The Three Stooges were an American vaudeville and comedy act of the early to mid–20th century best known for their numerous short subject films. Their hallmark was physical farce and extreme slapstick.

Ted Healy and his Stooges

The Three Stooges started in 1925 as part of a raucous vaudeville act called 'Ted Healy and His Stooges' (a.k.a. 'Ted Healy and His Southern Gentlemen', 'Ted Healy and His Three Lost Souls' and 'Ted Healy and His Racketeers'—the moniker 'Three Stooges' was never used during their tenure with Healy). Brothers Moe and Shemp were joined later that year by violinist-comedian Larry Fine, and Fred Sanborn joined the group as well.

In 1930, Ted Healy and His Stooges (including Sanborn) appeared in their first Hollywood feature film, Soup to Nuts, released by Fox Film Corporation. The film was not a success with the critics, but the Stooges' performances were singled out as memorable, leading Fox to offer the trio a contract minus Healy. This enraged the prickly Healy, who told studio executives that the Stooges were his employees. The offer was withdrawn, and after Howard, Fine and Howard learned of the reason, they left Healy to form their own act, which quickly took off with a tour of the theatre circuit. Healy attempted to stop the new act with legal action. In 1932, with Moe now acting as business manager, both parties re-united after reached a new agreement, and they were booked in a production of Jacob J. Shubert's The Passing Show of 1932.

Tired of what he considered Healy's domineering management of the Stooge's career, decided to quit the act for pursuing a solo film career. Moe suggested his younger brother Jerry Howard as Shemp’s replacement. After Jerry shaven his hair into completely bald, Healy hired and nicknamed him as “Curly”.

In 1933, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) signed Healy and his Stooges to a movie contract. They appeared in feature films and short subjects, either together, individually, or with various combinations of actors. The trio was featured in a series of musical comedy shorts. The shorts themselves were built around recycled film footage of production numbers cut from MGM musicals, such as Children of Pleasure, Lord Byron of Broadway, and the unfinished March of Time (all 1930), which had been filmed in early Technicolor.

Healy and company also appeared in several MGM feature films as comic relief, such as Turn Back the Clock (1933), Meet the Baron (1933), Dancing Lady (1933), Fugitive Lovers (1934), and Hollywood Party (1934). Healy and the Stooges also appeared together in Myrt and Marge for Universal Pictures.

In 1934, the team's contract with MGM expired, and the Stooges parted professional company with Healy. The Stooges split with Ted Healy in 1934 once and for all because of Healy's alcoholism and abrasiveness.

The Golden Columbia: Moe, Larry & Curly

In 1934, the trio (now officially christened "The Three Stooges") signed on to appear in two-reel comedy short subjects for Columbia Pictures.

Within their first year at Columbia, the Stooges became wildly popular. Realizing this, Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn used the Stooges as leverage, as the demand for their films was so great that Columbia eventually refused to supply exhibitors with the trio's shorts unless they also agreed to book some of the studio's mediocre B movies. Cohn also saw to it that the Stooges remain ignorant of their popularity.

The Stooges were required to churn out up to eight short films per year within a 40-week period; for the remaining 12 or so weeks, they were free to pursue other employment. Usually, the Stooges would either spend this time with their families or tour the country promoting their live act. The Stooges appeared in 190 film shorts and five features while at Columbia. Del Lord directed more than three dozen Stooge films; Jules White directed dozens more, and his brother Jack White directed several under the pseudonym "Preston Black".

Curly was easily the most popular member of the team. His childlike mannerisms and natural comedic charm (he had no previous acting experience) made him a hit with audiences. His wild lifestyle and constant drinking, however, eventually caught up with him in 1945, and his performances suffered. In his last dozen shorts, he was seriously ill, struggling to get through even the most basic scene

On May 6, 1946, during the filming of Half-Wits Holiday, Curly suffered a stroke, ending his 14-year career. Curly's health necessitated a temporary retirement from the act, and while the Stooges hoped for a full recovery, Curly never starred in a film again.

Shemp returns

Moe Howard turned to his older brother Shemp Howard to take Curly's place. Shemp, as the successful solo comedian, agreed to rejoin the trio only on a temporary basis until Curly recovered.

Upon Shemp's return, the quality of the films picked up (the last few Curly efforts were marred by his sluggish performances). Shemp could easily hold his own charm on screen. More often than not, his astute gift of comedic timing buoys weak material. Shemp's take as the third Stooge was much different from Curly's. While he could still roll with the punches as the recipient of Moe's slapstick abuse, he was more of a laid-back dimwit compared with Curly's energetic man-child persona.

Curly who remained gravely ill after 1950, dying of a cerebral hemorrhage caused by additional strokes on January 18, 1952 and Shemp's association with the Stooges became permanent.

