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'Ultimate Collection' offers very best from 'The Three Stooges'

Date: 6/18/2012

June 18, 2012

By G. Michael Dobbs

Many times when I receive a boxed set of a series of movies or television shows to review, the reaction around the office is "Why would spend $100 on that?"

When "The Three Stooges: The Ultimate Collection" came into the office, though, I had to fight to keep it.

It's difficult to believe that "The Three Stooges," now seen as American comedy icons, were once an act that were popular with audiences but received little critical attention or respect. Today, I predict, this boxed set, which runs around $100, will sell well due to the several generations that discovered the Stooges' short subjects on television.

I'm not sure who said the world could be divided into two groups of people those who like "The Three Stooges" and those who don't but that person is correct. Not everyone appreciates the barrage of one-liners, silly situations and often shudder-inducing physical violence that are the hallmarks of the best Stooge shorts.

The Stooges were part of a rich comedy tradition that was killed by television in the 1950s: the short subject. Theater owners used to create a program of feature films and shorts to entice audiences to come to their theater. Today's audiences might find it difficult to believe but in the 1920s through the early 1950s, the bills at theaters would change weekly and theater owners knew they were in a competitive business. They wanted to give people reasons to return, and running short subjects that were popular were part of that strategy.

The Stooges made the shorts at Columbia, which had a huge comedy unit turning out 20-minute comedies two reelers as they were called with a wide variety of stars, from Buster Keaton to Andy Clyde to El Brendel. The Stooges not only had the longest-running series from 1934 to 1959 but certainly the most popular.

Typically, the short subjects were a proving ground for comics, who would then try to graduate to feature films, such as Laurel and Hardy. The Stooges, although they appeared in features, never were stars in longer films until after 1958.

This 20-disc set gives a viewer the opportunity to see the growth and decline of the two reelers and how the studio's cost-cutting measures affected the Stooges' films. It also shows how the act differed with the arrival of new members.

If nothing else, this boxed set will show that Shemp Howard was a great comic and that many of the shorts featuring Shemp were just as funny as the shorts with Curly, the most popular stooge.

Shemp was the original third stooge and had left the act before the contract with Columbia. He had established himself as a busy character actor and comic, appearing in feature films and in shorts.

The most impressive thing about the collection besides having all 190 "Stooge" shorts in a single collection is the bonus disc with 11 more hours of material.

Columbia has a rich history, but the current owners, Sony, have been pretty stingy about releasing material for which hardcore film fans have long clamored: two-reel comedies and cartoons. In this collection, the producers give us two of the Stooges' feature appearances: "Rocking the Rockies" and "Have Rocket will Travel."

"Rocking the Rockies" is a 1945 B-movie that stars the Stooges in what is billed as a Western comedy, but is really a loosely written musical revue featuring Western swing acts and the Hoosier Hotshots, a novelty band. The film is interesting, but not necessarily good.

The second feature features "Curly Joe" DeRita, the last third stooge. The Stooges made a series of very well received comedies for kids and this was the first one, released in 1959.

The other bonus items includes three beautiful Columbia Technicolor cartoons that include caricatures of the Stooges and a treasure trove of Columbia two-reelers featuring Shemp as a co-star, Shemp as a star, as well as starring shorts featuring Joe Besser and DeRita.

Although maligned by Stooge fans, Besser was an accomplished comic, whose shorts were funny and would have been better if produced at a time when the budgets were more generous and more care was taken.

There are weeks worth of great viewing in this set, which would have only been better if there had been a booklet to put the bonus material into a historical context.

For anyone seriously interested in American screen comedy, this is essential.

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