Wednesday, April 28, 2010

SPOOKS (1953)

Moe Howard Larry Fine Shemp Three Stooks

RATING: *** out of ****

NOTE: This short subject was originally released to theaters in 1953 in 3-D, and later re-released in the 1980s (and thereafter) in 35mm 3-D. For years it ran on television in 2-D, and was released a time or two on home video in 2-D as well. Recently, it was re-released on DVD in both the 2-D and 3-D formats. This review is based on viewing the 2-D version, but will make note of some of the more obvious (even in 2-D) effects designed to show off the 3-D process.

PLOT: A rich man hires detectives Moe, Larry and Shemp to find his missing daughter. Posing as pie salesmen, the trio go door-to-door until they stumble upon a spooky house… and the mad scientist inside who’s trying to transfer the girl’s brain with a gorilla’s! Can the Stooges dodge bats, cleavers and pies – not to mention Moe’s eye-pokin’ fingers - in time to save the day?

REVIEW: “Spooks” belongs to a select group of what I call “quintessential Stooges horror-comedy shorts.” By that I mean it places them in a spooky old house with trappings that had become stocks-in-trade for the team – namely all manner of objects flying at them and scaring them to bits. Mind you this wasn’t new territory for the team – they had previously tread similar ground in several shorts with Curly. The results of mixing the Stooges brand of comedy with creepy surroundings were so popular that when Shemp Howard replaced the ailing Curly as “third Stooge” the scare comedies continued. In fact, they made at least four such shorts with Shemp before they even got to “Spooks.”

Given this penchant for things “coming at you” in Stooges shorts, it’s no wonder that when the 3D process became an option, the producers of the Stooges shorts decided the trio would be a natural to test it out (the commitment is there right from the opening credits – instead of the usual still shot of Moe, Larry and Shemp we see moving film of their disembodied heads, which swirl around and come toward the camera – with Larry’s head moving forward more than the others). Beyond that I think there were both economical and marketing considerations at work, which I will get to later in the review.

If many of the gags seem familiar here, it’s because they are. This is true of nearly all the comedians who appeared in short subject series, but probably more true of those who made their films for Columbia Pictures, especially the Stooges. One has to remember that these short films were made for theaters and that each new entry was separated by months and sometimes years. When viewed on TV on a regular basis, the repetitive use of certain gags stands out more, but audiences seeing the films in theaters may have been seeing some of the gags for the first time. In cases where they were seeing a gag that they had previously seen, there may have been so much time elapsed that they had a vague or even no memory of seeing it originally.

I mention this because the opening of The Stooges in their detective agency recalls not only other Stooges shorts but those of other comedians at Columbia Studios, and even some that worked for other studios. But the bottom line is (and this is especially true of The Stooges): the gags are usually tried-and-true and funny every time. As this short opens, we see the door to the “Super Sleuth Detective Agency.” Superimposed on the door is the slogan “Divorce Evidence Manufactured to Your Order” and hand-scrawled on the door (in backwards letters) is “also trap criminals.” The familiarity continues as a man enters the office and sees all manner of traps on the wall from bear traps to mouse traps… and finds the Stooges sleeping, emphasized by a classic snoring gag.

The Stooges didn’t just excel at visual gags, however. The man tries to rouse the Stooges awake and that leads to a classic verbal favorite of the trio: when the man calls out “Gentlemen,” Larry replies, “Where?” When the man introduces himself as “George B. Bopper,” he sets off an hysterical litany of ‘40s jive and ‘50s beatnik phraseology from Shemp. Shemp’s non-stop banter is quelled only by a carefully thrown pen from Moe… and the film’s first 3D gag as we get close-ups of both Moe throwing the pen and of the pen landing head-on (nose-on?) Shemp’s proboscis.

Often accused by their critics of being the lowest of the lowbrow comics, in this short the Stooges retort by adhering to such lofty literary devices as “Chekhov’s gun” – the idea that if a gun (or any other object) is introduced in the first act of a story (or play or movie) then it better go off by the third. Here, the “gun” is represented by pies. Explaining that his daughter is missing, the Stooges agree to take the man’s case… and they’re going to take some pies along as they’ve decided their best strategy is to pose as door-to-door pie salesmen. As they make their way Larry tosses off a very funny throw-away aside, “Don’t wreck the pies” (maybe he’s just being respective of Chekhov)…

In true Columbia short fashion, the set-up simply acts as a clothesline to hang a barrage of gags upon. There’s not much plot left once the Stooges get to the house – it’s just a matter of them being scared by tricks and devices set up by the villains as distractions and deterrents while they search for the girl (although a couple of the scares they face can’t easily be explained). Many of these gags are executed to maximize the 3D effect. But with only 16 minutes to play with and the cameras trained on Moe, Larry and particularly Shemp, you don’t really need much plot. You just need laughs, and the Stooges are more than obliging.

