The Three Stooges have never received much critical appreciation – most unfairly, in my view – but even those who take a dim view of the violent, unsophisticated humor the Stooges reveled in generally acknowledge that Curly Howard (real name: Jerome Lester Horwitz) was a unique talent. The youngest of a trio of brothers who played Stooges, Curly was brought into the act in 1932 just prior to its career-defining association with Columbia Pictures when the oldest brother, Shemp, left to pursue a solo career (Shemp would eventually return to replace Curly after the latter had a stroke in 1946). A fairly shy man in private, when he was working Curly’s comedy seemed to flow out of his body in an effortless joie de vivre. He never had formal acting training, he had trouble remembering his lines, and he frequently improvised. In terms of physical comedy if Buster Keaton with his scrupulous planning and architectonic gags is like Beethoven, then Curly Howard is like Mozart, the “natural” who is the envy of every slapstick Salieri.
Among endless possibilities to illustrate Curly’s genius, I have selected his bowling gag from the Stooges’ 1941 short titled “An Ache in Every Stake.” The bit lasts just thirty-eight seconds, but in it, his grace, his vocalizations, and his timing shine as perfectly as they ever did. It shows Curly at the absolute top of his game.
“An Ache in Every Stake” was the 57th of the 190 short subject films the Stooges did with Columbia. It is rightly considered one of their best. The short begins with the Stooges selling blocks of ice from a horse-drawn wagon on an extremely hot day in a neighborhood with high, steep hills. The most famous gag in the short is probably not the one I selected, but the one in which the boys relay a block of ice up a ridiculously long series of hillside steps (earlier attempts up the hill, without a relay, had resulted in “shrinkage”). Then, midway through the short, the Stooges abandon their jobs as icemen to cater a birthday dinner party for a wealthy man (played by Vernon Dent) whose birthday cake they have already ruined twice. Classic dialogue and Stooge-isms abound. As a team the boys are firing on all cylinders here, and the supporting cast does great work too (I understand this is one of the few episodes with both Bud Jamison and Vernon Dent in it).
I would love to embed video of the short directly in this post, for your viewing convenience, but the folks at wordpress.com won’t allow me to embed videos without paying extra for the privilege, and I’m a skinflint (in the vernacular of the Stooges). So I’m posting this link to the short instead, which is hosted by YouTube and Crackle. You’ll have to endure a fifteen-second advertisement before the short begins, and two more ads during it, by, of all people, the U.S. Army! Considering how utterly inept and incompetent the Stooges were whenever they played soldiers (or members of any other profession, for that matter), it’s ironic that the U.S. Army wants kids who like The Three Stooges to “be all that they can be.” But I suppose the recruiting wing of the Army can’t help but drool when they see the overwhelmingly male demographics of knuckleheads (as Stooges fans like to call themselves). And I guess it’s a testament to the enduring popularity of the Stooges that it’s not just 50+ year old men like me who like them – the Army couldn’t care less about my age group – but also eminently recruitable young men.
With very rare exceptions, women simply don’t “get” The Three Stooges, at all. This is a great mystery. In fact, in ranking the greatest mysteries, I would break down the top three this way:
#1 – Why does the universe exist at all (i.e. why is there something instead of nothing)?
#2 – If the universe has a Creator-God who is unalloyedly good, why does evil exist?
#3 – Why don’t women like The Three Stooges?
Only those who are especially favored by God – prophets, mystics, and the like – may hope to receive glimpses of answers to these questions, this side of death’s door. For the rest of us they remain inscrutable. As for myself, I haven’t a clue why women don’t like The Three Stooges. From this you may infer that I am no prophet.
Curly’s bowling gag occurs early in the short, from 2:16 to 2:54 (elapsed time from the start, in minutes and seconds). The premise is that when Curly sees ten empty milk bottles, arranged vaguely like bowling pins, out in front of him on the sidewalk, he decides to hurl the tonged block of ice he is carrying into them like a bowling ball. In the course of the gag we discover that Curly has been rolling tonged ice blocks into empty milk bottles at previous stops, and that this strike shot completes a perfect game (or so Curly thinks – more on that in a minute). This mini-symphony of physical comedy can be broken down into three parts or movements of roughly equal lengths, where each movement can be further subdivided, somewhat arbitrarily, into two or four sections (all timings approximate):
1. The roll
a. Recognition (four seconds)
b. Approach, delivery and body English (eight seconds)
2. The result
a. Pinfall (two seconds)
b. The triumphant bowler tallies and savors his strike (ten seconds)
3. The comeuppance
a. Moe arrives – the flinch (four seconds)
b. Curly: “I got a perfect score!” (one second)
c. Moe: “No you haven’t, you need another strike!” (three seconds)
d. It escalates from there (six seconds)
At the beginning of the first movement, Curly, whose head Moe has just struck, again, with a large chisel (to straighten it out, after it had been bent by an initial strike to Curly’s head), and who was then been ordered by Moe to “go on, deliver that ice,” is plodding up a sidewalk with a block of ice in his tongs when he spies the ten empty milk bottles up ahead on the sidewalk. He stops dead in his tracks. After a cut to show us the bottles, we then see Curly in a starting position, farther back on the sidewalk, so as to have enough room for his approach. Given the awkwardness of trying to “bowl” a large block of ice with tongs attached, Curly’s form isn’t half bad. He uses a truncated three-step approach (the fourth step is essentially part of his follow-through). Notice how he “primes” his backswing, while still in his starting position, by gently rocking the block of ice back and forth as it hangs down in the tongs by his side, and timing the start of his steps so as to be in perfect rhythm with the rocking.
