Shemp Howard is certainly a notable name among comedy buffs, but not for his work as a solo comic. Shemp, of course, is remembered as one of the Three Stooges, being an original member of the trio with Larry Fine and brother Moe Howard. Along with vaudeville engagements, Shemp appeared as one of the Stooges, along with Ted Healy, in their first screen appearance, “Soup To Nuts,” at Fox.
Shemp left the Stooges to embark on a solo career, so they incorporated younger brother Jerry “Curly” Howard into the act. Shemp did, of course, return to the Stooges in 1946 when illness forced Curly into early retirement, but up until that time he had quite a career as a solo performer.
Initially, Shemp’s work was at the Warner Brothers Vitaphone studios in New York. At first it was as a backup to the star. His first short, “Salt Water Daffy” (1933), starred Jack Haley. He also appeared in two of the Roscoe Arbuckle shorts, “In the Dough” and “Close Relations,” that same year. Shemp supported Ben Blue, Harry Gribbon, George Givot, and Gus Shy before being allowed to have his own name above the title in “Smoked Hams” opposite Daphne Pollard. Shemp and Daphne play small time stage performers trying to perfect their act and hit the big time.
The late Lionel Stander, who appeared in this and other Shemp Howard comedies, told the writer during a 1985 interview:
“I always thought Shemp was wasting his time with the Three Stooges. When he rejoined them after Curly left the act, he stayed with them. I worked with him many times at Vitaphone and he was really inventive. I think he would’ve been a bigger star on his own. But, Moe and Curly were his brothers, so he felt some family loyalty. Shemp didn’t stick to the script much in those Vitaphone shorts, but he sure came up with some funny business.”
It seems Vitaphone wasn’t quite sure what to do with Shemp. Even after he began appearing in his own starring shorts, he was often teamed with the likes of Ms. Pollard or stuttering comic Roscoe Ates. His last four shorts at Vitaphone, in 1936 and 1937, were as Knobby Walsh in the Joe Palooka series. After the 1937 Palooka short “Taking The Count,” Shemp left Vitaphone and joined Columbia, where he once again played a fight manager in a Palooka-like series, “The Glove Slingers.” Shemp also appeared in character roles at Universal, opposite everyone from W.C. Fields (“The Bank Dick’) and Abbott and Costello (“Buck Privates,” “In The Navy,” “Hold That Ghost,” “It Ain’t Hay”) to John Barrymore (“The Invisible Woman”) and John Wayne (“Pittsburgh”). Lou Costello allegedly used to joke that he was so intimidated by Shemp’s uncanny ability to improvise, he once offered to pay him double his current salary if he’d leave movies altogether.
By 1944, Shemp had his own short subject series at Columbia. It was here that Shemp fully developed his comic screen character for knockabout slapstick. Many of these solo films were Stooge-like. This is especially noticeable in “A Hit With a Miss,” which is a remake of the Stooges comedy “Punch Drunks,” yet another boxing-related comedy. Perhaps his best solo turn at Columbia was in his 1946 remake of the 1940 Charley Chase comedy “The Heckler.” In the title role as “Mr Noisy,” Shemp wreaks havoc at a baseball game, bellowing out to the players and annoying all those seated around him. His comic take on the bothersome sports fan is every bit as hilarious as the original Charley Chase effort (which was one of Chase’s best Columbia films as well).
That same year, 1946, was when Shemp rejoined The Three Stooges after Curly suffered a stroke on the set of the film “Half Wits Holiday,” which ended his active performing career. (Curly would live six more years, and make a cameo appearance in the 1947 Stooge short with Shemp, “Hold That Lion”). By the time Shemp rejoined the Stooges, they had already achieved great notoriety as Columbia’s best short subject series, and continued to flourish with Shemp as third man. They received the coveted Exhibitor’s Laurel Awards in 1950, 1951, 1953, 1954, and 1955.
In November of 1955, Shemp suffered a sudden heart attack and died in the back of a taxi cab. Ironically, after so many apperances in boxing comedies, he was returning home from an evening at the fights. Shemp was replaced in the Stooges by Joe Besser, with whom he’d appeared in an independently-produced Abbott and Costello feature, “Africa Screams” (1949).
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Shemp Howard shorts at Vitaphone and Columbia was seeing him hone the comic nuances that would become so familiar to Stooge fans. The fact that Shemp plays opposite another comic in most of the earlier shorts seems to benefit from his past experience as part of a team, and allows him to further develop these skills for his future work with the Stooges. The only drawback is the fact that Shemp is clearly in support of far less talented comedians like Gus Shy or Harry Gribbon, who take up most of the footage.
One of Shemp’s best Vitaphone appearances was in the baseball short “Dizzy and Daffy” which was the studio’s way of spotlighting the popular Dean brothers. As a nearsighted baseball pitcher, Shemp steals the film with hilarious little comic improvisations. It appears obvious that the short’s director, