Tomorrow is October 5th, a date with considerable resonance for fans of The Three Stooges, as this year it marks the 111th anniversary of the birth of Larry Fine, the frizzy-headed funnyman known to non-fans–and most other moviegoers–as “the other stooge” or “the stooge in the middle.” Born Louis Feinberg in Philadelphia in 1902 (a bar and grill on the corner of Third and South Streets, near his birthplace, boasts a mural of the performer on its exterior), Larry began in show business as a comedy violinist before joining brothers Moe and Shemp Howard (and, later, younger sibling Curly) in 1925 as “stooges” to face-slapping foil Ted Healy. In 1934, with vaudeville, Broadway and film appearances on their resumé and following a split with Healy, the re-christened Three Stooges of Moe, Curly and Larry would hit the screen in the first of 190 two-reel shorts for Columbia Pictures, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Much like Derek Smalls, the bassist played by Harry Shearer in This Is Spinal Tap (“It’s like fire and ice, basically. I feel my role in the band is to be somewhere in the middle of that, kind of like lukewarm water.”), Larry stood dutifully for decades between the stubborn aggressiveness of Moe and the frenetic anarchy of Curly (and eventual returnee Shemp), his easygoing and often oblivious demeanor making him an almost forgettable, but ultimately indispensable, part of the slapstick trio’s success. More than one movie buff has written recently about Larry’s contributions to the team and how, while the various Howard brothers may have gotten the lion’s share of screen time and fan appeal, it’s become kind of hip to call the man dubbed “porcupine,” ”burr head,” “mangy floor mop,” and other less-than-complimentary monikers by Moe your favorite member of the threesome.
To mark his birthday, I’d like to offer up my picks for Larry’s ten most memorable bits from the Three Stooges shorts, along with a few biographical “Fine Facts”:
Woman Haters (1934) – The trio’s first effort for Columbia was, to be charitable, not one of their better ones (although it does have its supporters). Playing characters named Jim, Tom and Jackie, respectively, Larry, Moe and Curly join the Woman Haters Club and swear off the opposite sex forever, until Tom falls and weds Mary (Marjorie White) and tries to keep the news a secret from his pals, who wind up following the newlyweds on their honeymoon. Oh, and the dialogue in this “musical novelty,” as the title card puts it, is spoken in rhyming, sing-song fashion. The boys don’t interact all that much, and the trademark mayhem is fairly minimal, but this was one of the few shorts in the team’s history where Larry took the lead role.
Punch Drunks (1934) – After the less-than-happy results of Woman Haters, the Stooges came up with the story for their second film, and it remains one of the best. Thanks to some timely violin-playing by Larry, boxing manager Moe discovers that mild-mannered waiter Curly transforms into a wild knockout machine whenever he hears “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Re-dubbed K.O. Stradivarius, Curly “woo-woo-woos” his way to a championship bout, but a broken fiddle mid-match sends Larry on a hilariously desperate race down the streets of Los Angeles, searching for a radio, phonograph, or anything playing “Weasel.” (Fine Fact #1: Larry’s violin expertise came about thanks to his parents’ having him take lessons to strengthen his left arm, which was scarred from acid burns received in a childhood mishap in his father’s jewelry/watch repair shop.)
Disorder in the Court (1936) – As witnesses in a nightclub dancer’s trial for murder, musicians Moe, Curly and Larry turn their testimony into an impromptu jazz number that is interrupted when Larry snags the court officer’s toupee with his violin bow and mistakes the hairpiece for “a taran-tala,” which Moe promptly shoots with the bailiff’s revolver. Later in the film, Curly tosses away an errant wad of gum that winds up on Moe’s nose. An ever-helpful Larry grabs the gum off his nose with a piece of paper, throws it to the floor, steps on it, and proceeds to celebrate his triumph with a wild Tarzan-like yell.
Flat Foot Stooges (1938) – The fellas are firemen testing Curly’s automatic horse-harnessing invention when Larry zips up the pole to turn off their ringing alarm clock. Coming back down and getting in the middle of Moe socking Curly in the kisser, Larry barely has enough time to exclaim “I’m a victim of circumstance” when the clock goes off again. Moe asks him, “What did you go upstairs to do?” After a sheepishly grinning Larry answers ”I forgot to turn it off. I feel so silly,” Moe replies “You look it!,” then socks him back up the pole.
Violent Is the Word for Curly (1938) – Thanks to the mortarboards and robes they’re wearing while hitchhiking, the Stooges are mistaken for the new faculty members (“Professors Feinstein, Frankfurter, and Von Stupor”) of an all-girls’ college. Presented to the students and asked to speak on his “famous theory,” Professor Feinstein…er, Larry just sits there with the most marvelous blank look on his face (see the MFF home page image) as birds chirp away inside an apparently empty noggin. Trooper that he is, though, Larry gamely asks for questions and is promptly stumped by a co-ed who inquires if it’s “true that time and space are calculated by the direct ratio of interplanetary magnetism to solar radiation.”
