe through the years.
Kassir does fine as Shemp, yet his paranoia seems to be overly exaggerated and not really explored any. The main portion of the film he’s in is during their earlier vaudeville days, after that he makes a brief return to the act after Curly’s death and basically in the next scene we’re told he too has died. The pace in the movie becomes so fast that there’s little time to even react to major events in their history.
Joe Besser and Joe DeRita become small footnotes in the members of Stooges.
It means well. the reenactments of past Stooge scenes are pretty darn decent. It’s clear the original scenes they decided to redo were studied to make them get them as close as possible. Stooge fans will immediately recognize and know the scenes. And the actors all do a commendable job with them.
But as close as they get to the lines, the costumes, the staging, they all feel slightly off somehow. It’s just the rhythms of the Stooge brand of comedy that they just can’t manage to capture. It’s kind of strange. It’s as if you’re watching the original Stooge shorts at half speed or something.
Seeing the recreations, you can see what made the Stooges such a unique act that just can’t be replicated, but they’re respectable recreations and another highlight in the movie.
The best aspects of the Stooges the film conveys is how they were taken advantage of throughout their careers. First being exploited by the Ted Healy (Marton Csokas). Who is depicted as a monstrous man who relentlessly abuses his Stooges. Is it exaggerated – yeah pretty much. Moe never hated the man and did have an affection for him. Plus, Healy’s career never took a slide after the Stooges left him. But it’s easier just to depict Healy as an outright ogre.
Then the Stooges move onto pictures and get screwed, used and discarded by Columbia Pictures, notably by President Harry Cohn (Linal Haft).
Along with the reenactments of Stooge shorts, there’s also some wonderful Curly moments that Chikilis nails. Chiklis’ Curly becomes a reliable engine in the film and commands all the attention when he’s around. There’s the famous tale of his apprehension of shaving his head for the act. Encountering overzealous fans, demonstrating his carefree lifestyle and constantly marrying the latest woman he believes will give him happiness. Then the final emotional punch of the stroke that ends his Stooge career.
I have to say, I first saw this film more than twenty years ago, and the scene with Chikilis as Curly hospitalized unable to speak I’ve never forgotten.
Filming took place in Australia due to budgetary reasons. There’s not much to rave about the locations. I suppose they’re effective, but nothing really stands out about any of them. There’s the studio, theaters, a beach scene. It certainly doesn’t look like an expensive film. It’s an average ‘television movie quality’ type of production.
The Three Stooges is a good introductory flawed lesson on the boys. Some quick reading and you’ll learn of the liberties it took with the history of them. But it’s hard film for me to completely dismiss or dislike. It has its heart in the right place and it is respectful to them, but it’s not the greatest bio flick. At best, it settles into very average.
Watching a good doc or reading a book about the Stooges will offer much better information and details about their lives and career. In 2015, Paul Howard, Moe’s son, presented a multi-episode documentary about the history of the Three Stooges. It is much more comprehensive and enlightening on their lives and careers. Stooge fans should seek that out.
Trying to incorporate the whole history of the Three Stooges into a ninety minute film was just too tall a hill to climb. Things get shortchanged, rushed, dropped.
It probably would have been a much better idea had they done an encapsulated Stooges movie about a single period in their lives, much the same way Stan and Ollie had done. Rather than try to give viewers a whole pie, only focus on a shorter period of their lives and serve that small slice to us. Then the film could spend much more time exploring aspects of them during that limited time period and not try to be an expanded encyclopedia of facts.
Save the whole pie for throwing it into someone’s face.
Here’s scene comparisons, you can see how well they tried to get the reenactments
And if you’re curious, here’s the full movie