Friday, February 12, 2010
IDLE ROOMERS (1944)
NOTE: In light of the fact that the big-budget remake of “The Wolf Man” starring Benicio del Toro and Anthony Hopkins is being released to theaters today, I thought it appropriate to review a horror-comedy featuring a werewolf. And since I’ve already reviewed “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” (featuring the Wolf Man) the next most prominent entry is this Three Stooges short.
RATING: ** & ¾ out of ****
PLOT: The Three Stooges (Moe Howard, Larry Fine, Curly Howard) are hotel bellhops who deliver a large crate to a hotel room. The crate contains “Lupe the Wolf Man,” the latest addition to Leander’s Carnival, which is run by hotel occupants Mr. and Mrs. Leander (Vernon Dent and Christine McIntyre). While Mrs. Leander is initially shocked at the sight of the creature (Duke York), Mr. Leander assures her that he is harmless except when he hears music. Dent asks the Stooges to tidy up the hotel room while he and McIntyre step out. Naturally, Curly turns on the radio to make the task more bearable, and the fun begins. Will the Stooges be able to get themselves out of their latest hairy predicament?
REVIEW: While Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy, The East Side Kids/Bowery Boys and Our Gang/Little Rascals all made numerous horror-comedies, no comedy team made more than the Three Stooges who top in at somewhere between 20 and 25 entries depending upon your definition of horror-comedy. Strangely, the success of the team in this genre seems to go against the conventional wisdom of head Stooge Moe Howard himself, who once said that the key to the Stooges was to put them in situations where they would be out of place… which was nearly every situation! Think about it – the Stooges would easily wreck havoc doing any sort of job imaginable, being a part of the military, or put into any situation where they had to deal with high society types or authority figures.
The horror-comedies of the Three Stooges go against the grain of their usual films because there is just as much (if not more) havoc being wrecked upon the Stooges by ghosts and monsters (both real and phony) as the Stooges enact upon each other and those who cross their paths.
Like many Stooges shorts, there isn’t much plot to “Idle Roomers” – it’s a case of cause (set-up) and effect (mayhem) which proved to be a tried-and-true formula for the team. As such, it’s a bit critic proof. First off, you either like the Stooges or you don’t (I happen to love them). Many critics of the team find their violent brand of slapstick hard to take, but for me, the addition of the ridiculous sound effects and the fact that the violence was taken to such exaggerated extremes puts them in another category. To me they are more like a live-action cartoon and so they are surreal, just as any cartoon character that suddenly came to life for real would be considered surreal. In fact, to me the Stooges are the reverse of the cat-and-mouse cartoon team Tom & Jerry. The sight of Tom the cat getting whacked over the head by a two-by-four was almost always accompanied by a realistic sound effect whereas Curly could get whacked on the noggin and you’d hear the sound of a bell, just like the “test your strength and ring the bell” challenges at a carnival.
So the Stooges and their robust brand of slapstick are not an issue for me. In fact, I would have given this short a full three stars but I’ve deducted a quarter star just due to the fact that the set-up isn’t quite as quick here as it is in other shorts. It takes too much time to get to the main event. In a short like this, you want the Stooges verses a werewolf antics to kick in at around the three minute mark, not eight and a half minutes in. In fact, if you’re watching this film cold for the first time without any notion of what is to come, you might think it’s going to be a typical Leon Errol/Hugh Herbert marital farce/comedy of errors. On the plus side, however the Stooges deliver some prime tomfoolery in the interim.
The Stooges are delightfully at full-tilt here from their very introduction. We first see them in full bellhop outfits sharing a bench in the lobby. And they’re sleeping! The desk clerk has to rouse them awake by pressing a button that collapses the bench they are sleeping on, sending them crashing to the floor. Of course, just the sight of the Three Stooges waking up and scrambling to get their bearings is hysterical. The manic pace is maintained as the trio vie for the attentions of lovely Christine McIntyre (making her first of many appearances with the Stooges here) – each wants to be the one to carry her bags. Larry takes the elevator, Moe beats him running up the stairs… but Curly is already in her room!
