02 August 2010

Stooge Reviews #3: Men in Black

Men in White was a 1934 melodrama starring Clark Gable as a devoted doctor with a society wife who can't understand his commitment to his patients.  The movie caused a stir because Gable has an affair with a nurse, and later there's a scene implying abortion.  Later in 1934, the Hays Code would come into effect, and Hollywood would self-censor films like Men in White for the next thirty years.

Meanwhile, though, the Stooges made a parody of it.  And it's weird.  Details below the jump.

Title: Men in Black
Year: 1934
Stooges: Moe, Larry, Curly
Director: Raymond McCarey 

"Men in Black" is easily the strangest Stooge short I've ever seen.  It's even stranger than "Woman Haters", and it gets that way without any rhyming dialog gimmicks.  In this short, the Stooges are doctors, recently graduated with "the highest temperature in their class", and sworn to devote their lives to "duty and humanity".  There is no plot to speak of; rather, the short is a series of sketches tied together by a couple recurring gags.

So what makes this short so weird?  Well, try to imagine a short where everybody acts like Curly.  That's "Men in Black".  The entire film has a surreal, fever-dream feeling; at one point, the Stooges are sent to deal with a mental patient who doesn't actually seem any crazier than anyone else in the hospital.  Every sketch is ended by the intercom paging "Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard", a line that would go on to become more famous than both the short and the long-forgotten film "Men in Black" lampoons.  

Unfortunately, and despite being the only Stooge short ever nominated for an Academy Award (Best Short: Comedy), "Men in Black" isn't that funny.  There are a couple good gags--there always are--but mostly it's just Moe, Larry, and Curly acting ~wacky~ without there being any actual joke.  During the Curly years, the Stooges always worked best when everyone was in his element: Moe the boss, Larry the straight man, and Curly on center stage as the manic, childlike genius.  In this short, Curly fades into the background.  If it wasn't for his trademark sounds, it'd be impossible to distinguish him from Larry, who gets more lines and acts like he's mixed his medication.  

What's interesting about "Men in Black" is that, by not succeeding, it teaches us a lot about how the Stooges did succeed.  The Stooges might survive cartoonish violence, but their shorts aren't like cartoons; Moe, Larry, and Curly are three idiots bumbling through a believable world, causing havoc.  Hence fancy society parties degenerating into pie fights, or a house's plumbing rerouted into the electrical system.  "Men in Black" actually seems like it would have worked much better as a Daffy Duck cartoon; the silliness and surrealism of it all is perfectly suited for him, and if there's any character who's believable as a doctor who uses a mallet to anesthetize his patients, it's Daffy.

Bottom line: a weak early offering that ran off the rails.  Up next: more familiar circumstances for the boys, and a guest star who would go on to be one of America's greatest comics in her own right.


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