Think it’s not easy to replace a legend? Try having to stand in the shadows of two successive legends. It’s a hazardous experience that some manage to pull off (Jim Rice playing left field for the Boston Red Sox after Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski) and some don’t (Gary Cherone following David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar as Van Halen’s lead singer). A cinematic example of this dilemma can be found in the rotund form of veteran stage and screen funnyman Joe Besser, who was tapped in 1956 to join Moe Howard and Larry Fine as one-third of the Three Stooges and co-starred in the team’s final 16 two-reel comedies for Columbia Pictures.
As evidenced in a poll featured on this site, Joe’s tenure with the slapstick trio is hardly held in the same regard as those of the two men he replaced, Moe’s brothers Curly and Shemp. Most fans, in fact, consider the Besser era beneath their notice, and non-fans (as well as self-confessed aficionados like Howard Stern) often wind up confusing him with ’60s member “Curly Joe” DeRita. With this week’s debut of the Farrelly Brothers’ The Three Stooges (in my biased opinion, less an homage than an act of cinematic grave-robbing) and Sony/Columbia’s planned June release of The Three Stooges: The Ultimate Collection–featuring all 190 Stooges shorts as well as examples of Besser’s pre-Stooges solo work–it’s a good time to ask if the Moe, Larry and Joe teaming truly deserves its bad reputation.
First, for those non-fans out there, some background is in order. In 1934, Moe, Larry and Curly split with straight man Ted Healy–who brought the boys in to serve as his “stooges” in vaudeville, on Broadway, and in the movies–and signed with Columbia to star in their own two-reelers. That line-up remained stable for 12 years and nearly 100 shorts, until a debilitating stroke on the set forced Curly to retire from the act (he would die in 1952). Older Howard sibling Shemp, who left the team to work solo in the early ’30s, came back in 1947 to join Larry and Moe for over 70 films. In November, 1955, however, Shemp would pass away from a heart attack after attending a boxing exhibition. Still owing Columbia four pictures for the coming year, Moe and Larry considered working as a duo, then opted to finish them with stock footage and actor Joe Palma, his back to the camera, as a stand-in Shemp. When the time came to find a new third member, the search didn’t have to go any farther that the studio’s own short subjects department and the dressing room of one Joe Besser.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1907, Besser caught the show business bug early. At age 12, he followed renowned stage magician Howard Thurston by stowing away on a train (and sleeping on top of a lion cage!) and wound up joining the act in Detroit. When his attempts at legitimate legerdemain led to failure, young Joe became Thurston’s comedic foil. Striking out on his own in 1923, Besser found success on vaudeville circuits across the country, where he would crystallize his persona of a petulant and easily exasperated man-child who would cry out “Not so haaarrrd!” and “You crazy, you!” at those who annoyed him. He also caught the eye of popular funnymen Olsen and Johnson, who hired him to join their latest frenetic Broadway revue, Sons of Fun. Columbia executives noticed Besser, and he made his big-screen debut in 1938’s Cuckoorancho, the first of 11 solo shorts he’d star in for the studio. Joe could also be seen in several features, from 1944’s Hey, Rookie! with Ann Miller and the Bud Abbott/Lou Costello 1949 film Africa Screams (which counted Shemp Howard in its cast) to the 1950 Rock Hudson costume actioner The Desert Hawk. His long friendship with Bud and Lou won Joe a recurring role on their 1952-54 TV series The Abbott and Costello Show as Stinky, a bratty kid dressed in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit (no one back then apparently questioned a man in his late 40s playing a child).
So it was that Besser, with decades of experience and a well-established character, would sign on with the Stooges in early 1956. Things were going to be different from the team’s heyday, though. First, the budget for Columbia’s shorts department was smaller, which meant more remakes of older films and more use of stock footage. For another, the fellas were getting up in years and weren’t able to take all the slaphappy mistreatment of days gone by. Joe, in fact, had a stipulation in his contract that kept Moe or Larry from “slapping or causing him bodily harm” (he later said that Larry told him, “Don’t worry. If you don’t want Moe to hit you, I’ll take all the belts.”). And the madcap storylines of their ’30s and ’40s films were toned down to more closely match the style of the TV situation comedies that were coming into vogue. Larry and Moe even changed their distinctive hairstyles in several of the Besser shorts, combing them back in a less wild manner that befit their older appearances.
The revamped trio’s first effort, 1957’s Hoofs and Goofs, found them playing siblings trying to cope with their late sister Birdie’s reincarnation as a horse…a horse about to have a foal, at that! Someone at Columbia found this horseplay amusing, because they shot a follow-up short, Horsing Around, later that year. Among the other films they made in ’57, the boys tracked down Joe’s fiancée’s stolen engagement ring in Muscle Up a Little Closer; they played three sets of triplets, with a string of confused wives and girlfriends, in the trick photography spectacle A Merry Mix-Up; they went into the cosmos with two different mad scientists (Benny Rubin and Stooge regular Emil Sitka, respectively) in the sci-fi spoofs Space Ship Sappy and Outer Space Jitters; the Curly short Idiots Deluxe was recycled as Guns A-Poppin; and Rusty Romeos reworked the Shemp comedy Corny Casanovas (you can even see a tabletop photo of Shemp in a stock shot).
The repetition continued in 1958’s output, as Joe reprised Curly’s roles in Pies and Guys (based on Half-Wits Holiday) and Oil’s Well That Ends Well (Oily to Bed, Oily to Rise). The fellas played adopted “children” in Quiz Whizz; reunited Besser with his French wartime sweetheart in Fifi Blows Her Top; help Joe’s sister Tiny get over her stage fright in Sweet and Hot; and had one more “close encounter”–well, Joe did, even if no one believed him at first–in Flying Saucer Daffy. The fellas’ final two shorts, the remakes Triple Crossed (He Cooked His Goose with Shemp) and Sappy Bullfighters (Curly’s What’s the Matador) reached theaters in 1959, more than a year after Columbia had shut down its short subjects branch and given the boys an unceremonious goodbye. Okay, so much for background.
So, what was so terrible about the Joe Besser Three Stooges shorts? Obviously, the frenetic, anything-goes pace of the ’30s Curly era films was gone, with the boys playing in mostly domestic situations that often seemed to take place in the same apartment. Joe’s rather prissy persona, as the one who would get on Larry’s and (especially) Moe’s nerves, also rubbed fans the wrong way. What worked during his Stinky stint with Abbott and Costello, apparently, didn’t come across with the Stooges. That said, the interaction between the trio was perhaps better than it was at times with Shemp, who was also used to working solo. Muscle Up a Little Closer and Fifi Blows Her Top, along with the first two space comedies, had some fine sight gags (Joe’s trying to ship a crate of eggs in Muscle Up, for example) and wordplay that made them stand out (I, for one, always liked Larry’s throw-away plug in Outer Space Jitters when he tells the audience “And don’t forget to see [Columbia's] Pal Joey, folks.”). With more original stories and fewer remakes, the Moe-Larry-Joe combo might have had a chance to stand out more, but due to money constraints and the series’s imminent demise we’ll never know.
After the Stooges were given the gate by Columbia, the sudden popularity of their earlier shorts on TV in the late ’50s renewed interest in the act, but Joe begged off a planned personal appearance tour to look after his ailing wife. Moe and Larry would convince roly-poly comic Joe DeRita, another Columbia veteran who was briefly considered as Shemp’s replacement, to join them for their ’60s small-screen and feature film renaissance…but that’s another story. As for Besser, he’d eventually get back into acting, with turns in movies starring the likes of Bing Crosby (Say One for Me), Marilyn Monroe (Let’s Make Love) and Jerry Lewis (The Errand Boy, Which Way to the Front); TV guest spots and a recurring role on The Joey Bishop Show; and even cartoon voice work for Hanna-Barbera (Jeannie, Yogi’s Space Race). It was Joe who represented the team when the Stooges finally got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1983, and he continued to welcome fan mail up until his death in 1988.
While his 1984 autobiography was originally entitled Not Just a Stooge, Besser later changed it to Once a Stooge, Always a Stooge, and of his time with the beloved knuckleheads he said, “I’m glad I did join the Stooges and I have never regretted it.” Three Stooges devotees shouldn’t regret it, either.