There’s a series of great sight gags concerning the carrying of bags. Curly carries a very large case on his back. Meanwhile, Larry is pulling the rug that Curly is walking on so that Curly never gets anywhere – he’s walking in place! Then comes a great bit where Curly puts the case down, shakes out and spits on his hands, and then reaches back to carry the bag again… but he’s really grabbing the female guest by her shoulders instead! As Curly walks into the room with the woman on his back, her husband spots him and begins throwing knives (!) at Curly with top precision! Curly beats feet and we soon learn why the man is such a good knife-thrower: he owns a carnival!
The next scene sets up the rest of the short. When the wife inquires about the large crate that’s just been delivered, the husband tells his wife “this will put us in the big time” – and then the camera closes in on a flyer for “Leander’s Carnival” featuring “Lupe – the Wolf Man.” It’s a very compact, well-written way to explain who the guests are without using obvious exposition. Mrs. Leander objects to the “horrible creature” but her husband says he’s perfectly harmless “except when he hears music – then he goes insane!”
Now I must mention here that this short really doesn’t have many horror-comedy trappings, but it does have its wolf man, or more precisely its handling of the wolf man. Circuses, freak shows and sideshow acts have always been known for having their “wolf people,” but when depicted in other movies, they tend not to be portrayed as monsters but rather as oddities. Clearly the team behind this Stooges short was trading on both the sensationalism of Lon Chaney Jr.’s “Wolf Man” beast from three years earlier as well as Matt Willis’s werewolf named Andreas in the Bela Lugosi starrer, “Return of the Vampire.” Depending upon your source, that film came out in either 1943 or 1944, but in either case the film was also done at the Stooges’ home studio Columbia, which might explain why Lupe and Andreas look like they could be cousins. And both certainly seem inspired (at least in part) by the look of Chaney Jr’s Wolf Man.
So now the roller coaster begins. As the Stooges set about cleaning the Leanders’ room, Curly is intrigued by the life-size crate. He keeps tapping and rapping on it… and his taps and raps are echoed by the wolf man inside (but Curly doesn’t know that)! Curly makes the mistake of turning on the radio while he’s sleeping and Lupe breaks out of his cage! The wolf man goes crazy and throws the radio into the next room, where it hits Moe in the back and knocks him over. Moe deposits the radio on Curly’s head. He adjusts the knobs to get all sorts of static sounds. With the radio still on his head so he can’t see, Curly approaches the wolf man and says “Hey Moe, get this thing off!” The wolf man obliges by hitting Curly square on top of the head, smashing the radio and sending Curly to the ground. The wolf man then sneaks out the open window, leaving Curly to suspect that it was Moe who hit him and went out the window. But when Moe and Larry walk through the door, Curly realizes it wasn’t Moe and all Three Stooges get scared and run through the door.
Meanwhile, the wolf man has gone into the next room where a pair of women are sleeping and scares them (in a typical “scare” sight gag, one of the girls’ ponytails stands straight up). This scene is a bit of a non-sequitur – it’s almost as if the filmmakers are worried they’ll run out of good Stooge gags before the short is over so they need more padding (silly filmmakers) – another reason this one just misses a full three stars. But soon enough the Stooges have entered this room and become part of the action again. When the girl screams at the wolf man standing behind Curly, he takes offense (“I resemble that remark!”).
This leads into the classic mirror gag (a time-honored classic seen in the Marx Brothers’ movie “Duck Soup” as well as the “I Love Lucy” TV show) where Curly thinks he’s looking into a mirror while the Wolf Man is staring back at him through an open frame. As Curly runs his hands over his bald pate and makes various gestures and faces, the Wolf Man mimics him. “I need a shave but I don’t feel any whiskers,” exclaims Curly. When he rubs his own head he says, “Steel wool! That can’t be me – that mirror glass is dirty” and goes to wipe it off. When Curly’s fingers touch the wolf man’s paws, Curly knows it’s a real monster staring back at him!