We don’t actually see the ice with tongs attached “rolling” on the sidewalk, or hitting the milk bottles, but thanks to Columbia sound effects genius Joe Henrie, we hear it. Or, I should say, we hear something that starts off sounding like a tonged block of ice rolling on concrete, but then morphs into something that, to me, sounds like a polyhedron rolling on a hard surface (with rapid little thumping noises as the edges of the polyhedron strike the floor in rapid succession) combined with the sound of a bowling ball half-rolling and half-skidding across an old linoleum floor – all with an appropriate Doppler effect to suggest an object moving away from us. When the milk bottles are struck, and the last wobbling bottle falls with a delightful plinking sound, it’s just the icing on the cake. It’s an amazing sound effect and it was likely engineered by Henrie specifically for this gag. Henrie was known to be a perfectionist (and to laugh at his own sound effects while he was creating them), and he was integral to the success and popularity of The Three Stooges.
“Helping” that last milk bottle to topple over is Curly, whose entire body is off-balance and leaning, in sympathy with the bottle, to his left. After it finally falls, and Curly exhales his little victory whoop, notice his deft footwork (he was said to be an accomplished ballroom dancer). He takes two quick backward, crossing steps, i.e. where one foot is placed behind and to the outside of the other foot. Because his body’s vertical alignment is initially tipping so far towards his left, the first of these backward, crossing steps returns him to a true vertical position, and even past vertical a little, towards his right; the second backward, crossing step reprises the side-to-side oscillation, but with much less amplitude. The effect reminds one of a spinning top, moving backwards, that begins violently out of balance, but which quickly returns to a stable (vertical) position. Or, perhaps more aptly, Curly’s body is like a wobbly bowling pin that remains standing (Curly’s uncanny ability to intuit and incorporate inanimate objects into his comedy has often been noted). See too how he keeps his arms up during this phase, as if to emphasize his top-heaviness. Then when Curly drops his hands, he simultaneously arches his back. He realizes his achievement and begins to strut and exult.
There is no guile in Curly (as a Stooge). His thoughts (if one can dignify anything that goes on inside the head of a Stooge with that word) and his feelings are a completely open book that we can read through his posture, his gestures, and his vocalizations – the most expressive of which are often wordless or, at best, nonsense words. It is to his vocalizations I would like to briefly turn now.
It is difficult to imagine Curly as a silent comedian – even though common sense suggests he would have been successful at that too, had he come along sooner – because so much of his essence was communicated by and through his voice. In fact, at the tail end of Curly’s career, just before his major stroke, and perhaps after some minor ones, it is the change in his voice that is perhaps more painful to witness than anything else. In the bowling gag we’re examining here, the second movement (“The result”) is entirely wordless, but it is graced with almost nonstop vocalizations from Curly. To the extent that these can be transcribed, I would render them thus:
1. “Yeeee-uuuuh!” (after the last bottle topples over) followed by
2. “Ha-cha,” and then on the walk over to the score sheet attached to the ice wagon
3. “Nyuk-nyuk-nyuk-nyuk-nyuk-nyuk,” and after drawing the ‘X’ to indicate the strike
4. “Nyuk-nyuk-nyuk-nyuk,” and, following a hand clap, humming that resembles
We might question whether, relative to the short length of the overall gag, spending over ten seconds letting Curly celebrate his achievement (over ten, because it overlaps with Moe’s arrival) is justified, but it’s necessary in order to seed and set up Curly’s epic flinch.
