This month marks the 120th anniversary of Jerome Lester Horwitz’s birth. You know him better as one of the most iconic names in comedy: Curly, the most popular of the Three Stooges.
It’s been said that a comic is a guy who says funny things, and a comedian is a guy who says things funny. Curly did both. “Sointenly,” “Look at the grouse” and “I’m a victim of circumstance,” certainly don’t sound like much, but these were but a few of Curly’s signature, oft-imitated catchphrases, along with assorted n’yucks, woo-woo-woos, high-pitched squeals, barks, and guttural cries that defy literal translation.
Not for nothing did Curly’s antics inspire the 1983 one-hit wonder, “The Curly Shuffle,” by the Chicago-based western-swing band, Jump in the Saddle.
The Three Stooges made 190 shorts, and nearly 100 of them starred Curly. Admit it: you felt a little let down if you turned on the Stooges after school or on Saturday morning and a Shemp, Joe Besser, or Curly Joe DeRita came on. Curly was a true original with a child-like persona that kids especially were drawn to.
To mark this milestone birthday, we’ve selected 10 Three Stooges shorts in which Curly was at his Curly-est. But remember, as our moms warned us, don’t try these stunts at home.
Curly is in excellent “voice” when he must impersonate an opera star on behalf of an aspiring singer trying to win over her disapproving father. But first he must lip-sync to her record as Senorita Cucaracha (with Moe and Larry accompanying him) at a party for high society swells. That never goes well, especially when a rival singer who recognizes the trio as the handymen who broke up his recording session is also in attendance. The Stooges are often accused of being lowbrow, but this is the short that introduced me to Strauss’s Voices of Spring waltz and the sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor.
This is the Stooges’ second short, and the first in an unofficial quartet of shorts in which an unexpected outside force makes mild-mannered Curly just go berserk. Here, he’s a waiter who pops whenever he hears that “Weasel” tune. Moe, a fight manager, has found his meal ticket, but to quote the Tony Bennett song, “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” Enter violinist Larry, who frantically must track down the song to keep Curly enraged in the ring. This is the only Stooges short inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
This was the Stooges’ fifth short and is the first of several that, apropos of nothing, set them loose in the Wild West. Here, they’re detectives trying to help a beautiful woman save her ranch from the swindling Double Deal Decker. This short introduces the most surreal catchphrase in the Curly canon, ”Moe, Larry, the cheese,” his urgent call whenever he goes crazy after seeing a mouse. “His father was a rat,” Moe explains.
This essential short introduces a favorite Stooges theme: environment vs. heredity. On a wager, a scholarly type attempts to transform Moe, Larry, and Curly into gentlemen to see if they could pass in high society. Curly is particularly fun to watch during the etiquette class, the fan-favorite “do exactly as I do” dance lesson, and his all-the-wrong-moves during the snooty soiree.
There are several prize Curly moments in this Stooges classic. One highlight owes a debt to Laurel and Hardy’s Oscar-nominated, The Music Box as deliveryman Curly tries to transport blocks of ice up a steep staircase before they melt. Another is when Curly takes Moe literally when Moe tells him to shave some ice. But perhaps best remembered is the Stooges’ take on “Happy Birthday,” which ends with a real bang: “We made you a birthday cake/If you get a tummy ache/And you moan and groan in woe/Don’t forget we told you so.”
Moe, Larry, and Curly, here dubbed Click, Clack, and Cluck, are inept photographers expendably dispatched to the Vulgarian Frontier (“Cameras Prohibited on Penalty of Death”) by their fed-up editor. This short contains one of Curly’s most famous scenes, in which he does battle with a bowl of oyster soup and one very fresh oyster. Guess who wins? Curly was a master at risible frustration, and his exquisite takes when the oyster gets the best of him are priceless.
Curly can take a licking, but keeps on ticking, as evidenced in this atypical Stooges short in which the trio evoke their vaudeville days as a struggling comedy team. This is the short with the iconic “Niagara Falls” routine (“Slowly I turn, step by step, inch by inch…”) in which Moe and Larry, enraged by the mention of Niagara Falls, take it out on poor Curly. It also has, for the Stooges, an uncharacteristic happy ending, with the trio Broadway bound and with new brides to boot. Of course, things take their usual turn when the wedding party find themselves 25 miles outside of…Niagara Falls.
This is another in the never-not-funny “what drives Curly wild” cycle. Bustoff the wrestler befriends Moe, Larry, and Curly, prompting his mobbed-up handlers to make them Bustoff’s manager. There’s a big bet on Bustoff to win his next bout (and he’d better win, or else) but when Curly accidentally knocks him out, Curly must take his place in the ring. Luckily(?) for him, he has a secret weapon: the smell of the perfume Wild Hyacinth makes him lose control. His scene in the ring lacks Chaplin’s balletic grace, but it’s the height of the slapstick art.
Acting, it is said, is reacting. Curly gives a master class in another of his most referenced scenes, in which he runs the gamut of expressions as he tries to consume a cake, one of whose layers is a pillow. This scene is a real feather in his cap. Speaking of terrible puns, listen for the offscreen slap that accompanies his groan-worthy pun about why Curly quit working in a bakery. Some things are even funnier when left to the imagination.
A cow-milking contest affords the opportunity for the Stooges to earn the necessary $100 that will save their restaurant. Curly is volunteered to be the milker, with Moe and Larry stepping in as the milkees in a fake cow costume. Curly, um, milks every gag to perfection, especially in early scenes in the kitchen, in which his efficiency contraptions go awry.
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