In the wake of the Farrely Brothers new Three Stooges movie opening this Friday, I thought a little Stooge-ology might be in order. I've posted about the Stooges quite often over the years, discussing my favorite shots featuring Curly Howard, my friendship with Stooge writer-director Edward Bernds, the appearence of "Fake Shemps" in later Shemp movies (a double deployed when Shemp was either ailing or dead). But I've never gone into the declining years--the post-Shemp Joe Besser/Joe De Rita years--since it's just too, well, depressing. The truth is the Stooges should have hung it up when Shemp turned up his toes in 1955. But they didn't. A handful of awful shorts finished out their Columbia years, using comedian Joe Besser as the third Stooge. Besser felt about as comfortable with Moe and Larry as a pork chop might feel in a kennel of rabid dogs. He wasn't a physical comedian and his petulance and lack of pleasure at being there are impossible to ignore. He seems more like their gay cousin who they're forced to put up overnight then a third stooge.
Besser was out of there after a dozen or so shorts. But Moe Howard wouldn't give up. The explosion of interest in the Stooges once television started airing the old shorts--kids from a new generation discovered Curly and wouldn't stop "whoo-whoo-ing!"--convinced Moe that the act had one more drop of juice to be squeezed from it. So they went looking for a third stooge and turned up a comedian/actor named Joe De Rita, who was dubbed "Curly-Joe".
The shorts period was over--Columbia actually persisted in the making of shorts longer than any other studio and the Stooges were the last guys standing (barely). But the Stooges began another phase of their career in feature films, mostly directed by Norman Maurer who was Moe's son-in-law. They also developed a cartoon series for kids, where the living, breathing Stooges appeared in live-action bumpers only. These features and cartoons are among the most disgraceful examples of once-great careers going on to long in show-biz history. It's not just that "The Outlaws Is Coming", "The Three Stooges In Orbit" and "Snow White and the Three Stooges" are dismally unfunny...it's that the Stooges are step-by-step wrecking their glorious past by carrying the act on long beyond its expiration date.
So why I am posting about this dark period in Stooge history? Because I found a short that "Curly-Joe" made at Columbia more than a dozen years before his involvement with the boys which shows him to have been a talented, funny, boistrous and enjoyable comic personality of his own. Generically titled "Slappily Married" (there must be at least a dozen short comedies with that title--mostly made by Columbia...a few made by the Stooges?), it was directed by the Stooges frequent collaborator (and my pal) Ed Bernds.
I make no great claims for what follows, but Joe De Rita certainly deserved better obits than the one's he got a few years ago when he died at eighty-three in the Motion Picture Country home. After a career that began in vaudeville and burlesque, after a pile of appearances in movies and after much television work, his claim to fame remained his stint as "Curly-Joe" of the Three Stooges, the second-lousiest third stooge. Which proves that even being a second-rate Stooge is better than being the a first-rate unemployed comedian.