Being a horror-comedy, you also need some spooky trappings, and this one delivers, even though some of the trappings are slightly askew and out of the norm (but that just elevates the film in my opinion). Start with the villains – not only are they a typical mad scientist and his creepy assistant; they are also assigned the names of “Dr. Jeckyl & Mr. Hyde!” And they have a gorilla named Congo – every mad scientist needs a gorilla to transfer a human’s brain into (Shemp refers to Congo as a “chimney-panzee” that looks “just like my mother-in-law”)! A howling wind is heard blowing throughout, shadows abound , there are secret panels in the wall and even (literally!) a skeleton in the closet.

There is also a self-aware attitude at work here. Before the Stooges even enter the creepy house, Larry exclaims “What a crummy neighborhood” to which Shemp replies, “ Yeah, it’s spooky!” Once inside, we get this exchange between Moe and Shemp:

SHEMP: This place gives me the spooks – it feels like its haunted!

MOE: Don’t be ridiculous – haunted house have bats!

…just then a bat flies in and gets in their faces. But it’s not just any bat, it’s a bat with Shemp’s face, doing Shemp’s eeb-eeb noises and imitating one of Curly’s barks! It may singularly be the most bizarre moment in the whole short, and in a sense, it’s scariest. At least for any kids in the audience. And at least until Shemp comes face-to-barking-face with a mounted trophy on the wall. It has the face of a dog, the ears of a kangaroo and the bite of a hungry rat.

Moe Howard Three Stooges

Let’s talk a little about the 3D effects. I mentioned above that the film was used to highlight the process and that the Stooges’ visual gags lent themselves perfectly to 3D. This was just one component, however. The studio also benefitted in terms of marketing and economics. From the marketing standpoint, the Stooges were surefire gold. Their shorts consistently were among the top moneymaking shorts year after year. There was no reason for Columbia to think that this new 3D short would be any different. It was a case where the 3D process had more to gain from being associated with the Stooges than vice versa. The extra added bonus for Columbia was that it cost a lot less to apply 3D effects to a 16 minute short than to a 90 minute feature, so the economic risk to try it out was much less.

Plus, you haven’t been Moe-poked until you’ve been Moe-Poked in 3D!

When watched in 2D instead of 3D, the short inadvertently comes off as almost a satire on 3D movies. There are very deliberate movements leading into each 3D shot, but their goofiness when watching the film in 2D adds to the comedy rather than detracting.

Highlights among the 3D mayhem include the aforementioned pen Moe throws at Shemp and the flapping bat with Shemp’s face, plus such gems as Dr. Jeckyl aiming his hypodermic needle right at the audience as he closes in on the gorilla… and later Shemp and the girl, Moe winding up to give Shemp a big kick in the pants, Dr. Jeckyl hurling a cleaver at Shemp (which pins his baker hat to the wall) and then another at Larry, the skeletons head lurching toward the audience as Shemp tangles with it, Mr. Hyde lights a flamethrower in the Stooges (and the audience’s) direction while Moe fights back by spraying a fire extinguisher at him, Mr. Hyde then charges the Stooges with a pitchfork, and of course… many pies are tossed as the Stooges try to subdue the villains!:

In my review of the Stooges' “Idle Roomers” I spoke of how most of the supporting cast was extraneous and didn’t add much to the film. Most of this was due to the fact that they didn’t even interact with the Stooges. In “Spooks,” however the supporting cast directly engages with the Stooges. Both Philip Van Zandt as Dr. Jeckyl and Tom Kennedy as Mr. Hyde lend their considerable comedic talents to terrorizing the boys. Both had extensive appearance appearing alongside classic comedians. Some of the other Stooge horror-comedies Van Zandt appeared in include “Dopey Dicks” and “Outer Space Jitters.” He also appeared in comedy features like Laurel & Hardy’s "Air Raid Wardens" and “The Big Noise,” the Marx Brothers' "A Night in Casablanca," and "Ghost Chasers" with the Bowery Boys. Tom Kennedy’s resume was just as impressive if not more so, as he appeared in numerous shorts and features alongside the likes of Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, the Bowery Boys, Wheeler & Woolsey, Lupe Velez, Brown & Carney, Clark & McCullough, Mae West, W.C. Fields and Abbott & Costello.

