When I was in grad school way back in the early 1970s, I had a visiting professor from the British Film Institute. One day he was digressing about how he had put himself through school by working as a projectionist. He reminisced about the comedy short subjects that had once been a fundamental part of every presentation but were now obsolete. He mentioned a number of comic actors and wondered if their names had gone down the memory hole (they had) and then asked if anybody in the class had ever heard of The Three Stooges.
The raucous response shocked him. He had no idea that the Three Stooges had been resurrected on American television and were an integral part of the childhood of just about every student in the room.
The Stooges were arguably more popular in the 50s and 60s than they were during their vaudeville and cinema heyday in the 1930s and 1940s. That would probably not be true today. They may well be available on some cable channel and some of their shorts in the public domain may be out there on YouTube, but there is much more competition for viewers’ attention today, so their impact can’t help but be lessened. In some circles, that would be considered a good thing.
I suspect that any enterprising soul trying to host a Stooge-a-Thon at a local college campus today would be met with a feminist/SJW task force intent on closing it down. Of course, Mrs. Grundy has never approved of the Stooges but today her disapproval encompasses more and more aspects of male behavior.
In my youth it was common knowledge that one of the fundamental differences between the sexes was that men loved the Three Stooges and women couldn’t stand them. I think that’s a topic worth exploring. As Moe was wont to say to Larry and/or Curly, “I’ll explain it so even you can understand it.” At least I’ll try.
At this point in time, I fancy myself something of an expert on the Stooges as I have just finished watching in sequence all Three Stooges shorts (97 total) made during the Curly era (1934 – 1946). If I still had to write compositions about how I spent my summer vacation, I would have my theme. Since each short runs about 20 minutes, it was a time-consuming chore but thorough research is a must if sound scholarship is to result. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that somewhere a gender studies program has integrated the Three Stooges into the study plan. God knows they’ve studied stranger material in those classes.
It is a fact of life (which means feminists deny it) that women value high-status men who are good providers. Given this premise, it’s no wonder women detested the Stooges. They embody everything women don’t want in a man. When employed, the Stooges have menial jobs with no future. In addition, they are short, ill-mannered, and they dress funny. When the Stooges made their comedies, their haircuts were considered way out. Given today’s hipster hairstyles, however, the Stooges’ coiffures are almost mainstream.
In their films, more often than not, the Stooges are unemployed or underemployed. When they do work, they almost never have white collar jobs (it is difficult to imagine any of them sitting behind a desk). Of course, blue collar jobs are more physical and offer more opportunities for slapstick. The Stooges, however, are less than ideal spokesmen for the dignity of the proletariat.
Even when the Stooges portrayed professional men, they were lacking in gravitas. Ironically, the only Oscar nomination (for comedy short subject) they ever received was when they portrayed doctors in “Men in Black” in 1934. Of course, they graduated at the bottom of their class and are hopelessly incompetent, but incompetence is a recurring theme in humor. Male competence is the key to any functioning society – but it ain’t particularly funny. Female incompetence is also funny (e.g., “I Love Lucy”), but no comedienne could get away with it today. “We can do it!” and “Girl Power!” y’know.
Despite the Stooges’ overall lack of sex appeal, they do occasionally forge relationships with women. In fact, they portray married men in some of their shorts, but they are hardly the heads of their households. Often, they are content to let their wives be the breadwinners while they sleep late. Worst of all, they do not help with the housework, which is probably just as well, given their incompetence.
The Stooges have never been held up as role models. Mothers used to worry about their children imitating their violent interactions. I think the phrase, “Kids, don’t try this at home” likely originated when the Stooges ruled the airways. Today the internet has much worse activities that might inspire imitation. Also, the “Jackass” TV show and movies make the Stooges look like sissies. Nevertheless, there are problematical elements in the Stooges’ films pertaining to acceptable behavior in the enlightened, progressive America of today.
Since the Stooges live together, domestic violence is a recurring problem. Typically, Moe, the father figure, abuses the “children,” Larry and Curly. Clearly, these movies should not be shown today without a trigger warning or an 800 number referring viewers to a domestic violence hotline.
Women are occasionally the brunt of the abuse (but when slapped they almost always slap back). Perhaps more distressing is the matter of female dignity, which often gets trashed. Women high up on the social scale are the most popular targets, as the humor in such situations is in inverse proportion to the social status of the person being humbled. Making a washerwoman the butt of a joke just doesn’t elicit as much laughter.
The class struggle, in fact, is a recurring motif in the Stooges’ films. Then as now, the nature-versus-nurture debate raged on. In “Hoi Polloi,” a 1935 short, two wealthy gentlemen make a wager as to whether heredity is more important that environment or vice versa. Turning the Stooges into gentlemen is the acid test. Of course, it proves to be a fool’s errand, but the plot was so good it was recycled in “Half-Wits Holiday” (sadly, Curly suffered a career-ending stroke on the set) in 1946. As late as 1958, the same plot was resurrected for “Pies and Guys,” with Joe Besser in the Curly role.