To really appreciate “the flinch,” you should understand at least a little about the Stooges’ psychodynamics (the boys would call me an “egghead” for using that word). Of course, Stooges fans know this stuff cold; the following micro-primer is for the benefit of non-fans. Moe is “the boss of this outfit,” and he never lets the other two forget it – in fact, he’s downright tyrannical about it. Larry and Curly fear Moe’s wrath, and with good reason. Occasionally, they will respond to Moe’s violent assaults on them in kind, but they never truly challenge his authority over them. Through some tacit understanding they’ve long since accepted their subordinate status and there is never any question of any of them separating from the other two (even in shorts where the boys marry, they do so as a unit – all three marrying three women at the same time, and all the resulting couples living together under one roof). The bond that binds the Stooges together seems unbreakable. The only partial exception to this, that I can think of, is in their very first short, titled “Woman Haters,” which has Larry, as the featured Stooge (a role that doesn’t suit him), agreeing to marry a woman without telling, or coordinating with, his fellow Stooges. This is clearly intolerable, and cannot stand, but the idea that Larry would even contemplate such a thing merely highlights the problematic place this short has in the pantheon. As the first one its historical importance is undeniable but, along with the already cited anomalies, its dialogue is entirely in rhyme and it’s larded with musical numbers – all of which contribute to the decidedly un-Stoogelike feel of it. (Hmm. Oddly, writing this paragraph has made me realize that maybe women not liking the Stooges isn’t as mysterious as I thought it was.)
Curly’s flinch, once he slowly turns around and realizes that Moe is standing right next to him, glowering, is a thing of such beauty and pathos I feel confident in saying that no other comedian on the planet could ever hope to top it. Put it this way – without the flinch, I probably wouldn’t have written this essay, all of which up to now serves merely as preamble. And yet, now that we’ve finally made it here, I feel incapable of explaining why this one-second flinch by Curly demonstrates supreme comic artistry. Words fail, as when listening to the best of Mozart. But I must say something about it, so I will.
First, notice how Curly, even though startled to the point of being taken aback, hardly stops vocalizing for an instant. His celebratory “La-lee-la-laa-la…” humming turns, missing only the slightest of beats, into an “Ohhh-umph” that sinks at the end to a quiet, nasally snort that sounds a little porcine. It’s hilarious. It also shows conclusively why Curly could never fully be Curly in a silent film. He uses every part of his body, including his voice, to craft and perfect his comedy. Second, notice Curly’s right arm, hand and fingers during the flinch. See how they reach out to Moe, even as the rest of his body recoils from Moe, in a placating gesture – just like a person might use when confronting an animal he has reason to fear, but which he also has hopes of soothing. It’s touching, actually, and it shows Curly’s gentle and sensitive nature even in the midst of comic mayhem.
If you have a friend who truly appreciates Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but who gets sniffish at the idea of including Curly Howard in such august company, show him this gag, and especially direct his attention to Curly from the start of his flinch until Moe delivers the slap to his face. Because the way Curly instantly recovers from the flinch to launch into his manic declaration “I got a perfect score!” along with concurrent gesturing, and then almost as quickly settles into a zen-like calmness and immobility, in order to receive and maximize the effect of Moe’s slap – brother, that’s almost as incredible as the flinch. So ask your buddy if he honestly thinks Chaplin or Keaton or anyone else could have performed this bit better than Curly, or even as well.
The final section of the third movement, “It escalates from there,” is a little surprising, in that it is unusual for either Larry or Curly to challenge Moe this directly, on more-or-less equal footing (it’s more common that they strike back at Moe when he is temporarily immobilized or stuck someplace, and therefore incapable of retaliating, at least right away). After tricking and smacking Moe in the chin, Curly feels sufficiently liberated to hitch up his beltless pants in a ritual display of would-be dominance . . . that lasts less than the one second it takes Moe to pick up and swing an axe at him. Curly ducks and shouts “Woh-oh!” and sprints away, leaving the Stooges’ psychodynamics (for better or worse) intact.
The strict sense of order in me (I have that Moe-like tendency) demands that I point out that Moe was correct when he answered Curly’s “I got a perfect score!” with “No you haven’t,” but Moe was incorrect when he went on to say “you need another strike!” A perfect score (or game) in bowling requires twelve strikes, not the ten strikes that Curly had tallied so far. Curly needed two more strikes! I’m sure Moe would have been happy to supply a twelfth strike (slap) too, if only he had known. Leave it to those knuckleheads to have gotten something this basic wrong.
In darker moments, I sometimes think that The Three Stooges are the most honest reflection of modern American sensibility we have, sans all the bullshit idealism: ultra-violent, terminally dumb, staggeringly incompetent, cowardly deferential, and yet, for all that, never stationary, never satisfied, and possessed of a seemingly unbreakable internal bond. But then I remember that these guys were just hard-working funnymen, and that it’s unfair to overlay all of that truck on top of their great artistry. And the greatest of these artists of physical comedy is Curly Howard. Long live The Three Stooges! Long live Curly!