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Wednesday, 23 November 2016

IDLE ROOMERS (1944) / IF A BODY MEETS A BODY (1945)

In July 1944, the Three Stooges decided to tackle the Wolf Man, a variation of sorts on the established horror icon well into his franchise run by actor Lon Chaney Jr. Over at Universal, Chaney was mid-way through his five incarnations of the role. The House of Horror need have no fear of copyright issues though if they ever bothered to look at Columbia’s unrecognisable attempt.

Idle Roomers was the 80th of the Stooges shorts at Columbia, continuing their collaboration with director Del Lord (who co-wrote the script once again with Elwood Ullman). This time they are a trio of indolent bell-boys snoozing in the lobby while the duty clerk tries to wake them up. Once roused by a collapsing seat, they quickly become animated by the lovely Mrs Leander (Stooges’ regular Christine McIntyre) and begin frantically competing with each other for her affections whilst dodging her jealous knife-throwing husband Vernon Dent. The Leanders have captured Lupe, the Wolf Man, hoping to exploit him in their carnival.

After a well-staged optical effect bowing Curly under the weight of their trunk topped with innumerable suitcases, the Stooges are ordered to clean the Leanders’ apartment. There they come face to yak-haired face with Lupe, one of many monsters played by well-known stuntman Duke York. In Universal lore the Wolf Man is a tragic, cursed figure. Here, he is inadvertently all that due to the (deliberately?) laughable rather than pitiable face fuzz. The make-up artist has transformed him into a man who by the full moon seemingly transforms into a hybrid of Fu Manchu and an anti-semitic rendering of Shylock. Hilariously, York sprouts streams of coarse foliage from his eyebrows, cheeks and beard but magically the hair on top of his head is left as normal. For good measure, his suited physique is padded out a’ la Frankenstein’s monster and he sports a hunch-back. He is a walking greatest hits package of all the celebrated monsters - but wait - no Dracula fangs?

The Wolf Man runs amok through the hotel, bursting in upon two ladies sharing a bedroom. When the Stooges arrive, the older battle-axe of the two expresses more terror at witnessing Curly than their hirsute tormentor. “I resemble that remark!” he squeaks, indignantly. He then plays out a version of the old mirror routine opposite Lupe in front of the vanity table (the Marx Brothers’ one in Duck Soup is still peerless) till the lycanthrope loses it at being spat on by Curly making to ‘polish’ the absent glass. The trio attempt to calm him twice with the kind of music too awful to soothe this savage breast and after he pursues them into the confines of an elevator, a slack ending simply cuts in the middle of their cage going up and down the shaft. Hairy, hoary and rather hacky.

IF A BODY MEETS A BODY (1945) 

The week before the end of World War Two was declared, the Three Stooges released their 86th Columbia short film in August 1945, If a Body Meets a Body, the fourth to stir in chills with the chuckles. The director was Jules White, who was in charge of the studio’s comedy shorts division. By 1938, competitors like Hal Roach and Universal were winding down their two-reelers in favour of increasing double-feature programs. Columbia though was so prolific that the output was split between separate units, one produced by White and the other by Hugh McCollum, who by handling the business end freed up White to pursue his love of comedy direction. He had a style rooted very much in the broad gestures and fast pace of his background in silent comedy as editor for his brother Jack White over at Educational Pictures. Jack was by now working for Jules as writer on his Stooges shorts

Despite the imminent end of WWII, there was a sadder legacy going into this film. It was the first of Curly Howard’s films after returning from a stroke. His manic gesturing and physicality gradually began to slow over time unbeknownst to the team. If a Body Meets a Body is not bad even so and barely reflects this. (The title incidentally is taken from Robert Burns’ song ‘Coming Through the Rye). The Stooges are as usual living a hand-to-mouth existence in penury, struggling with their latest meal of a home-made soup that ‘smells like a dead horse’ according to Larry. Sure enough, Moe pulls out a horseshoe from his serving and almost banishes Curly for going to the glue factory instead of the butcher’s shop when Larry spots a newspaper story that their near-excommunicated numbskull – ‘Curly Q. Link (Q for Quff-link) - stands to inherit three million dollars from a dead relative.

Larry: ‘We’re filthy with dough’.
Moe: You’re filthy without it’.

This causes some readjustment of Curly’s status in the group and the three high-tail it to the will reading at old Professor Bob O. Link’s mansion in horror cliché style. There, the gruff police Detective Clancy (Fred Kelsey) furthers the familiar plotting by dispelling the assembled relatives’ expectations of riches. He reveals that the Professor, an experimenter in chemistry, has been murdered. Kelsey bears a striking though fortunately not lumbering resemblance to Tor Johnson’s detective in Plan 9 from Outer Space. However he is not just a better actor but unusually gets in on the applied violence by administering a smart triple-slap to the boys in line when they demand a password to get back into the drawing-room.

The sinister Butler Jerkington wishes the trio good-night with “I hope you’ll have a nice looong sleep”, a famous line taken from Laurel and Hardy’s superior comedy-horror Oliver the Eighth (1934). Curly is too jittery to sleep. Moe bullies him to shut up ‘Or I’ll blow out your brain or a reasonable facsimile thereof’. The spookiness comes courtesy of the Stooges’ attempted bedding-down where Curly is plagued by a skull trundling along the floor on motorised feet, which then sprouts bat wings and a suspended sheet coupled with insane cackling to terrorise all three. A titled painting trips a sliding door-panel that opens to allow the professor’s dead body to fall out. This cues a slightly confusing gag where similar-looking bodies turn up wherever the threesome seek cover. (It’s unclear whether they are meant to be the same person or a pile-up of victims).

Ultimately the murderer and hopeful heir turns out to the maid, unmasked as a man. This would not be the actor Joe Palma’s last masquerade in a Stooges’ film as he helped to save the four films they still had left to finish when Shemp Howard suddenly died of a heart-attack in 1955. He posed as a body double for angled shots and the odd line of spoken dialogue in each film to cover for Shemp’s absence.


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