The upshot of these shorts is that attempting to uplift the underclass is a waste of time and effort. In other words, inequality rules. This a controversial conclusion sure to upset social justice warriors, who generally deny any sort of inborn differences in human behavior (particularly gender roles) and decry those who assert otherwise.
Then there is the problem of insensitive language. Moe is the chief offender, given to calling Curly and Larry “imbeciles/idiots/morons.” Of course, we no longer use those terms today. You can almost see psychologists rolling their eyes every time they hear one of these pejoratives. I guess if the Stooges were around today, Moe could say, “You special needs/special ed/mentally challenged persons!”
Among the most cringe-inducing Stooges’ shorts are those in which they appear in women’s clothing, thus making light of the plight of trans people. Curly is particularly egregious in this regard. He is more believable than Moe or Larry, perhaps because he is more neotenous. But his missteps go beyond cross-dressing.
Curly is obese and his appearance plays a big part in the humor. In ye olde cinema, fat people (e.g., Fatty Arbuckle, Oliver Hardy) were fair game for humor. It was socially acceptable to laugh at fat people simply because they looked (and walked) funny. Of course, in those days people laughed without looking over their shoulder to see if anyone was offended. Unfortunately, the fat-shaming in Stooge films isn’t limited to Curly. One particularly insensitive scene occurs in “False Alarms” (1936) when a land whale (thankfully, no yoga pants back then), savoring a night on the town with her friends, exults, “Let’s go places and eat things.”
In a sense, insensitivity is integral to being a Stooge. If you have to absorb a lot of physical abuse, it helps to be insensitive. So let’s take a look at the insensitivity of each Stooge.
Women may admire a man who takes charge, but I don’t think Moe is what they have in mind. Moe has serious anger management problems, yet his ire is almost never directed at women. He never hits women and rarely hits on women. He just isn’t a ladies’ man. Though he acts the part of the alpha male (I think the adjective “bossy” applies here), he isn’t any smarter than Larry and Curly. Moe is the demanding boss who issues commands right and left, the irascible father who dishes out corporal punishment, the drill sergeant given to humiliating tongue-lashings (think R. Lee Ermey with a funny haircut and without the uniform). Moe is the epitome of toxic masculinity. He would surely be described as a fascist today — and not without justification. Building on his authoritarian personality, he impersonated Hitler in two shorts (‘You Nazty Spy” in 1940 and “I’ll Never Heil Again” in 1941). I wouldn’t say he was literally Hitler but it did seem like type casting.
Larry is the most passive of the stooges. A 1984 biography of Larry (written by his brother) was entitled “The Stooge in the Middle.” We might describe Larry as a classic cuck. For the most part, he is a beta (at best) male who just goes with the flow. When it comes to punishment, he frequently takes it and only rarely dishes it out. For the most part he is a nice guy, albeit clueless, the guy who never gets the memo. Larry occasionally tries to ingratiate himself with attractive women but never gets anywhere. His big mistake is hitting on women with high sexual market value. If he sought out older women who have hit the wall, he’d probably fare much better.
Then we come to Curly the man-child. Every comedy team has one (Stan Laurel, Lou Costello, Harpo Marx, Jerry Lewis). His role is to be irritatingly childish or endearingly childlike. As a potential husband, he is worthless, but he sometimes awakens the maternal instinct in women. Today he would probably be diagnosed with Peter Pan Syndrome. Failure to launch doesn’t begin to describe his flaws. Curly was not shy and was given to addressing strange women as “Toots” (probably not a wise move for pickup artists today).
Of course, no essay on the Stooges is complete without referring to the pie fights. The origin of this sort of humor dates back to vaudeville and British music hall, but it would be a wild goose chase to try to figure out who threw the first pie or who was the first person to get pied (yes, it is a verb). The Stooges, however, are among the foremost practitioners of the craft.
One of the primary targets for their pies was the hoity-toity female. Any number of elegantly-coiffed and draped women saw their dignity destroyed after a well-aimed pie. Feminism was on the back burner when the Stooges’ films were in theaters, but I have to believe that if they were around today, they could really wreak havoc at, say, the NOW annual convention or a university feminist workshop. Why fight feminists with debates, arguments, lobbying, persuasion, statistics, or appeals to reason when you can pie them? A surprising number of high muckety-mucks have gotten this treatment but the perpetrators are usually captured by the high sheriffs.
Now I am not recommending that readers actually go out and shove a pie into anyone’s face (though it might make the skirmishes between antifa and the free speechers less lethal). Depending on where you live, you could be charged with assault, battery, and maybe a hate crime. Besides, I don’t like the idea of wasting baked goods. Still, given the wealth of feminist wrath on YouTube, anyone with a smidgen of smarts pertaining to video editing and CGI could probably match up shots of the Stooges or other slapstick artistes throwing pies at feminist targets.
I think it would be funny. How about it, Curly? Are you up to putting a pie in the puss of a sanctimonious harpy?