The Three Stooges were an American vaudeville and comedy act of the mid–20th century (1930–1975) best known for their numerous short subject films, still syndicated to television. Their hallmark was physical farce and slapstick. In films, the Three Stooges were commonly known by their first names: “Moe, Larry, and Curly” or “Moe, Larry, and Shemp”, among other lineups depending on the films; there were six active stooges, five of whom performed in the shorts. Moe and Larry were always present until the very last years of the ensemble’s forty-plus-year run.
The Three Stooges started in 1925 as part of a raucous vaudeville act called “Ted Healy and His Stooges” (also known as “Ted Healy and His Southern Gentlemen”, “Ted Healy and His Three Lost Souls”, “Ted Healy and His Racketeers”, and “Ted Healy and his Three Stooges”). Moe (Moses Harry Horwitz) joined Healy’s act in 1921, and his brother Shemp came aboard in 1923. In 1925 violinist-comedian Larry Fine and xylophonist-comedian Fred Sanborn, also joined the group. In the act, lead comedian Healy would attempt to sing or tell jokes while his noisy assistants would keep “interrupting” him, causing Healy to retaliate with verbal and physical abuse.
The film was not a critical success, but the Three Stooges’ performances were singled out as memorable, leading Fox to offer the trio a contract minus Healy. This enraged 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 The offer was withdrawn, and after Howard, Fine and Howard learned of the reason, they left Healy to form their own act, which quickly took off with a tour of the theater circuit. Healy attempted to stop the new act with legal action, claiming they were using his copyrighted material. There are accounts of Healy threatening to bomb theaters if Howard, Fine and Howard ever performed there, which worried Shemp so much that he almost left the act; reportedly, only a pay raise kept him on board. Healy tried to save his act by hiring replacement stooges, but they were inexperienced and not as well-received as their predecessors. In 1932, with Moe now acting as business manager, Healy reached a new agreement with his former Stooges, and they were booked in a production of Jacob J. Shubert‘s The Passing Show of 1932. During rehearsals, Healy received a more lucrative offer and found a loophole in his contract allowing him to leave the production. Shemp, fed up with Healy’s abrasiveness, decided to quit the act and found work almost immediately, in Vitaphone movie comedies produced in Brooklyn, New York.
With Shemp gone, Healy and the two remaining stooges (Moe and Larry) needed a replacement, so Moe suggested his younger brother Jerry Howard. Healy reportedly took one look at Jerry, who had long chestnut red locks and a handlebar mustache, and remarked that he did not look like he was funny. Jerry left the room and returned a few moments later with his head shaved (though his mustache remained for a time), and then quipped “Boy, do I look girly.” Healy heard “Curly”, and the name stuck. (There are varying accounts as to how the Curly character actually came about.)
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 Three Stooges were featured in a series of musical comedy shorts, beginning with Nertsery Rhymes. The short was one of a few shorts to be made with an early two-strip Technicolor process, including one featuring Curly without Healy or the other Stooges, Roast Beef and Movies (1934). 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. Soon, additional shorts followed (sans the experimental Technicolor), including Beer and Pretzels (1933), Plane Nuts (1933), Jail Birds of Paradise (1934) and The Big Idea (1934).
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. According to Moe Howard’s autobiography, the Stooges split with Ted Healy in 1934 once and for all because of Healy’s alcoholism and abrasiveness. Their final film with Healy was MGM’s 1934 film, Hollywood Party. Both Healy and the Three Stooges went on to separate successes, with Healy dying under mysterious circumstances in 1937.