Posted by: Jerry Garrett | April 14, 2012

The Unfunny True Story Behind The Three Stooges

The original Stooges in their film debut, "Soup to Nuts"

HOLLYWOOD

FACT: The Three Stooges were founded by a vaudeville performer named Ted Healy – a man who ended up being beaten to death in 1937 outside a Hollywood nightclub. It was a shocking crime that has never been solved, although allegations have surfaced in recent years the beating was ordered by a studio head, and carried out by three assailants – who might have included an Academy Award winning actor and a legendary producer of James Bond films.

What really happened? Read on.

In the early 1950s, in television’s infancy, I used to watch Stooges movies. They were hysterically funny, I thought.

Then, one day, after seemingly endless reruns of the Stooges, they were gone from TV. No explanation. A few years later, however, the Stooges were back on TV. But something was different. These idiots weren’t funny; they were just stooges.

“Who are these morons?” I asked my mom. “Where did the funny ones go?” She, like most folks, didn’t know.

They didn’t even look like the same guys.

Turns out they weren’t.

Ted Healy & his Stooges (1925)

In the early days of television, movies had to be at least 10 years old (or older) to be shown on the tube. Hollywood was afraid this new-fangled TV thing would put them out of business. So, in the few hours a day that TV was even on, the morning hours were filled with 1930s fare – grainy black-and-white early talkies, serials and shorts – singing cowboys, Busby Berkeley musicals, the Little Rascals, and Ted Healy‘s Stooges.

Healy started the Stooges vaudeville act in 1922, and toured the country with them, ending up on Broadway in New York. They started making movies in 1930. From the beginning there were lawsuits over who owned the rights to the stooges. Cast members came and went. More lawsuits came and went. Healy lost a few, but generally won more than he lost. Even his own Stooges sued him.

Ted Healy near the end

From all accounts, Healy was a funny guy onstage, and very popular with audiences (he made 37 films) but a hard-drinking jerk in real life. He had no shortage of enemies, and he was constantly moving from one studio to another – often with a trail of lawsuits in his wake. It all came to an end in December 1937 outside the notorious Hollywood hangout, the Trocadero, where Healy was severely beaten by “three college kids”. (Actress Thelma Todd had died mysteriously precisely two years earlier after a night at the Troc.)

Healy died a short time later; the official cause was variously reported as a head injury, a heart attack or kidney failure. The death of Healy, a rich man whose fortune went missing when he died, remained clouded in mystery for decades.

Wallace Beery, "The Champ" 1931

In 2004, a controversial book, “The Fixers” by E. J. Fleming, alleged a studio head had ordered some thugs to beat the crap out out of Healy. The enmity may have had its roots in the Stooges’ move from MGM to Columbia. Anyway, another lawsuit was filed, Healy won and perhaps a sore loser was the result.

It is alleged Academy Award-winning actor Wallace Beery was one of the assailants, along with Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and a cousin, Pat DiCicco. Broccoli went on to produce the popular James Bond films; DiCicco would gain renown as a gangster, and as Gloria Vanderbilt‘s first husband.

I also used to watch Wallace Beery films from the early 1930s, but then he vanished from the tube even more completely than the Stooges. I can’t remember the last time I saw a Wallace Beery film (his filmography is here). Make your own judgment, but the career of this acclaimed actor pretty much went in the toilet following Ted Healy’s death. After that, Beery disappeared – reappearing in Europe months later. His studio, MGM, reportedly exiled him there.

The Stooges, as I first knew them, had acrimoniously split from Healy in 1934 (they were never called “The Three Stooges” during their time with Healy; in fact sometimes there were two “Stooges”, sometimes as many as four). They went on to make a series of films for Columbia, 1935-1941, that are considered by film historians to be among their best works. After that, the quality of their films began to slip; the performers grew old and infirm; the cast of characters constantly changed. At least nine different actors have “Stooge” on their resume. Moe Howard was the one constant, appearing as a Stooge from their formation in 1922 to his death in 1975.

Hard to tell which Stooges the Farrelly brothers were channeling in their 2012 movie version of “The Three Stooges“. The movie isn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

But I still remember Healy’s original Stooges as the best.

Jerry Garrett

April 14, 2012

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Responses

  1. Yoy can keep the Stooges, Healy or no Healy. They never came close to the Marx Bros. or the true kings of comedy, Laurel & Hardy.

    • Amen on the Marx brothers!

      • The king of comedy is probably either Sacha Baron Cohen or Andy Kaufman but its probably Cohen. As much as I love the Marx Bros or Chaplin’s The Great Dictator which beats any Laural and Hardy Film. I actually tie it with Cohen’s The Dictator. But today’s comics are far funnier than the comedians of yesterday. Mel Brooks, Farrely Bros, Saturday Night, cast members from Saturday Night Live, Robert Altman’s Mash, Blake Edward’s A Shot in The Dark or any other Clausaeu film. That being said I watch more films from the thirties and forties more than most people in my generation. But with the exception of The Marx Bros, I prefer Frank Capra type comedies as well as his dramas. Errol Flynn can be fun to watch. Hitchcock films can be a blast, but the so called kings of comedy from that era mostly hit each other and really did injure each other or themselves. The main reason that crap was made was because they were coming out of the silent movies where the humor had to be physical. And let’s face it, the comedians can get away with so much more today. Some of those movies were like they were made by the puritans. I was amazed that they got away with as much as they did in Ball of Fire. By the way, as much as I could not stand The Three Stooges, the Farrely Bros remake was actually quite funny to my shock! The Marx Bros though we’re truly great and probably had the biggest influence on today’s comedy.


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