The Three Stooges

Three Jewish boys create a cycle of timeless stupidity.

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Undercover Brothers

One of the few times the Stooges acknowledged their religious roots onscreen was in perhaps their most memorable film, You Nazty Spy! (1940). Moe is a housepainter hired as the dictator of the fictional country of Moronica. With his greasepaint mustache and occasional lapse into gibberish German, he is a dead ringer, not only for Adolf Hitler, but for Charlie Chaplin’s Hitlerian Adenoid Hynkel, from The Great Dictator, released later that same year.

Nazty is riddled with Jewish humor, as if ethnic and religious pride was the Three Stooges’ prime weapon in their arsenal of anti-Nazi munitions. Greeting their Nazi bosses, the Stooges leap back and salute: “shalom aleichem!” Moe proposes a blitzkrieg, and Curly strenuously agrees: “I just love blintzes. Especially with sour cream.” A slinky temptress named Maddy Herring (get it?) offers her favors, and Curly is relieved when Moe avoids temptation: “You’d have been in some pickle with that Herring.”

You Nazty Spy! ends with Moe, Larry, and Curly unceremoniously eaten by lions, but the Moronican backdrop was brought back for I’ll Never Heil Again (1941). Heil is a more traditionally loony Stooges short, with Moe shooting shaving cream through the telephone at an impudent Curly, and Curly exhaling fire after sucking on a radiator pipe instead of his tobacco pipe.

An Unending Circle of (Comic) Violence

The Stooges appeared to have reached the end of their run in the late 1940s, when they were unexpectedly saved by the arrival of a new medium. Columbia licensed their shorts to television, which was still hungry for anything to fill airtime. On television, the Stooges appealed to a generation of children unfamiliar with their work. Columbia had unceremoniously dropped the Three Stooges after a series of disappointing films, but quickly brought them back upon discovering their undimmed appeal.

In this later era, illness and death made for numerous cast changes, and the films themselves were often hastily re-edited hodgepodges of older footage. Having begun onscreen in the early 1930s, the Stooges were still making films as late as 1968’s Star Spangled Salesman. The Three Stooges retained their popularity, even when they were of an age more suited to retirement than fisticuffs. (Moe was still taking blows--and giving them out!--at over 70 years of age.) Today, the Three Stooges seem to belong to no era at all. Their stupidity is timeless.

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.