It’s an all-too-common occurrence in sports: A talented player or group of players achieves great success, but stays in the game a little too long, and instead of ending on a high note (like, say, Ted Williams’ homer in his final at-bat in 1960) winds up a faded shadow of better days (like, say, the New York Yankees of the late ’80s). It’s sad to say, but something similar happens on a regular basis in Hollywood, where popular and acclaimed performers rarely get the screen send-off they deserve (Peter Sellers’ final role coming, not in Being There, but a few months later with The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, for example). Continuing with the sports analogy, let’s compare the farewell features of several cinema comedy teams and see if any of them managed to go out as champs:
The Marx Brothers, Love Happy – The Marxes intended their last MGM film, 1941’s bargain-basement effort The Big Store, to be their screen swan song. However, Chico’s love of gambling–and his lack of success at it–brought the siblings back together in 1946 for A Night in Casablanca and again three years later for Love Happy, originally conceived as a vehicle for just Harpo and Chico. The producers needed to lure Groucho back to get financing, though, which explains why his role as private eye Sam Grunion amounts to a series of extended cameos. A story about a vagabond (Harpo) who helps out a struggling theatre troupe and finds a fortune in stolen diamonds, Love Happy barely qualifies as a Marx Brothers movie, the trio only appearing together near the end. It’s Harpo’s film all the way, and the silent one acquitted himself well with several good sight gags, including a chase across Times Square’s neon billboards. Chico had little to do as the troupe’s piano player, and Groucho tossed off a few one-liners and got to ogle a young Marilyn Monroe. Duck Soup it isn’t, but Love Happy is on a par with or better than some of the Marxes’ MGM work. Oh, and the very last film to feature all three brothers, Irwin Allen’s 1957 pseudo-history lesson The Story of Mankind, didn’t even put them together in any scenes.
Laurel and Hardy, Utopia – Off the screen since leaving 20th Century-Fox following 1945’s The Bullfighters, Stan Laurel and Olvier Hardy’s popularity in Europe convinced them to sign on for this 1951 French/Italian co-production, also known as Atoll K, in which Laurel inherits a South Pacific island. Setting sail with a refugee cook and a stowaway on board, the boys’ plans to claim the island are interrupted when they’re shipwrecked on a remote atoll that turns out to be full of uranium. Much has been written–including a whole book, in fact–about this film’s many travails, from disagreements on the script and language barriers to the star duo’s on-set health problems (both Stan and Ollie appear to be in poor shape), but there are flashes of satire and the warm camaraderie than made L & H fan favorites for decades. Had they made Utopia in, say, 1938 for their producer/mentor Hal Roach, it might be remembered more fondly.
Martin and Lewis, Hollywood or Bust – While the first two entries in this article were about aging teams ready to retire, Hollywood or Bust marked the comedic coda for a tandem still young and popular, but apparently unable to share the screen any more. By the time this film was released in late 1956, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis had been broken up for about six months, and during shooting the pair refused to speak to one another once the cameras stopped rolling. The movie itself is not a bad little tale, with the fellas “co-winning” a car and Dean agreeing to join Jerry on a cross-country road trip so Lewis can meet his dream girl, Anita Ekberg. There are plenty of sight gags (thanks to Lewis and director Frank Tashlin), and some nice shots of ’50s Las Vegas and the Paramount backlot, but the animosity between the duo–due in part to Martin feeling his film characters were always taking a backseat to Lewis’ antics–is almost palpable, and it makes watching the movie a surreal experience.
Abbott and Costello, Dance with Me, Henry – After a 20-year career together that included the burlesque stage, radio, motion pictures and TV, Bud and Lou’s last performance as a team came in this 1956 film in which indebted gambler Abbott tries to use the amusement park Costello owns to launder money for mobsters. Along the way A & C are helped out by two adorable orphans that Lou looks after, adding a mawkish subplot that doesn’t really work (would YOU trust Lou Costello to care for kids?) to a routine film that has little of the verbal banter that marked their Universal heyday. Abbott retired from showbiz for a while after Dance with Me, Henry’s release, and Costello made TV guest shots and one solo effort, The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock (although he quipped that he “might try working with Dean Martin”), before his death in 1959.
Hope and Crosby, The Road to Hong Kong – While they weren’t a team in the sense of the others listed here, 1962’s The Road to Hong Kong was the seven and last pairing of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in the increasingly self-referential “Road” series, and the first for the duo in 10 years. The Cold War spy spoof, which predated the first James Bond film by several months, saw Bob accidentally memorize the formula for a top-secret rocket fuel and sent him, Bing, and enemy agent Joan Collins on the run from criminal mastermind Robert Morley’s organization. The boys get treated by Indian doctor Peter Sellers, compete for a too-young-for-either Collins, encounter old pal Dorothy Lamour, and even wind up going to the moon, but the film still feels like a glossed-up re-treading of their breezier Paramount efforts.
The Three Stooges, The Outlaws Is Coming! – Unceremoniously dumped by Columbia in 1957 after 23 years and more than 190 short subjects, The Three Stooges were riding a TV-fueled wave of renewed popularity in the early 1960s. Moe Howard, Larry Fine and latest “third stooge” Curly Joe DeRita enjoyed the adoration of fans old and new thanks to small-screen guest shots and live appearances across the country, prompting Columbia to hire the slapstick trio back for a string of feature-length comedies aimed at the kids’ market. For the most part, the films (Have Rocket, Will Travel, The Three Stooges Meet Hercules, The Three Stooges in Orbit, and The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze) lacked the mayhem and energy of the 1930s and ’40s two-reelers. Their last one, the 1965 Western send-up The Outlaws Is Coming!, turned out to be the best of the lot, with the boys going up against an array of the frontier’s baddest blackhats (all played by local TV show hosts–including Philadelphia’s own beloved Sally Starr–who broadcast the old Stooges shorts). There’s able support from a pre-Batman Adam West as the square-jawed hero and the threesome’s boss and Nancy Kovack as Annie Oakley, and some clever jabs at the cowboy flick genre. Moe, Larry and Curly Joe would continue slapping and poking one another until 1970, when a planned TV pilot entitled Kook’s Tour had to be halted after Fine suffered a stroke.