Shemp himself suffered a mild stroke in November 1952, although can recovered after two months. Moe tried to negotiate about Shemp’s condition with Harry Cohn. Cohn refused Moe’s suggestion for the Stooges to have five months additional hiatus and the negotiation broke. The Stooges preferred not to renew their contract with Columbia. Following the suggestion from their associate director, Edward Bernds, Moe went to Allied Artists Pictures and signed a deal for their new series of B-feature films.

Moe, Larry and Shemp then filmed three features in Allied Artists and one in RKO at 1953. The series proved to be popular and they remained in Allied Artists until 1958. During their stays in Allied Pictures, the Stooges starred in 23 feature films between 1953 and 1959 most notably Canned in Boston, Three Wise Monkeys, and Hot Iron from Shemp era; and Severed Luck and The Golden Clovers from Mantan era. Moe himself acted as co-producer for each of their features. With the help from their former fellow Columbia associates: Edward Bernds and Elwood Ullman, the Three Stooges comedies emerged as popular full-length films series, together with another Allied’s comedies: the Bowery Boys.

The Stooges took the second personal appearance tour in the United Kingdom on 1954. This tour already discussed eight years earlier, but cancelled after Curly suffered a massive stroke. At that time, Mantan Moreland, the African-American comedian famous as Charlie Chan's chauffeur Birmingham Brown, recruited as Shemp’s replacement due the comedian’s fear of travelling by ship and his deteriorating health. The boys performed well-received “Good Holiday” skit before the British audiences during their hiatus between September 1954 and January 1955

Three years after Curly's death, Shemp Howard died of a sudden heart attack at age 60 on November 22, 1955. Shemp appeared with the Stooges in 53 Columbia shorts and 14 feature films: 12 in Allied Artists; one in United Artist and one in RKO.

Mantan joined the trio

After his brother’s death, Moe approached Mantan Moreland to become the new "third Stooge". Moe’s decision to invite Moreland for joined the act was indeed very revolutionary since the political situation at the time still retained a glass barrier between white and black performers in entertainment industry.

With Mantan on board, Larry was given more time on screen. Both Mantan and Larry fairly shared Moe’s on-screen physical abuse to avoid the controversy over the time when the Civil Rights movement had begun to blossom. Mantan’s role as the equal sidekick of Moe and Larry, however, viewed more positive by the African-American audiences, unlike his previous screen appearances as valet, porter, janitor, chauffeur or any number of other working class jobs.

This incarnation of team starred in 11 more Allied Artists features between 1956 and 1959. After their contract expired in September 1957, Moe, Larry and Mantan booked to do stage performances tour throughout southern Canada from December 1957 to February 1958.

Like his predecessors, Mantan also suffered a series of stroke during late 1950s. The comedian suffered his third stroke in May 1958 in the club backstage during the Stooges’ nightclub appearances at New Jersey. With Moe’s blessing, Moreland retired from the team in August 1958. Howard and Fine took a temporary retirement until October 1958.

Joe replaced Mantan

Seeing the success of how television, in its early years, allowed movie studios to unload a backlog of short films thought unmarketable, the Stooge films seemed perfect for the burgeoning genre. In January 1958, Columbia's television subsidiary Screen Gems offered a package consisting of 78 Stooge shorts (mainly from the Curly era), which were well received. Almost immediately, an additional 40 shorts hit the market, and by 1959, all 150 Stooge Columbia shorts were airing regularly. As results, Howard and Fine found themselves in high demand. Moe quickly signed movie and burlesque comic Joe DeRita for the "third Stooge" role in September 1958.

This Three Stooges lineup continued to make a series of popular full-length films from 1959 to 1966 most notably The Three Lackeys, The Three Stooges Meet Hercules, The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze and The Three Stooges Meet Captain Kidd. The films were aimed at the kiddie-matinee market, and most were Farce outings in the Stooge tradition. They also appeared as firemen (the role that helped makes them famous in Soup to Nuts) in the film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Throughout the 1960s, The Three Stooges were one of the most popular and highest-paid live acts in America

Final years

In 1969, the Three Stooges filmed a pilot episode for a new TV series titled Kook's Tour, a combination travelogue-sitcom that had the "retired" Stooges traveling around the world, with the episodes filmed on location. On January 9, 1970, during production of the pilot, Larry suffered a paralyzing stroke, ending his acting career, as well as plans for the television series.

Mantan Moreland died of cerebral hemorrhage on September 28, 1973. Larry Fine suffered another stroke in December 1974. The following month, he suffered a more serious one and slipped into a coma. He died on January 24, 1975 at the age of 72. Moe also fell ill from lung cancer, and died on May 4, 1975. The last of Three Stooges, Joe DeRita survived for about twenty-years until he died of pneumonia on July 3, 1993.

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