Meanwhile, Larry is in the hallway and the wolf man sneaks up behind him, running his fingers through Larry’s hair. Larry runs off. Then the wolf man goes into the room where Moe & Curly are. Moe finds a trombone and asks Curly to play it, reasoning “maybe your music will tame him.” Expectedly the music just sends the wolf man into a rage. He throws the Trombone at Curly and it pins him to the wall, wrapping around his face. This is the last really good gag – yes, it appears the filmmakers have indeed used up all the good stuff as they may have feared – because the ending is a bit weak compared to the hijinks that precede it. Here it is: the Stooges get into an elevator. The wolf man tampers with the elevator so the Stooges don’t know what floor they’re on, then he sneaks onto the elevator with them. The wolf man grabs the throttle and sends the elevator out of control, going up and down until crashing through the ceiling and floating through the clouds. The End.
The supporting cast here is strong. Vernon Dent was a character actor in dramas and comedies from several studios (including some co-starring gigs with Clark & McCullough and W.C. Fields) and ultimately settled into a comfortable niche at Columbia playing both antagonists and put-upon victims of the Stooges and other Columbia comedians. Christine McIntyre makes her first appearance in a Stooges short here, an association that would last for many years to come. Duke York was mostly a stunt man and often played rough-and-tumble bit parts like thugs and cops. He also appeared with Olsen & Johnson and Abbott & Costello, and in other Stooges films (in fact, he was in both Abbott & Costello’s classic feature “Who Done It” and the Stooge’s unrelated short of the same name).
When all is said and done, “Idle Roomers” is one of the most entertaining horror-comedy shorts ever… at least for those receptive of the Stooges. The Stooges work overtime for laughs, and the majority of weak moments in the short occur when the Stooges are off-camera or not the center of attention. While hampered by those non-Stooge moments as well as its weak ending and lack of genuine horror-comedy atmosphere, it is still worth watching for the mastery of the Stooges and holds a special place in the horror-comedy pantheon as being one of the few films in the genre to feature a werewolf.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST:
Esther Howard is one of the women sleeping in the adjoining hotel room. Classic comedy fans may recognize her as Aunt Sophie from Laurel & Hardy’s “The Big Noise” and film noir fans from “Murder My Sweet.” She also appeared in “Detour,” “Dick Tracy vs. Cue Ball,” a couple of “Falcon” entries and Bob Hope’s “My Favorite Blonde,” among others.
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:
MOE: “Did you lock the door?”
CURLY: “Yeah, twice – once this way, and once that way!”
CURLY (after the girl screams at the sight of the wolf man standing him): “I resemble that remark!
MOE:” I’ve always said your face scares people – why don’t you throw it away!”
CURLY: “Hey lady – I ain’t that ugly – or am I?”
Curly walking in place, Curly picking up and carrying Christine McIntyre instead of the crate, and the mirror routine stand out in a film filled with slapstick and sight gags.
BUY THE FILM:
“Idle Roomers” can be found the “Three Stooges Collection Volume 4: 1943-1945” and you can buy it here:
There are several excellent books available on the Stooges. Among them are “The Three Stooges Scrapbook” by Jeff & Greg Lenburg and Joan Howard-Maurer, “The Complete Three Stooges” by Jon Solomon and “One Fine Stooge” by Steve Cox and Jim Terry. For a great overview of all Columbia short subject series, pick up “The Columbia Comedy Shorts” by Ted Okuda and Edward Watz.
On the internet you should definitely read the article “The Three Stooges Meet the Monsters” from the Monster Kids site which you can read here.
This is a short – there is no trailer, and the clips I’ve found on the internet are too expansive to share here without infringing on copyrights. Therefore, I urge you to buy or rent the Stooges collection containing “Idle Roomers” instead. Since it also includes 20 other Stooges shorts, including additional horror-comedies, it certainly will give you more bang for your buck than the new “Wolfman” movie!