RATING: 2 & 1/4 out of ****
PLOT: Earthman Professor Jones (Emil Sitka) and his three aids (Moe Howard, Larry Fine, Joe Besser) arrive on the planet Venus where they meet the Grand Zilch (Gene Roth) and his chief aid the High Mucky Muck (Phil Van Zandt). The professor seeks knowledge and friendship from the Venutians; the Stooges seek girls’ phone numbers. Luckily they also meet three Venutian lovelies (Arline Hunter, Diana Darrin, Harriette Tarler) with whom the sparks literally fly! Unfortunately, they also meet a horrible zombie-monster (Dan Blocker) with whom the sparks don’t fly! Can the Professor and the Stooges stop the evil Venutians from using zombie-monsters to destroy the Earth?!
REVIEW: When it comes to “third Stooges” everyone has an opinion. For those who came in late, the comedy trio known as The Three Stooges actually had six actors in the roles during the team’s movie career. The stalwarts were always Moe Howard as the leader and Larry Fine as the Stooge in the middle (there was an “almost” middle Stooge in the early 1970s when Larry fell ill and frequent Stooge co-star Emil Sitka was enlisted, but that didn’t go any further than a publicity still), with the prime spot of wackiness reserved for the “Third Stooge.” Like TV’s “Charlie’s Angels” years later, there was sort of a revolving door policy – except the change in third Stooges most often had to do with illness (of Curly and of Joe Besser’s wife) or death (Shemp’s) than higher aspirations or creative differences.
So given the framework of the team, “Third Stooge” was the coveted spot. In the early days of the act performing on the vaudeville stage (back then Moe, Larry and Shemp played second fiddle to Ted Healy and were variously credited as his “Racketeers” or “Stooges”), Shemp took the role of “third Stooge.” He also played the role in the Stooges’ first movie feature with Healy, “Soup to Nuts” – which also featured a one-time fourth Stooge, Fred Sanborn. But then Shemp departed for a solo career and younger brother Jerry “Curly” Howard was brought in (until his illness prompted the return of Shemp).
So here’s where I stand: without question some of the funniest Stooges moments of all time were provided by Curly Howard. But I personally think the most talented third Stooge of all was Shemp. The proof is in Shemp’s many solo appearances away from the team. Shemp’s characterization could fit in just about anywhere, and most of the time added the good-natured and sometimes quirky spice many a film lacked (Shemp was seen not only in comedy classics alongside W.C. Fields and Abbott & Costello but often also offering comic relief in otherwise “straight” horror and gangster pics).
While profoundly sublime in his Stooges outings, I just can’t see Curly fitting into any other context. How would he fare in other comedian’s starring features? With the possible exception of quick “spot” or “blackout gags” in an Olsen & Johnson all-star laugh-fest, I just can’t see Curly excelling outside of the Stooges’ framework. Which doesn’t diminish his work with the team in the slightest – Curly more than earned his reputation as one of the screen’s all-time great clowns.
One thing all Stooge fans can agree on however is that after Curly and Shemp, it’s a case of diminishing returns. Those returns just diminish more for some than others. I know a lot of folks that just can’t stand Joe Besser and/or Joe DeRita as third Stooge. While I find them leagues apart from Curly and Shemp, I feel both Joes have their merits and that there are many other circumstances contributing to their entries being weaker than past efforts starring Curly or Shemp. A couple of obvious demerits is that the story material just wasn’t as strong nor the two Joes as commanding as Curly or Shemp.
However, one thing the Besser shorts and DeRita features did have going for them was novelty value – they tried to keep in step with the times they were in by incorporating pop culture fads that appealed to youth. This was a fresh approach from Stooges’ shorts past. One of the most visited fads during the reign of the Joes was the outer space/flying saucer craze, which yielded three Besser shorts (“Space Ship Sappy,” “Outer Space Jitters,” “Flying Saucer Daffy”) and two DeRita features (“Have Rocket Wll Travel,” “The Three Stooges in Orbit”) not to mention an animated cartoon (or two) on the subject.
The space craze of the 1950s was interesting. The public, having endured the real-life horrors of the diabolical dictators of World War Two weren’t quite as receptive as they once were to the gothic fantasy monsters from previous decades such as Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. A new real-world villain had captured America’s imagination: the threat of communism. Whether you feel the threat was justified or just heightened hysteria, the impact of the Cold War on the American psyche was palpable. At its worst, it led to the unfortunate McCarthy-led Senate hearings (commonly regarded now as “witch hunts”) designed to “rout out” noted public figures as being “Anti-American.” As always, art and entertainment reflected the growing paranoia in creative ways, and the “alien invasion” stories (and their flipside – earthmen visiting distant planets) that proliferated the movies, TV shows, theatrical cartoons and comic books of the time were clear metaphors for dealing with an “unknown entity/enemy.”
