Part of my fascination with the Three Stooges has always been the dark underbelly of their backstage lives and how much of it played out in their movies . As a kid I felt I could trace quite a bit of their personal setbacks and tragedies through their movies, though I wasn't quite sure of what I was being made privy too. One of the earliest examples of this was the disturbing observation that Curley, at some point, simply wasn't the same Curley as before; in some shorts he is noticeably slower, more removed and uncertain. These came at the end of his filmography, in the 1945-47 period (Leonard Maltin's "Great Movie Shorts" was a seminal text of my youth). In one short, "Half Wits Holiday", I noticed that Curley simply vanished in mid pie-fight. It was also the last listed as having featured him. Before hearing the story, I intuited something dark about that pie fight. And upon reading Moe Howard's autobiography I discovered what it was.

Curley, it seems, suffered his first stroke on the set of that film--or at least his first all-paralyzing one, the theory being that his earlier deterioration may have resulted from multiple mini-strokes. He was literally carted away from the set, leaving his brother Moe and partner Larry Fine to finish the pie-fight without him. You may wonder why, at a time like this, shooting couldn't have been suspended for a few days, or even dropped all together. Did Moe really have his heart in this particular pie fight? But the relentless grind of the Columbia Sausage Factory could not be stopped. Shooting continued and Curley never again returned to the Stooges. He did, however, make a strange little cameo a year or so later in one of their shorts, as a sleeping man on a train, viz:

Again, as a kid, I sensed the strangeness of casting the sick former member of the team as an out-of-it sleep apnea victim as being somehow part of meta-Stoogeology, the shadowy way in which the movies mirrored their lives. Was this cameo a favor to Jerry (Curley's real name)? Was it part of a rehabilitation effort on his brother Moe's part? How did Shemp, the third Howard brother who came into replace Curley, feel about this cameo...and about his own ghostly role in replacing his vanishing younger brother? There is, of course, no explaination in the Stooge canon for Shemp's sudden appearence and Curley's disappearence. Did any of the movie-going public in 1947 write fan letters wondering where Curley went? Ultimately he died in 1952 (only forty-eight year old) and Shemp, by then, was the accepted third stooge.

But Shemp was older than either Moe or Curley and he, too, had his issues which could be glimpsed on screen. For one thing, I never found Moe batting Shemp around funny in the way that it was when the victim was Curley, who was large, nutty and indestructable. Shemp had a tired, Jewish uncle thing happening--and who wants to see a man like that abused? The way that this hair would suddenly fall in front of his face when Moe slapped him also made me sad--Shemp was a good sport but simply didn't look like he enjoyed this kind of comedy. And in a couple of cases, it was clear to even my youthful eyes that certain routines were staged in a way that just didn't seem natural--that seemed designed to possibly let Shemp off the physical comedy hook. Amazingly, some enterprising youtuber had the same thought and put together the below posted clip showing Shemp's stunt double (Joe Palma) doing the stuff that poor Sam Howard (Shemp's proper name) just wasn't up for. Dig:

Moreover there were a number of films in which I had the distinct impression that Shemp hadn't been around for much of the filming. I remember wondering if he was tired that day, needed the rest. Or perhaps he'd simply had enough of his asshole brother beating him up all for a little Columbia Pictures scratch. Well, apparently I wasn't alone in this observation. Sam Raimi, for one, was watching as a kid and coined the term "fake Shemp's" which he uses on the credits of his movies to designate stunt men/stand-in's. The "fake Shemp" movies were especially odd to me because not only was Shemp barely in them, he would hide himself and remain mute when he did appear. Thus the films had the air of Shemp pretending not to be part of the team, not being involved, being "there but not there". This too echoed eerily for me for reasons that I couldn't explain...until I began keeping a list of the movies the "fake Shemp's" were in, cross-checked it with my Maltin guide! The titles were of movies that were released after Shemp's death in the fall of 1955. (A word on his death: he was a great boxing fan and apparently went to the fights one night with a friend. On the way home, his friend thought Shemp had fallen asleep in the car when, in fact, Sam Howard had passed into the other world, wordlessly and smiling from his night at the fights). Apparently the Columbia Sausage Factory once again so no reason to let up its grind and continued putting together Three Stooges movies with or without a third stooge. So that "Scheming Schemers" (released in October of 1956) is, according to Maltin, "virtually the same film as "Vagabond Loafers" which was itself a remake of "A Plumbing We Will Go" (a Curley short from the early forties) with stock footage from "Half Wits Holiday" (the last Curley short with the aforementioned unfinished pie-fight)".
By using other films, stock footage and a few judicious "fake Shemp" moments, Columbia's short subject czar Jules White kept feeding the theaters Three Stooge comedies even though there were only two Stooges.

Having discovered this, though, I remember wondering how Moe and Larry felt about acting with a fake Shemp having buried the real one. The tastlessness of the task certainly trumps the tastelessness on display in any of the films. And given the fact that the awful Joe Besser shorts were to follow, it became clear that even a fake Shemp (or a debilitated Curley) was preferable to a perfectly healthy (albeit overweight) but dreadfully miscast Joe Besser. Below, an invaluable collection of "Fake Shemp" moments.

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