Even though "Woman Haters" was the first short featuring the Three Stooges, you could say its follow-up, 1936's "Punch Drunks" is the first Three Stooges short. After the experiment with "Musical Novelties", "Punch Drunks" gets back to--creates, in fact--the Stooge formula that would serve the troupe so well for so long.
More after the jump.
Stooge Review #2
Title: "Punch Drunks"
Stooges: Moe, Larry, Curly (still spelled "Curley", as it will be for several more years)
Directed by: Lou Breslow and Jack Cluett
The first thing to notice about this short comes before the opening credits: the writers are (in order) Jerry Howard, Larry Fine, and Moe Howard. This is the only Columbia short where the Stooges themselves receive a writing credit.
The plot is straightforward, much more so than "Woman Haters". Moe is a failing boxing promoter, Curly is a waiter who meekly takes abuse from his boss and the customers, and Larry is a freelance musician who, judging by his clothing and his willingness to work for soup, isn't doing well either. All three meet by chance in the restaurant where Curly works and Larry is trying to get a gig as a tableside violinist. While Curly is getting insulted and pelted with food by a table of angry customers (including Moe), Larry starts playing "Pop Goes the Weasel", which sends Curly into a violent rage. He KOs two customers and is about to knock Moe into next week when the music stops. Moe realizes he has a natural born champ on his hands and signs him on as a boxer; along the way out, he "hires" Larry by grabbing him by the hair and dragging him along. Moe trains Curly to be a boxer, and with Larry sitting ringside every fight playing "Pop Goes the Weasel", "K.O. Stradivarius" wins fight after fight until it's time to face the champ in the third act. There, predictably, Larry's violin is broken early in the first round, and the rest of the short is divided between Curly getting his ass kicked while Larry runs frantically through town looking for some way to play the music.
"Punch Drunks" feels a lot more like a Stooges short than "Woman Haters". The characters are more like themselves, especially Moe. If anything, Moe has swung too far the other way; he's not only bossy and violent, but he's a skinflint and a genuine prick. Watch the early scenes, where he's eating lunch with a few of his fighters. He comes off quite believably as a callous, small-time boxing promoter; the kind of guy who'd be the villain in a movie about a fading former contender. Curly is essentially playing two roles: the meek, soft-spoken waiter (who speaks and moves without Curly's trademark mannerisms and the Brooklyn accent toned down) and the crazyman going bananas whenever "Pop Goes the Weasel" plays. Larry plays the foil, mostly to Moe; he has far less dialog than he did in "Woman Haters", though he still gets plenty of screen time, especially in the third act, and is in nearly all the funniest gags in the short. He also, incidentally, is actually playing the violin in all his scenes; Larry Fine was a classically trained musician and had a successful vaudeville career as a violinist before joining the Stooges in the 20s.
If "Punch Drunks" has a problem, it's pacing. For most of the third act, Curly is getting beaten up in the ring while Larry runs up and down a dark street. This goes on for about six and a half minutes. There are other gags thrown in (including the best slapstick moment in the film, which I won't give away here), but for the most part, it drags. In the second act, the Stooges encounter a woman (played by Dorothy Granger, who gets billed on the title card) in a stuck car along Curly's training route somewhere in southern California (some pretty open countryside which was probably paved over by 1955) who is intended to be a love interest, but very little is done with her character. Her best moment is probably reacting to Moe's rather slimy come-ons with polite contempt; she only has eyes for Curly, and, anyway, Moe is a prick in this short, even by Moe standards.
Bottom line: They were still working the bugs out at this stage, but this is a fairly good short with its share of laugh-out-loud gags. They still hadn't figured out how to properly use Curly, but Moe and Larry had settled into their roles and it paid off. Definitely worth seeing if only to experience the Stooges' only screenwriting effort; while they undoubtedly contributed to later scripts, and Curly would later be given huge blank blocks of the script in which to improvise, this was the only one that I know of where they were in the lead.
Next up: 1934's "Men in Black", a parody that by now is better remembered than the Clark Gable film it lampooned, if only because of one line.