Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Three Stooges in Orbit (Normandy/Columbia, 1962)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Abbott and Costello Go to Mars we got to see its double-bill partner, The Three Stooges in Orbit, made in 1962 at an odd juncture in the Stooges’ career. They had originally began as the sidekicks of vaudevillian Ted Healy, who in 1930 got to make an early musical for Fox, Soup to Nuts, written by cartoonist Rube Goldberg. Healy ended up under contract at MGM as a contract player and brought the Stooges along for some comic-relief scenes in illustrious movies like Dancing Lady with Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Fred Astaire and Nelson Eddy (the last two in their film debuts), only in 1934 MGM decided that they’d keep Healy under contract but didn’t need his “stooges” anymore. So Columbia, whose president Harry Cohn always liked it when he could one-up the mighty MGM and make stars out of people MGM’s boss Louis B. Mayer had fired, put the Stooges under contract and set them to making two-reel comedy shorts. At the time the lineup of the Three Stooges was brothers Moe and Curly Howard (Moe was the one who anticipated the Beatles’ pudding-bowl haircuts, Curly the shaved-headed guy who invented the “N’yuk n’yuk” vocal noise that became a Stooges trademark) and Larry Fine, the frizzy-haired one. Amazingly, the Three Stooges’ series of shorts lasted from 1934 to 1957 and proved reliable moneymakers for Columbia; the studio occasionally put them in minor roles in features but mostly kept them in the two-reel salt mines. In 1946 Curly suffered a stroke and was replaced in the team by a third Howard brother, Shemp, who’d previously played important supporting roles in comedies with far more impressive stars, like The Bank Dick with W. C. Fields, Hellzapoppin’ with Broadway sensations Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, and Buck Privates with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. When Shemp died in 1955 the Stooges got an unrelated but quite amusing comedian named Joe Besser to replace him, but by that time the advent of television was pretty much killing the market for movie shorts. Columbia let the Stooges’ series die a natural death in 1957, but the following year they started selling the Stooges’ movies to TV — a 20-minute two-reeler was a “natural” for TV because it could be cut up to insert commercial breaks and fit into a half-hour time slot — and they were sensationally successful, especially when stations ran them in the late afternoon so schoolchildren could watch them. Columbia re-signed the Stooges to make feature films, many of them with a science-fiction bent (the first was called Have Rocket, Will Travel), largely the result of director Edward Bernds, who’d cut his teeth on the Stooges’ shorts, but when he stepped up to feature films his career took an odd turn into science fiction.

According to an “Trivia” poster The Three Stooges in Orbit actually started life as an unsold color pilot for a Stooges’ TV series — the first 20 minutes, in which the Stooges get thrown out of a number of hotels for cooking in their rooms (a big bozo no-no in the days of vaudeville — Stan Laurel remembered that when he and Charlie Chaplin roomed together on tour with Fred Karno’s vaudeville troupe before either of them made movies, Laurel would cook their meals over an open gas jet in the room and Chaplin would cover up the sound by practicing his violin), come from their failed TV pilot and are the funniest scenes in the film — before they hook up with mad inventor Professor Danforth (Emil Sitka, who’d been a regular supporting player in the Stooges’ shorts), who invites the Stooges to stay in his mansion. What they don’t realize is that the mansion is haunted, not by the usual ghosts or goblins but by Martians, including Danforth’s butler Williams (Norman Leavitt), a Martian who’s been put through elaborate plastic surgery to look like an Earthling. The Martians au naturel look as close as Columbia’s makeup department could come to the Universal makeup for the Frankenstein monster without Universal suing them for copyright infringement. When Williams fails in his mission to neutralize Danforth’s invention — a peculiar contraption that has tank treads to go on land, electric motors so it can travel under sea as a submarine, and helicopter rotors so it can fly — because the Martians think it’s the only possible craft by which the Earthlings can resist a War of the Worlds-style invasion, the Martians send Ogg (George N. Neise) and Zogg (Rayford Barnes) — one wonders if they knew Yll and Ylla, the bored middle-aged Martian couple who figured prominently at the beginning of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles — and the movie is basically a series of slapstick sequences as the Stooges try to get the contraption ready for a demonstration Air Force Captain Tom Andrews (Edson Stroll) has arranged, largely out of incredibly blandly depicted love for Danforth’s daughter Carol (Carol Christensen), only they end up loading it with a water-activated atom bomb the Navy was testing as an ultimate depth charge against an enemy’s nuclear submarines. There’s also a straight cop of the gimmick from the 1935 Gene Autry science-fiction musical Western serial The Phantom Empire in which the Stooges have to keep getting back to the local TV station they work for in order to do their show on time or risk getting fired.

The Three Stooges in Orbit is a cute, clever film whose target audience was probably still in single digits; people older than that are likely to notice how old Moe and Larry had got — naturally it’s especially noticeable in their close-ups — and how little they were doing the slapstick that had been their stock-in-trade when they were making the shorts whose renewed popularity on TV had led to the Stooges’ comeback. Part of the problem was the new “third Stooge,” Joe DeRita, who had signed on when Joe Besser quit after the cancellation of the shorts series. The Stooges christened him “Curly-Joe,” but that only underscored how much less funny he was than the original Curly Howard; apparently DeRita was unwilling to do too much pie-in-the-face or finger-in-the-eye stuff (though the funniest scene in this film after the first 20 minutes is when the rotors of Danforth’s craft get caught in a batch of pies and fling them at the Air Force brass there to watch the demonstration — an automatic pie fight!) and his preference for dialogue comedy fit oddly with Moe’s and Larry’s more restrained physical antics. The finale features Danforth’s craft literally splitting in half, with the bottom half killing the Martians who had hijacked it when the bomb explodes (invoking another, far superior Columbia release two years later, I couldn’t help but sing “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when” as the bomb went off and a mushroom cloud filled the screen) while the top half delivers the Stooges to their TV studio right when the manager who’s never liked them was about to fire them. They save their career with a new invention, “electronic cartoons,” which basically means the Stooges cover themselves with white makeup and get themselves filmed doing the Twist — the makers of this movie had the idea of digital cartoons decades before computer technology advanced enough to make them a reality — and there’s a clever tag scene in which two surviving Martians see the Martian subtitle communicating the last bits of English dialogue in the film (a reversal since earlier we’ve seen gag subtitles in English purporting to translate what the Martians are saying to each other), and one Martian shoots out all the letters in the subtitle except the ones that read “the end.” (I miss titles that say “The End.” That’s how old-school I am in my movie-watching!)