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Friday, July 14, 2006

A Stage Act We Can Still Enjoy

Just watched Plane Nuts again on the Dancing Lady DVD. If you want the flavor of what a personal appearance by Ted Healy and His Stooges might have been like, look no further than this terrific 1933 two-reeler. Ted’s act is captured for all posterity in this short --- a no-frills transcription of the routine that he and the Howards (and Larry Fine) honed to perfection on the vaudeville stage. They’re interrupted by a couple of tiresome dance numbers, which seem to have been lifted from other features (Metro’s abandoned The March Of Time perhaps?), but mostly it is pure Healy and Company, and a joy to watch. Why must Ted be so abusive --- and so casual in his infliction of cruelties (but therein lies the beauty of the man!)? He looks to be ad-libbing much of what he does on stage (and here he is in a surly clinch with Joan Crawford from Dancing Lady), although you know every routine had to be fine-tuned to the last detail. I’m glad they preserved his act for all us future generations. This theatre ad is from 1932. For fifteen cents, you could see the whole thing live on stage. Boy oh boy. Exhausting work no doubt, probably six or more performances a day, but I’ll bet Ted and the Boys made every one of them look spontaneous. Warner has promised more of these early Healy/Stooge subjects for future DVD extra offerings. That’ll be something to look forward to.


Blogger East Side said...

Way back in the '80s, one of the New York revival houses ran the Healy/Stooges MGM shorts. And I've got to tell you, the reaction to Healey himself was overwhelmingly negative. We were a Stooges audience and considered Healey a real interference. Now, this was our first look at these shorts; we were expecting them to be identical to the Stooges' Columbia work, only glossier. I'm willing to give Ted another chance, but my memory of these shorts (and the other movies I've seen him in) is one of extreme irritation.

3:29 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

I can assure east side that the same thing happened on the West side!

When I lived in L.A. at the same time period, a revival house there played the Healy/Stooges MGMs. As I recall, it began with the color "Nertzrey Rhymes" and ended with "Beer and Pretzels." And until the final slapstick melee of the final two minutes of that final film, the audience was... well, annoyed! Every time it looked like the Stooges would break loose, Healy was there to snuff it out.

You never heard such an explosion of cheers when the brawl broke out at the end of "Beer and Pretzels" - it was like one mass cry of "FINALLY!!!"

Of course, it didn't help that the program was advertised as "The Lost Three Stooges." Having read a few of the books about the team, I kind of knew what to expect - after all, they were Healy's Stooges - but even so, the films just weren't all that funny; the material didn't seem to be on a par with even the mediocre Columbias, and the musical numbers were no lost classics.

Overall, it was like watching a document of untapped potential: a great comedy team consistently upstaged by a surly Milton Berle.

I will say this, though: When I caught "Meet the Baron" on TCM several years ago, I was impressed at how funny they all were. But that's probably because Jack Pearl was so thoroughly unamusing.

10:30 PM  
Anonymous Greg Glienna said...

I couldn't disagree more! I think Healy is hilarious. Last year I went to a Stooges festival in LA and the short with Healy and co., where they were all waiters, was my favorite. The man just had a funny way about him! I can see why he was such a big Vaudeville star.

3:44 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Michael Hayde and East Side --- always enjoy your cogent commentaries --- my own affection for Ted Healy is a perverse one, I know, but since I was never a big Stooges fan, perhaps I was more pre-disposed to enjoy Healy. The thing that appeals to me about Ted is the way he projects such contempt toward everything --- his co-players, the audience, even his own performance --- as if he knows how despicable his act is, yet still determined to play it out and collect his pay-packet I love the determined way he keeps cueing that lame song in "Plane Nuts" --- "Noon-time means luncheon for someone...", or whatever --- and he does it yet again in "San Francisco" three years later --- no doubt amused at how annoying it had become!

6:10 AM  
Blogger East Side said...

John -- have you seen Ted & the Stooges in "Myrt & Marge"? At the climax, they (and the rest of the cast) are out of character, making it seem like the whole movie was actually a radio broadcast. The look Ted gives to the camera as he walks away perfectly captures your description of him. I rewound it a few times -- and even paused it! -- because it seemed so jarringly contemporary. It was probably the first time I "got" Ted. Yes, I'll give him another chance somewhere down the line. (You can see where Moe took his delivery and whole style from Ted in dealing with Larry & Curly, while still hanging on to his own Stooginess.)

12:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The musical numbers in Plane Nuts were from FLYING HIGH [1931]with Bert Lahr[Busby Berkely, Dir.]

9:35 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi East Side --- No, I've never seen that Healy subject, but I'd like to. If it's a Metro short, perhaps it will turn up on TCM or as a DVD extra eventually. As long as there is a Greenbriar, Ted Healy will have a champion!

9:55 PM  
Blogger East Side said...

John -- "Myrt & Marge" is a Universal feature based on the radio series of the same name. I remember little of it (having watched it only once about 15 years ago) other than that Ted and the Stooges had far more screen time than I expected. In fact, the title characters almost seemed like an afterthought.

7:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having done extensive research on Ted Healy, I can see your interest in him, John. There is a dividing line between the romanticized and the real Vaudeville--Ted Healy shows us how real Vaudeville was. Vaudeville was full of talented, obnoxious, manipulative, boring, abusive and memorable personalities--not always entertainment.

Evan Chase

12:19 PM  

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