I’ve written here before about my strange predilection for classic comedians and comedy teams. Except for the hugely successful, recognizable names like Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy and Charlie Chaplin, they are an acquired taste. If you dare journey even further along the banks of the River Humorosa, you’ll find smiles give way to smirks, eventually docking on the shores of pure awfulness.
When it comes to The Three Stooges, they are not an acquired taste; you either love or hate them–there’s no middle ground. But even die hard fans may find it difficult to navigate the latest Warner Archive release The Vitaphone Comedy Collection: Shemp Howard (1933 – 1937). Shemp, the third of the Howard brothers and a part of the original Three Stoges team, had an interesting and circuitous route in motion pictures that preceded the other Stooges before landing “back” with the team after brother Jerry (Curly)’s first of several strokes.
Shemp had started out with Ted Healy and his Stooges in vaudeville when it was just himself and brother Moe, then later violinist and comedian Larry Fine was added to the quartet.
One film still exists of this early incarnation, 1930’s Soup to Nuts, which is a real hodgepodge of comic styles; and features the team without the names “stooges” yet, and Shemp acting as the leader where Moe would later take over. Ted Healy, who originally formed the stooges and acted for years as their “boss,”abuses the three worse than anybody.
Shemp never liked being a part of the team, and when leader Healy abused the group even worse off stage, taking the lion’s share of their salary, Shemp left. Howard and Fine, with Healy, moved to Hollywood, collecting brother Curly along the way, and after several supporting roles in MGM features, landed their first shorts contract with Columbia, where they remained for decades. Shemp opted to stay in New York, where Warner Brothers’ short film subsidiary, Vitaphone, hired him as a part of a very ragtag troupe of mediocre to outright bad vaudeville performers, that were used in every thinkable pairing and permutation of teams through the late 1930s.
At first, Shemp was a bit player in Fatty Arbuckle’s sound shorts from 1932 – 1934, which were Arbuckle’s bid to gain acceptance back into film, following the notoriety of the false sex scandal he was blacklisted with for years. These shorts are fairly weak, but offer a unique glimpse into the silent comedy star’s struggle with sound technology. There was every hope that he would regain some of his fan following, but Arbuckle’s heart attack in 1934 ended any chance of that. Still, it’s interesting to watch Shemp graduate to supporting player with a unique style all his own. You can check these shorts out in the Vitaphone Comedy Collection Vol. I.
Vol 2 is chiefly focused on Shemp’s continual ascension to starring status. The Vitaphone picture arm, originally created in the late 20s to display the new synchronized sound techniques patented by Warner Brothers, continued to pump out short subjects of both musical, variety and comedy well into the sound era, later retaining the name for the famous Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies cartoons. But when it came to “talent,” the performers were Grade B, far below Paramount, MGM, Mack Sennett and Hal Roach’s assemblage of comedians.
The Vitaphone studios were eager to establish a comedy team of their own, much like the Marx Brothers at Paramount, or Laurel & Hardy at Roach, but they were none too successful. Shemp, for example, was slapped together with forgotten names like Harry Gribbon, Daphne Pollard, and Roscoe Ates. Besides Shemp, their most lasting and successful comic was Ben Blue, which again demonstrates how limited and limiting the talent pool was. (Ben Blue had a successful comedy career all the way through the 1960s — you may remember him as an airplane pilot flying Sid Caesar and Edie Gormet in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World).
Within the mix of shorts offered, Shemp’s pairing with Daphne Pollard delivers the most laughs and could be said to be the most successful. Pollard, a silent film actress, had a unique look and style (she was somewhat diminutive and extremely flexible, able to trip and take pratfalls with the best of them) which suited her to slapstick quite well. She throws slaps and punches at Shemp that look and sound like they really hurt. In Smoked Hams, A Peach of a Pair and His First Flame, they play variations on a husband and wife vaudeville act getting into and out of tight scrapes. The best of these is Smoked Hams, where, as the team of Cook & Butler, they are confused by a job placement agency as a real cook and butler and end up as a last minute replacement to a wealthy (and out of touch) couple during a dinner party. The usual hilarity ensues. Today, Pollard’s most remembered as Oliver Hardy’s shrewish wife in Our Relations.
In the earliest of the shorts, Gobs of Fun (1933), Shemp is in and out in a heartbeat, and we’re forced to suffer through the corny doings of Charles Judels (a Ziegfield Follies comedian, adept at doing foreign accents, here he plays a “Frenchman”) and George Givot (also a Ziegfield Graduate, who played a “Crazy Greek” on radio and film). Both went onto successful voice over work. Sadly, their short lived careers at Vitaphone were not so successful; or enjoyable to watch.
Shemp is also teamed up with Roscoe Ates, whose sole skill is playing an unfortunate hayseed with a Porky Pig-style stutterer. This schtick grows tired real fast, as illustrated in So You Won’t T-t-t-talk, Why Pay Rent? and Dizzy & Daffy, athough he had a hugely successful career, appearing in everything from Cimarron and Freaks in the 30s to TV’s The Red Skelton Hour and The Untouchables in the early 60s.
The most painful of all pairings, though, is Shemp and Harry Gribbon in My Mummy’s Arms. While Gribbon is another recognizable face from a myriad of 1930s comedies, his timing is pretty damn awful, his asides and “slow burns” to the camera are a pale comparison to the originator of these, Edgar Kennedy (he of hundreds of shorts, a myriad of Laurel & Hardy(s), and of course, Duck Soup).
Shemp, himself, has the strongest and most well defined persona of all these comics, and although there were slight variations (sometimes he comes off more like younger brother Moe, ordering the dimmer of his partners around with slaps and shoves and punches), his trademark crazy, greasy hair that always ends up in his face, his fast boxing-style footwork, sideshow carny delivery and perfectly timed double and spit takes were already a steady part of his repertoire.
By the mid-30s, Vitaphone acquired the rights to a hugely successful comic strip series called “Joe Palooka,” about a kind-hearted, dim witted country boy who becomes a heavyweight boxing champ, and his street-wise, fast-talking manager Knobby Walsh. They quickly chruned out 7 of these, and they became the most successful of the Vitaphone releases, mostly due to Shemp’s appearances as Knobby. Strangely, the Joe Palooka character took a backseat to Shemp’s routines, even though his comic strip alter ego is the supporting player. The collection includes all seven of these hits.
Before joining the Stooges, Shemp continued throughout the 30s and 40s as one of the most requested “go to” supporting comedians; most notably in several Abbott & Costello features where his material was supposedly edited out due to Lou Costello’s concern Shemp might “overshadow” him.
Rumor is Shemp would’ve preferred to remain a solo act, but felt an allegiance to his brothers when Curly could no longer perform as a Stooge, and stepped in, originally as a temp replacement. He would never leave, and ended up creating his most lasting legacy.
So – is the collection worth your time? If you love — and I mean LOVE — the Three Stooges, it’s worth it to watch the development of Shemp’s persona and style. And if you have a strange love of comedy teams, performers and comics from this period, you might also check it out. If you are not a member of either of these groups, I would suggest passing. You may find it more painful than a poke in the eye or slap in the face.
The Vitaphone Comedy Collection Vol 2: Shemp Howard (1933 – 1937) is available as a manufacture on demand (MOD) DVD through Warner Archive. The collection contains 21 shorts on two discs.
Gobs of Fun (D), Daredevil O’Dare (C-), My Mummy’s Arms (F), Smoked Hams (B+), So You Won’t T-t-t-talk (C+), A Peach of a Pair (B), His First Flame (B-), Dizzy and Daffy (C-), Why Pay Rent? (B), Serves You Right (A-), On the Wagon (C), The Officer’s Mess (B-), When the Cat’s Away (A-), Absorbing Junior (C), Joe Palooka Series (C)