While many classic space movies were made in the ‘50s, they weren’t all played straight. The most notable comedy film to poke fun at the premise was 1953’s “Abbott & Costello Go to Mars.” Landing four years before this Stooges short, “Go to Mars” included what would become a familiar theme (and one shared with “Jitters”): that other planets are populated by beautiful, sexy women! This theme also turned up in so-called “straight” sci-fi films: “Outer Space Jitters” was also preceded by the unintentionally funny “Cat-Women of the Moon” in ’53 and succeeded by 1958’s even-more unintentionally funny “Queen of Outer Space” with Zsa Zsa Gabor as a Venutian scientist(!). The former featured Marie Windsor who would co-star in “Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy” and the latter was directed by Edward Bernds, a frequent helmer of Three Stooges and Bowery Boys epics including several classic horror-comedies.
“Outer Space Jitters” gets off to a rocky start. A title card tells us we’re looking at “The planet of Sunev” which is “somewhere in outer space.” That should be all the audience needs to get the joke, but the filmmakers feel obligated to add this superimposition: “Sunev is Venus spelled backward.” This lack of confidence in the material and perhaps the audience dogs the short throughout and might explain why it is entertaining overall yet simultaneously a bit inert and uneven in tone in spots.
Perhaps that uncertainty is justified, as the script by Jack White is not the most honed of Stooges outings…. which is saying a lot, considering the scripts of some of the all-time classic Stooge shorts are rather compact and simple. However, those same scripts, simple though they may be are tightly structured and true to the spirit of the Stooges. Add “Outer Space Jitters”’ awkward staging of some scenes and slack pacing that just seems to be off despite the Stooges’ and other actors’ best efforts and you can place Jack’s brother Jules White, the director into the doghouse to keep him company. Oh, wait – make room for one more – looks like Jules’ son Harold White is responsible for the choppy, disjointed editing!
We are taken to the headquarters of Venus’ leader… which looks more like a late ‘50s bachelor pad than a futuristic planet (all that’s missing is background music from Esquivel). And the Venutians? Mere mortals whose attire consists of suits and ties with sashes or standard military wear with only slight modifications, like helmets with plumes akin to those worn in the old Flash Gordon movie serials.
The short follows parallel action: while the Grand Zilch gradually reveals Venus’ scientific superiority to Professor Jones – first innocuously as he describes the planet’s advances in weather manufacturing (aka air conditioning), modern conveniences and atomic energy (“atomic electricity flows through our veins instead of blood,” the ruler explains); then diabolically as he reveals the planet’s plans to use zombie monsters to conquer the earth – the Stooges engage in all sorts of horseplay including being enticed by both lovely baubles and lovelier ladies.
In its Stooges set-pieces the short echoes earlier comedies. As the boys make their way to meet the ladies, they spot a vase filled with emeralds and solid gold blocks. Naturally they grab some for themselves but when the High Mucky Muck returns he informs them that all the riches are covered with poison. They quickly dispose of the stolen goods – a similar scenario to many classic comedy films where characters are caught red-handed with their hands in the cookie jar and have to feign innocence while quickly ditching the evidence.
When the boys kiss the girls, electric shocks are sent through their bodies. This is reminiscent of Abbott and Costello’s antics while kissing the gorgeous Venutians they encountered in “Go to Mars” (yes, Bud and Lou end up on Venus and not Mars in that one – go figure). And while there have been many awkward dinner scenes in comedy films, the Stooges chomping down on futuristic grub (including empty clam-like shells and water chalices filled with battery acid – drunk to “recharge our batteries,” a Venutian babe helpfully explains) recalls Laurel and Hardy’s befuddled reactions to the “meals in a pill” they’re fed in “The Big Noise.”
The scene where the Stooges meet the beautiful girls underscores the biggest problem with the short: the pacing is just off a notch from the usual and the predictable gags are more than telegraphed. First Larry presents one of the lovelies with a gift of “our favorite theater nuisance – popcorn!” The kernals are of the un-popped variety, until the atomic electricity-filled gal kisses Larry, naturally. Likewise, Joe presents his fine lass with a “frozen spring chicken,” which soon becomes broiled to a charcoal-crisp! In both cases, the punchline props are handed to Larry and Joe off-camera, so the shtick they perform as they wait for the props lingers a bit longer for what would essentially have been quick throwaway gags – done swiftly then off the screen – in the Curly or Shemp days.
