12/19/18

CURLY HOWARD: THE FINAL CURTAIN





Those of us who follow the NFL (which, for those of you who don't, stands for the National Football League) have heard a lot in recent years about the effects of repeated bashings on the head, which often leads to a disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopity (or CTE if you're in a hurry). It's effects include loss of memory, slurred speech, disorientation, violence and aggression and worse. Things don't end well if you're diagnosed with CTE and in a number of instances strokes can be the final result leading to complete impairment. Brain surgeons have learned a lot about this condition  from studying brain scans of football players. But I wonder what they would make of a brain scan of the late, great Curly Howard?

It doesn't take a brain surgeon to realize that the amount of trauma Curly must have suffered to his head most certainly would have contributed to his failing health and diminished abilities as evidenced by his performances in Stooge comedies from 1944 on (until a stroke in 1947 ended Curly's career entirely). Even with as much fake hitting as possible, Curly still took a remarkable number of shots to the head, one of which is detailed in the first of the above postings, which consists of footage from a 1943 (pre-Curly's decline) comedy that shows a gag that went awry, leading to a head injury for Curly. The little clip is narrated by an older Moe who recalls the on-set accident and how it affected Curly's head. Moe says nothing about any connection this might have had with his brothers decline--indeed, Moe never seems to have mentioned the sad and very visible diminishment of Curly's abilities.

I had the good fortune of growing up knowing Edward L. Bernds, Columbia Pictures chief sound recordist during the 1930s Capra era and later a short comedy and B movie director. Ed's first short as a director was a Stooge comedy called 'A Bird In The Head'--weirdly, a movie literally about Curly's brain. I recall asking him why Curly seemed slower and stranger in these later films and Ed didn't really offer a theory. Perhaps one just didn't speak about these things back then and he still didn't in the 1970s. But he did paint a rather haunting picture that I've never forgotten. He said that Curly was better oriented on some days than others but that he increasingly had memory problems which led not only to line memorization issues but also to lack of clarity about what the film they were making was about. When these things happened, his big brother Moe would take him aside and very patiently explain the movie scene by scene to him, then run his dialogue until he could make it through the next take. I always found the image of the two brothers on set--one in charge of helping the other one who was clearly going south in front of everyone's eyes--touching and poignant and terribly sad. The second clip posted above is a short selection of scenes detailing Curly's last appearance as a Stooge in 1947s 'Half Wits Holiday'. The final pie fight begins with Curly involved but ends without him. He suffered a massive stroke on set that day and never fully recovered.

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