Movie Fan Man: Cinema Connoisseur

Traditional, Artsy, Genre-Within-Genre: A Little Something for Everyone

JOE BESSER: THE WRONG STOOGE

by Tony Nash

(All Opinions are of the Author Alone)

Actor Profile (from IMDb)

By 1956-57, The Three Stooges were nearing the end of their 20 year short film career. In 1955 Shemp Howard, the older brother of Boss Stooge Moe and the first Columbia era Third Stooge Curly (who tragically passed away 4 years earlier after suffering a series of strokes), suddenly and tragically passed away of a heart attack while in the passenger seat of car driving home from seeing a boxing match (in spit of all his phobias, Shemp was an avid lover of the sport), leaving the trio without a third. Columbia pictures had some shorts in the can with Shemp still to be released, which gave everyone the time to find the new third Stooge.

The Popular Buddy Hackett (from TCM)
The Last Third Stooge Joe De Rita (from Stooges Wiki)

Initially Moe and Larry wanted rising comedian Buddy Hackett to join up with them, and Columbia boss Harry Cohen was alright with the idea, but Hackett would politely turn the offer down, wanting to focus on perfecting his stand-up act and was getting steady guest star work on TV. Before he was a regular, comic relief player Joe De Rita was asked by Larry (they were both from South Philadelphia PA) to consider joining them, but he was under contract to Darryl Zanuck and 20th Century Fox, and while Fox execs were willing to loan De Rita out, Harry Cohen was at the height of his cheapness and wouldn’t pay Fox their asking fee. Cohen and his partners, in their frugalness, finally foisted upon Moe and Larry Columbia contract player Joe Besser.

The Final Stooges Opening (from A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE)
Besser with Abbott & Costello (from Issuewire)

Joe Besser actually got his rise to fame from working as the comic foil for comedy team legends Abbott & Costello in both their films and their short lived TV series, usually as an irritating neighbor or a gofer for the villains. In spite of his rising popularity, Besser couldn’t have been more different than what Moe and Larry would want from a partner. Besser’s stick was often as an easily startled whiner prone to childlike tantrums and fits, and would often engage either the bad guys or comics he would act as the foil of in arguements that would go nowhere and end up in endless repetition. During the first filming with Besser, he openly refused to allow Moe to slap him or have pies thrown in his face, Larry having to play mediator and tell Joe he would take the hits (this explained Larry’s calloused cheeks in the last years of his life).

Besser With Moe and Larry (from Pinterest)

Stooge fans of the period, and the fans that would come to love them from the 1970’s onward, were shocked and baffled by Besser, a Stooge not wanting to get hit or have pies thrown at him was unheard of. What made the Stooges work so well was the physical comedy the engaged in, and for a comedian who engaged primarily in verbal banter and spats, this was completely alien to Besser. Besser did win some points with fans for being the first Stooge to defend himself and try to (with minor success) hit Moe back and being something of beautiful chick magnet, but this would really be the only things fans found endearing to him. In an interesting bit of irony, Besser would actually work alongside Shemp Howard in the Abbott & Costello film Africa Screams before Shemp would take over for Curly.

One of the Many Strange Besser Era Plots (from Dailymotion)

Poor decisions by Columbia, as well as Besser’s out of place comic style, proved to be what would permanently cast Joe was the Black Sheep Stooge. Cohen, the writers, and Producer-Director Jules White began putting The Boys in very stupid, ridiculous, and plain god-awful stories that would even make filmmakers like Ed Wood look like geniuses. From the sister reincarnated as a horse to them heading into space encountering man eating Amazons from Venus and Martians looking to take over the Earth, the Stooges had sadly and unfairly hit rock bottom. Also not helping cases was a few storylines where Moe and Larry were made into heavies picking on Besser ( I found those to be the most disgraceful shorts), Besser convincing Moe and Larry to slick back their hair to appear more like gentlemen, and some really awful attempted remakes of both Curly and Shemp era shorts. The only good Besser shorts were A Merry Mix-Up and Fifi Blows Her Top both of which were well written and performed.

One of Besser’s Better Moments (from YouTube)

Now before anyone starts to wonder if all Stooges fans think Joe Besser is a terrible comedian/actor in general, you’re in for a nice surprise. Besser was a fine comic and actor in many other shows and films, particularly his work with Abbott & Costello, and a plethora of voice work for 70’s era Saturday morning cartoons. Stooges fans are only critical of his time in the trio because he entered into it when Columbia was unashamedly cutting corners and being ridiculously cheap with the material, secretly getting ready to pull the rug out from Moe and can the act, and poor Besser right in the middle of it. Besser’s reluctance to be a bit more open to the physical comedy of the group only added to fan frustration, although Besser would take some physical stuff towards the end of his tenure with Moe and Larry. Today’s fans of The Stooges hold no ill will towards Joe, but are of agreement his era of the group has the poorest material, the majority of his shorts not watchable.

Joe in His Later Years (from WorthPoint)

I hope everyone enjoyed reading this little piece. I was stuck on what to write on this blog for a long time. Like many Stooge fans I have nothing against Besser and his comic style, but do believe he was not the right choice to be part of the act. Stan Laurel believed fully no comic should ever get embarrassed by what they do on camera, and Besser unfortunately was very self conscious of the kind of comedy The Stooges did, not heeding Stan’s comment. Definitely give any non Stooge Besser material a chance, he’s not that bad, he’s really good with Abbott & Costello.

All images courtesy of Google.com/Google Images and their respective owners.

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Filed under: Film & TV: Potpourri, Film: Actor/Actress Spotlight

One Response

  1. Chrisk says:

    I remember Joe De Rita as the ‘fake’ hangman in The Bravados. He was acceptable as the 3rd Stooge too.

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