While the Stooges cavort with cuties, the professor is being introduced to one of the zombie-monsters. The Grand Zilch boasts that they create “eternal life” with their atomic electricity. He demonstrates by opening up a hidden panel to reveal a barren lab area with a creature on a slab. The Zilch turns some knobs on a classic huge control panel (computers and control panels in old movies are always gigantic). He explains that this is how he will bring a “prehistoric man to life… or vice versa.” The monster is truly hideous, reminiscent of the Bogey Men in Laurel & Hardy’s “Babes in Toyland” (aka “March of the Wooden Soldiers”) as well as Atlas in the Bowery Boys’ “Master Minds.” It has tousled hair, a flattened nose, large fangs and deep-set eyes. It’s also played by Dan Blocker – a few years before his breakout role as “Hoss Cartwright” on the popular TV western “Bonanza.” As so often happened with newer actors on the scene, Dan not only got to (literally and figuratively) do “grunt work” in his role but also had his name misspelled as “Don” in the credits! Oh well – at least he got a credit!
A rare moment of lucidity kickstarts the Stooges’ efforts to save the day. After taking a sip… and spitting out… the battery acid the High Mucky Muck explains that water would short their circuits and they would “blow up.” Moe grabs one of Joe’s water bottles and sprays a geyser’s worth of water onto the High Mucky Muck. Sparks begin flying out of his back in the short’s most prominent display of a budget. The Stooges then run into the control room and press all the buttons, bringing the zombie-monster back to life. The Stooges break out a time-tested trope of horror-comedies: the characters who are aware of the imminent danger posed by supernatural forces try to warn the character who is in the dark, usually with the monster standing right behind him! Joe and Larry’s warbling is of the mugging variety, and probably hysterical to the film’s youngest viewers, but leagues away from similar Curly or Shemp scenes.
The Stooges rescue the professor who soon incapacitates the zombie-monster merely by flipping the switches on the control panel. In a non sequitur, the professor mentions that this is their “golden opportunity,” which reminds Joe about the riches in the vestibule – he promptly leaves the scene to stuff his pockets again. The action is flat – there’s no real gag here – but the film shifts to Moe and Larry doing their best to dismantle the control panel and we are treated for a few moments to some bona fide Stooges-style slapstick including the boys both accidentally and purposely whapping each other in the head, and in an incredible display of violence for a later Stooges short, Moe using a planer on Larry’s head… skin flakes spray out as Moe sands away!
Joe’s gold obsession is used for a convenient “out,” however – unable to carry the gold and jewels by hand, Joe takes off his pants so he can lug the riches inside. He inadvertently knocks out the Grand Zilch with the heavy load enabling the quartet to escape the planet. Until it is revealed to all have been a bedtime story concocted by the Stooges to put little kid versions of themselves to sleep before the babysitter arrives. The closing gag? Predictably, the babysitter turns out to look just like the zombie monster!
The acting in this short ranges from competent to exceptional to just plain odd. The former perfectly describes Gene Roth, who gives a competent but nondescript performance as The Grand Zilch. The latter category is owned solely by Phil Van Zandt. His stock-in-trade was playing heavies in Stooges shorts (lots of gangsters, mad scientists and henchman in shorts like “Dopey Dicks” and “Spooks”) and while he serves the same function here, the performance he serves up is quite different. Van Zandt is overly broad and imbues his character with a halting speech pattern filled with awkward pauses (maybe he just didn’t learn his lines?) that just is too odd, even for a space character. I give him credit for trying something different, but it just doesn’t work. On the “exceptional” side of the spectrum, there’s not much to say about Emil Sitka and Moe Howard other than that they are their usual reliable selves – funny and inventive, making just the right acting choices for the material. They are certainly two of the short’s three major assets.
The other asset is Larry (of course). I’ve always found that Larry gets some of the best lines and gags in Three Stooges shorts. This may be due to the fact that Moe and the “third Stooge of the week” dominate the proceedings so much that any Larry moments are bound to stick out. When Larry gets his moments, they’re usually quite memorable (for example, in “A-Plumbing We Will Go,” a classic short filled with memorable moments, Larry is chided by a butler as he digs holes in the lawn of a posh estate. Larry’s sarcastic retorts, “Don’t tell me how to run my business – beat it!” is a standout for me). In “Outer Space Jitters,” Larry gets a couple of those kind of moments. Early into the short, he sneaks in a fourth-wall breaking plug for the Frank Sinatra-Rita Hayworth musical, “Pal Joey” (released the same year by Larry’s bosses, Columbia Pictures). But Larry’s most memorable moment comes toward the end of the short while trying to save the professor. The professor has been strapped to a table, and Moe notices a strip of paper coming out of the professor’s mouth. As he pulls it out, it keeps going in a seemingly never-ending stream. Larry grabs an end and starts yelling out stock market quotes! It is totally unexpected and like many Larry moments, is a candidate for funniest bit in the film!
