In August, I began a journey to watch every Three Stooges short and movie with a goal to finish by December 31. I had already watched about the first ten Curly shorts, so it was pretty much a beginning to end plan. Now, I had seen most of these before but not all consecutively. On a hot August day, over a lunch hour, I watched Back To The Woods and the race was on. There have been highs and lows but I’m in the home stretch right now. I have just wrapped up the last of their movies and their 1970 unfinished TV pilot, Kook’s Tour. I have some solo shorts with Shemp, Joe Besser and Joe DeRita to enjoy as well as a selection of cartoons. But essentially, the journey is at an end. Now, it’s time to reflect on the final years of The Three Stooges and their move from short subjects to full-length motion pictures.
On December 20, 1957, Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Joe Besser wrapped up filming the 190th short subject, Flying Saucer Daffy. Just a few days later, Columbia Pictures terminated their contracts, ending a 24-year relationship. There simply wasn’t a market for them anymore. The studio continued to release the short subjects they already completed for the next 18 months. During that time, older short subjects were becoming a hit on television. Even though Moe and the rest weren’t even allowed on the studio property following their termination, The Three Stooges were far from finished. After Joe Besser left the act, Moe reached out to Joe DeRita to become Curly Joe. The cinema was still calling!
From 1959 to 1965, The Three Stooges made six movies that were all primarily targeted for the kiddie matinee market. The slapstick humor was toned down a little. Moe still slapped Larry and Curly Joe around, but the plots were now a little more intricate and there were usually several key co-stars to flesh out the storyline. By 1959, there was a lot of interest in space travel, so it’s no surprise that three of the movies dealt with rockets, aliens and time machines. The first was Have Rocket, Will Travel (1959), which saw the boys playing janitors who accidentally take a rocket ship to Venus and encounter a plot to conquer Earth. We have a talking unicorn, giant spiders and an even bigger killer robot. It is all very unlike a traditional Stooges plot but these are the movies and the simple storylines are now long-gone. Joe DeRita does a wonderful job assuming his role as the third stooge. He’s a little more laidback than Joe Besser but it works well in the newer format. They followed this up with Snow White and the Three Stooges (1961), filmed in color. This really has the boys playing supporting characters in a rather poor Snow White flick that is filled with lousy musical numbers and skating routines designed to highlight their co-star, Carol Heiss, an Olympic Gold medalist. Watching it today takes you back to those harmless and poorly filmed kiddie matinees films but it also shows how far the Stooges were from their true glory days with Curly back in the 30s and 40s.
In 1962, The Three Stooges Meet Hercules took the boys to ancient Greece via a time machine. This is actually one of their better movies as it has a plot and seems like a mini-epic. Eagle eyes will notice Hal Smith as King Thesus of Rhodes. He’s better known as Otis the town drunk in The Andy Griffith Show. While this movie is one of their better entries, it clearly shows one of the key problems. The supporting cast is usually inadequate, poorly acting their way through weak scripts. Larry, Moe and Curly Joe can make the story seem bigger and better, but a stronger supporting cast would have helped to make these movies better. Nonetheless, at the time they proved successful enough to continue to warrant the next one to be made. No surprise that late 1962 saw another release, The Three Stooges in Orbit. This poor movie is a mixed bag. The script seems to be all over the place with funny moments followed by lots of unfunny segments with aliens attempting to conquer Earth. A bright spot is the supporting appearance of Emil Sitka, longtime Stooge foil. Ironically, this started off as a television pilot called The Three Stooges Scrapbook. Even though it didn’t sell, it served as the first 15 minutes of the movie, which is actually some of the better footage. On a cool side note, some of the props used came from a little sci-fi flick you may have heard of, Forbidden Planet.
In 1963, The Three Stooges Go Around The World In A Daze put the boys through their biggest epic to date. Loosely based on the Jules Verne classic, the Stooges are servants to Phileas Fogg III (Jay Sheffield), who accepts a bet to duplicate his great-grandfather’s famous trip. The madcap trip around the world ensues and allows the Stooges to do some of their best film work, including recreating the famous Maharaja skit. This was my personal favorite as it allowed the Stooges to do their best work with one of their better supporting casts.
There was only one more theatrical release with The Outlaws IS Coming (1965). Personally, I was never a fan of the Stooges out west short subjects. However, expanded to feature film length, it works better than previous attempts but it still isn’t my personal preference for Stooge situations. Whenever Larry and Moe, and for this film, Curly Joe, don the cowboy hats, they just seem so out of place and this movie is no different. The story centers around Rance Roden plotting to kill off the buffalo, which causes the Indians to riot and gets the US Cavalry involved. We do have a great supporting cast with Adam West as Kenneth Cabot and the lovely Nancy Kovack as Annie Oakley, a sharpshooter who inadvertently helps Cabot to become town sheriff. As a film, it’s looks better than some of the early movies and was at least a positive note to end their theatrical film careers on. Whenever Adam West speaks, I halfway expect Batman to pop up at any minute. If only it wasn’t a western.
Their film career was essentially over after this film was released. They appeared in a promotional short, Star Spangled Salesman, in 1968 and filmed a TV pilot called Kook’s Tour in 1969 and 1970. Unfortunately, it was never completed due to Larry suffering a stroke, effectively ending the act. Moe attempted a revival in 1975, adding longtime foil Emil Sitka to replace Larry. A movie called Blazing Stewardesses was ready to go but Moe’s health was in decline. After falling ill with lung cancer, he died in May 1975.
For me, this journey was an amazing one. I had the chance to revisit some of the shorts I have seen time and time again while watching others for the first time. It took me back to simpler days of eating pizza at Straw Hat Pizza and watching Some More of Samoa. It helped me relive memories of watching the boys every morning on SuperStation TBS. Now, I own every short subject and movie and can easily relive the adventures any day and any time. The boys never really got their respect while they were alive but are surely looking down now and happy to see generation after generation continue to laugh and enjoy The Three Stooges.