Them’s fightin’ words in my country! A hurrah for Stooge underdog Shemp Howard
On November 22, 1955, at 11:35 p.m. PST, eternal Three Stooges underdog Shemp Howard was riffing wisecracks in a taxicab backseat. On the way home from a boxing match held at the Hollywood [American] Legion Stadium in Los Angeles, the spontaneous 60-year-old comedian had excitedly shadow-boxed from his ringside seat, putting on a better exhibition than the competitors onstage. Suddenly slumping over, his freshly lit cigar singed buddy Al Winston’s thigh. The death certificate listed a massive heart attack, although Shemp’s wife Babe, 28-year-old son Mort, and daughter-in-law Geri Greenbaum insisted a cerebral hemorrhage was the culprit. The grief-stricken family faced Thanksgiving just two days later [incidentally on this same date eight years later President John F. Kennedy was felled by an assassin’s bullet].
A gentle ‘fraidy cat on and off screen who shuddered at the mere mention of driving, the self-proclaimed “Ugliest Man in Hollywood” was cajoled to accept improvisational ball of energy-younger brother Curly Howard’s unattainable mantle following a devastating series of strokes in May 1946. Shemp had in actuality been a founding Stooge during their vaudeville tenure in the 1920s supporting inebriated straightman Ted Healy, years before Curly was given the keys to the kingdom of Moronika. Along with domineering boss-middle brother Moe Howard and oddball flake Larry Fine, the Three Stooges soldiered on, amassing 77 additional 16-minute short films for Columbia Studios mogul Harry Cohn that remain more accessible and timeless than any product bearing the names of contemporaries like the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, or Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
As Moe’s only son Paul Howard explained to me, “Shemp was somewhat different than Curly and Larry. He was a stable family man. He was devoted to Babe and Mort. He loved the racetrack and the prizefights. His challenge was that he was a hypochondriac. He was also afraid of most everything, but he was a magical entertainer with the kids.” Even Larry’s biographer Steve Cox [i.e. One Fine Stooge] has a soft spot for Shemp. “He would probably be my absolute favorite Stooge because of his peculiarities and timing,” says Cox. “I loved Shemp’s graceful comedy and Curly’s, too.”
Retired Savannah River Site radiochemist Scott Reboul was a teenage Stooge fanatic when he spent priceless moments with a twilight-era Moe and Larry. Reboul’s dissection of Shemp’s crucial contribution to the continuity, popularity, and legacy of the Stooges is on the money. “In terms of comedic timing, Shemp had a bit of an edge over Curly, although Curly offered so many other positive character facets that timing alone could not necessarily make viewers gravitate to the Shemp-era Stooges,” concedes Reboul. “However, Shemp is probably the only person in the world who could have stepped in for his brother Curly without missing a beat, with Shemp’s character fully established and his rapport between Moe and Larry solid from day one. And he did it admirably, regardless of the challenges he faced for not being Curly.
“I find that the scenes I tend to find most humorous and the lines that make me laugh out loud the most are those associated with Shemp. ‘Can I help it I ain’t Cousin Basil!?’ [from Brideless Groom] and the scene from Scrambled Brains where Shemp is playing the piano are two examples that never fail to crack me up!
“The Shemp-era shorts have their own charm and hold up exceedingly well. If it weren’t for Shemp, the Stooges’ body of work might well have ended with Curly’s Half-Wits Holiday in 1946, cutting the Stooges’ career short by nearly a quarter of a century. Only Shemp had the abilities needed to maintain continuity and effectiveness of their shorts, ultimately leading to the latter day Stooges revival and reincarnation beginning in the late 1950s.”
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