So what of Joe Besser, seen here at the halfway mark as “third Stooge” in the eighth of sixteen shorts he made with the team? Well, Besser tries really hard so I have to give him credit for that. I think the main problem with Besser is that he has two basic personas in his toolkit that he melds into one for the Stooges shorts. One works just fine but the other is totally out of place. A few years before taking the Stooge gig, Besser was a regular on “The Abbott & Costello Show” playing a bratty neighbor “boy” named Stinky forever at odds with the childlike Lou. In his “Stinky” guise, Besser’s prissy exclamations like “not so hard” and “oww, that hurts” were in perfect keeping with the whining lad in the Little Lord Fauntleroy costume. But take away that costume and make Joe’s character an adult and his prissy fits become merely obnoxious and slightly disturbing. On the other hand, in his Stooge shorts Besser also often called upon a quick-reacting wise guy approach that fit right in with the others, offering snappy comebacks and satirical barbs from time to time.
My final rating of 2 & ¼ stars puts this short at almost “above average” level despite its shortcomings. Why? Well, Moe, Larry and Joe really do try their durndest to rise above the material, pros that they are. The equally talented Emil Sitka also elevates the proceedings with his very presence. Throw in some “out there” elements like gorgeous outer space girls for the boys to ogle and flirt with (always fun) and a really terrific zombie-monster in Dan Blocker’s “Goon” and “Outer Space Jitters” manages to sort-of redeem itself despite its best efforts to shoot itself in the foot.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: As if the presence of Dan Blocker wasn’t enough, this short is also graced by Joe Palma as a Venutian army officer called "Capt. Tsimmis" (Tsimmis is a yiddish word, meaning "a big fuss over nothing" - which makes Larry's use of the word when reading stock quotes
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:
(The Stooges introduce themselves to the Venus leadership):
MOE: Bewitched… LARRY: Bothered… JOE: Bewildered…
LARRY: …and don’t forget to see “Pal Joey” folks!
VENUS GIRL TO MOE: “So you are an earthman – what a terrible specimen!”
MOE: Hey, waitaminute… c’mon over and give me a kiss – you’ll soon change your mind!
MOE (after kiss): Boy I’ve heard of hot lips but yours sizzle!
VENUS GIRL: We are charged with high voltage!
MOE: Boy, a two cylinder dynamo!
BEST VISUAL GAGS:
Joe drops and steps on a water bottle that sprays all over Moe’s head and back.
Moe uses a planer on Larry’s head.
BEST COMBINATION VERBAL/VISUAL GAGS:
GRAND MUCKY MUCK: Did you take any diamonds, rubies or emeralds?
Larry and Joe shake their heads “no.”
GRAND MUCKY MUCK (continues): Oh that’s good because we protect them by coating them with a deadly poison!
Larry and Joe spit jewels out of their mouths and remove them from their pockets.
LARRY (reading the tape coming out of the Professor’s mouth as if it is stock quotes on ticker tape): General Motorcyle 17 and a half, Anaconda Steel 25 and a quarter, Tsimmis Incorporated 17…
My friend Dave Whitney has an amiable blog he calls “Pete Kelly’s Blog.” Dave is a professional jazz trumpeter and vocalist who specializes in jazz, swing… and Stooges! A big fan of the three (six!) funnymen Dave is often blogging about their films and co-stars when not posting entries on jazz. You can read Dave’s review of “Outer Space Jitters” when you click here.
The fine folks at Movie FanFare also offer a nice apologetic for Besser – click here to read it:
BUY THE FILM: “Outer Space Jtitters” and all the other Stooges shorts featuring Joe Besser as “third Stooge” (including the other space-themed Stooges shorts, “Space Ship Sappy” and “Flying Saucer Daffy”) as well as a variety of Shemp-as-third-Stooge shorts appear on “The Three Stooges Collection Volume Eight: 1955-1959.”
WATCH THE FILM: Since this is a short there isn’t a trailer for it, however, there is a trailer for the “Three Stooges Fun-O-Rama.” This was a feature compilation of a selection of Besser-era Stooges shorts. The studio offered ten of the shorts and it was up to each theater to create its own program by running four to six shorts of their choice. Included in the mix was “Outer Space Jitters,” which shows up in the trailer, particular the final shot. You can watch the trailer for the Three Stooges Fun-O-Rama here: