[Marxism] Three Stooges

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jul 2 12:09:45 MDT 2004


Chicago Reader, July 2, 2004
Idiots Savants
Three Stooges 70th Annivoisary Blowout

By J.R. Jones

Hoi Polloi (1935), one of the Three Stooges' best two-reel comedies, 
ends with an epic pie fight at a society party where the cultured guests 
degenerate to the same vulgar, violent, and vengeful state as Moe, 
Larry, and Curly. A similar contagion now seems to be sweeping the 
academic film community. In December 2002 the American Film Institute 
selected Punch Drunks (1934), in which Curly plays a prizefighter driven 
insane by the tune "Pop Goes the Weasel," for preservation in the 
Library of Congress. A year later the film quarterly Cineaste published 
an appreciation of the Stooges alongside features on Orson Welles, Chen 
Kaige, and Emmanuelle Beart. Now the Gene Siskel Film Center is 
screening a program of seven Stooges shorts in newly struck 
35-millimeter prints. I plan to be the first person in line, if I can 
find one of those tuxedo shirtfronts that roll up like a window blind.
Yet even now the Stooges have to be let in the back door and disguised 
as butlers. Marty Rubin, associate director of the Film Center, admits 
that this week's program was curated not by him or director Barbara 
Scharres but by a Stooges fan at Sony, which owns the Columbia Pictures 
film library. The Cineaste piece, written by James Niebaur, begins 
defensively and ends apologetically. "Their films were certainly not 
cinematic," Niebaur concludes. "They did not have the grace of Chaplin 
or the technique of Buster Keaton. But their 190 two-reel comedies 
contain enough interesting ideas and clever moments to make The Three 
Stooges worthy of some recognition." An introductory blurb from the 
editors is both condescending and self-congratulatory: "Woo-woo-woo! 
Just when you thought you had Cineaste pegged as a highbrow magazine, 
here come The Three Stooges!"

I must admit, I enjoy watching our cultural mandarins pondering a 
mise-en-scene in which a swung crowbar bends into a silhouette of the 
head it bashes. As Neal Gabler notes in his book Life: The Movie, the 
19th-century boundaries between high and low culture were blurred by 
movies and other electronic media in the 20th. Yet the atavistic Stooges 
remain the property of the unwashed masses, too loud, crude, and just 
plain stupid to be intellectualized like the Marx Brothers, Laurel and 
Hardy, and W.C. Fields were. They're more popular now than any of those 
acts, and in their prime -- from 1934, when they signed with Columbia, 
until about 1941 -- they were every bit as inspired. They fused the 
slapstick of the silent era with the outlandish sound effects of radio, 
focused on elaborate sight gags during an age of ceaseless dialogue, and 
were zealously committed to their Neanderthal worldview.

Even in real life the Stooges were dupes of the ruling class, poorly 
managed and ruthlessly exploited. Harry Cohn, the bellicose president of 
Columbia, kept them on a short leash with a series of one-year 
contracts, paying the team $18,000 for eight shorts while Universal 
Pictures paid Fields and Edgar Bergen $100,000 each for You Can't Cheat 
an Honest Man (1939). The shorts were hugely popular, and Columbia used 
them as bargaining chips to sell mediocre features to exhibitors, but 
year after year Cohn cowed the Stooges into re-signing at the same pay. 
After they were finally cut loose in 1958, Columbia sold the shorts to 
television for $12 million, paying the Stooges nothing. Yet in the end 
their industry became the key to their enduring renown: their huge 
backlog of two-reelers, each running 16 to 18 minutes, could be easily 
packaged three to an hour and broadcast every school day for 12 weeks 
without repeating. No other comedy act from Hollywood's golden age was 
so well positioned for TV exposure.

full: http://www.chireader.com/movies/archives/2004/0704/070204_2.html
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