Frank Mitchell plays George B. Bopper. He was half of the comedy team Mitchell & (Jack) Durant, and often played comic relief roles in Alice Faye movies. He had a long career stretching to 1980, including several comedies. Some other classic horror-comedies he appeared in include the Boris Karloff-Peter Lorre starrer “The Boogie Man Will Get You” and Olsen & Johnson’s manic “Ghost Catchers.” As his daughter, Norma Randall isn’t required to do much other than look scared and be pretty, and she succeeds with flying colors on both counts. Her short career consisted primarily of bit parts, and she managed to appear in four Three Stooges shorts along the way.

BEST GAGS: I’ve already mentioned most of the gags, and let’s face it, if you’re a fan of the Stooges once this gets rolling they’re all pretty good. A couple chestnuts that got away from the rest of my review:

• Moe exclaims that he thinks someone is trying to scare them out of the house, and Mr. Hyde (who has snuck up behind the Stooges) says “You can say that again!” So Moe does say it again… and the trio scatter in panic when they realize they’re cornered!

• As Dr. Jeckyl chases Shemp, the phone rings and Shemp hands it to him, claiming “it’s for you”… and buying himself time to get away.

• The classic scenario of Shemp going on and on talking tough about how he’s going to take down the gorilla, not realizing the gorilla has escaped its cage and is standing right behind him.

• Larry telling everyone to calm down and have a cigarette as he nervously spills them all over, and tosses a lit match onto a desk full of fireworks.

• The grand finale… where the gorilla throws pies at the Stooges, much to everyone’s delight!


Again, I’ve already mentioned some great dialogue – this short is loaded with as many verbal gems as visual. While nothing quite matches the hilarity of Shemp’s hep jive near the beginning of this short, there are plenty of other great lines. Among the quips I haven’t previously mentioned:

SHEMP (eyes shut after being Moe-poked): I can’t see! I can’t see!

MOE: Whatsamatter?

SHEMP: I got my eyes shut!

GIRL: No, no Dr. Jeckyl!

SHEMP: Dr. Jeckyl? We must HIDE!

SPOTTED IN THE CAST: Steve Calvert, once again cavorting in the gorilla suit he bought from that other famous simian thespian, Ray “Crash” Corrigan. Calvert also played gorillas in a few other horror-comedies including the Joe Besser short "Fraidy Cat" and the features, "The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters" and the infamous “Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.” He also appeared along in stock footage as an ape in Besser's "Hook a Crook" (which also utilized stock footage of Corrigan as an ape along with new footage of Dan "Hoss from Bonanza" Blocker for triple the simian fun)!

BUY THE FILM: “Spooks” is currently available in both 2D and 3D formats on “The Three Stooges Collection Volume 7” which you can purchase here:

FURTHER READING: 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.

Since this is a short, there is no trailer for it. Nor could I find a short clip, nor an authorized upload of the complete short. There are unauthorized uploads of the complete short online, however I will not post to those due to copyright infringement laws. However, under section 7 of that law which states that short trailers or clips used for the purpose of criticism can be posted, I will post the following music video that utilizes short, non-sequential clips from “Spooks” to give you the flavor of the film’s sight gags:


  1. Halloween of 1990(i think)TNT showcased several of the Stooges' spook-themed shorts, it was awesome!

  2. That's an excellent article, Paul. Please allow me to add some technical information.

    This short - like all the other 3-D films shown in 1953/54 - was originally presented in high-quality polarized 3-D and not the inferior red/blue anaglyphic system. In fact, the only anaglyph releases at that time were some Lippert and burlesque shorts. More information can be found in the 3-D Myths article on our website at

    The anaglyph conversions of SPOOKS and PARDON MY BACKFIRE were created in the late 1960's for the 8mm market.

    Also, SPOOKS was several notches above the standard Columbia comedy short in 1953: it was composed and shown theatrically in 1.85:1 widescreen and was the first widescreen Columbia short.

    Original 35mm prints were tinted Sepia to give it some extra polish and it was intended to run after showings of Columbia's big 3-D/Technicolor/stereophonic sound feature, FORT TI. The film has a sequence near the end with bats in a cave which gives extra punch to the Shemp Bat, and the Stooges reference Fort Ticonderoga in the opening scene!