A Plumbing We Will Go (1940) - Certainly one of the most popular Stooges shorts of all time, this tale of would-be plumbers More, Larry and Curly turning a society party into chaos while attempting to fix a relatively minor leak is best remembered for three key moments: Curly trapped in a bathtub by a maze of pipes he assembled around himself, cook Dudley Dickerson’s exclamation “This house has sure gone crazy!,” and the shot of Larry’s head popping up from the middle of the front lawn as he dutifully searches for a shut-off valve. “I’ll find this thing or else,” he exclaims, and then dives back underground…but not before he reaches up and pulls his hat back down with him. (Fine Fact #2: It’s hard to say for certain, but this seems like the sort of sight gag that Larry might have suggested for himself. According to frequent Stooges scripter/director Ed Bernds and other colleagues, Fine had an off-the-wall sense of humor and would often come up with “flaky” ideas to add to a short, few of which made it to the screen.)
Three Loan Wolves (1946) – When the health problems that would eventually force him into retirement limited Curly’s participation in the Stooges’ 1945-47 films, Larry wound up receiving more screen time, as in this short where the boys are pawnshop owners. While Moe and Curly are (literally) out to lunch, a gangster’s moll tries to hock a “diamond ring” and winds up fleeing the store, leaving behind her sister’s baby, which she was looking after. Larry does his best to entertain “little Egbert” with his own version of a bedtime story: “Once upon a time there were Three Bears: Max Bear, Buddy Bear and Bugs Bear. Now bear in mind, these bears were never bare, because they ran around in their bear skins, but with their bare feet. So, the Three Little Bears went skipping and frolicking hither, tither and yither…without their mither and fither!” (Fine Fact #3: Speaking of children’s stories, voice actor/comic Billy West used his eerily precise imitation of Larry for the voice of dim-witted Stimson J. Cat on Nickelodeon’s The Ren & Stimpy Show.)
Who Done It? (1949) – When ace detectives Larry, Moe and Shemp are called in by wealthy client Emil Sitka to guard him from the mysterious Phantom Gang (whose roster includes the seductive Christine McIntyre and a hulking goon named Nikko), the stage is set for one of the best Stooges shorts from Shemp’s 1947-1955 tenure. As for Larry, he has the misfortune of having his forehead mistaken for “highly polished mahogany” by a magnifying glass-wielding Moe, and later–during a climactic fight in a room whose lights have been turned out–calling out to see if Shemp is okay, only to be socked on both sides of his jaw simultaneously…by the bad guys, one can only hope. (Fine Fact #4: One side of Larry’s face was actually callused from years of slaps from Moe. His baldness, though, was natural and was not due to an angry Moe pulling out hanks of hair.)
Cuckoo on a Choo Choo (1952) – Have you ever watched A Streetcar Named Desire and thought to yourself, “Gee, that Marlon Brando’s a good actor and all, but how would someone like, say, Larry of The Three Stooges play the part of Stanley Kowlaski?” Well, no need to wonder, thanks to this bizarre series entry. An undershirt-clad, mumbling Larry channels his inner Brando to play a loutish, beer-guzzling railroad car thief who can’t get his girlfriend to marry him until her older sister weds a perpetually inebriated Shemp, who only has eyes for an imaginary, six-foot canary named Carrie. Moe turns up as a railroad detective who just happens to be the former beau of said older sister. Much like the earlier Woman Haters, this is one of the rare shorts where the boys play separate characters rather than a team from the outset, which is one of the reasons Cuckoo ranks at or near the bottom of most fans’ lists. One person who did like it, however, was none other than Larry himself, who happily showed the film to friends and visitors.
He Cooked His Goose (1952) – This comedy put Fine front and center as a scheming playboy and pet shop owner who flirts with his secretary, carries on an affair with Moe’s wife, and then sets his sights on wooing Shemp’s fiancée by making it appear that Shemp is cheating on her–with none other than Moe’s spouse. It’s an odd villainous role that once again sets Larry apart from his usual comrades, and his double-dealing shenanigans (which includes a lot of dressing up like Santa Claus) eventually catch up with him, but if you ever wanted to see the curly-haired comic as a “ladies’ man,” this is the one to watch. (Fine Fact #5: In real life, Larry was happily married to wife Mabel, a former dancer who–along with her sister–worked the pre-Stooges vaudeville circuit with him as The Haney Sisters and Fine, from 1926 until her death in 1967. The couple had a son and a daughter.)
So, hats off to you, Larry, wherever you may be playing your violin now. You may have not always been the most visible member of the team, but it wouldn’t have been The Three Stooges–literally and figuratively–without your brilliant, Brillo-headed buffoonery.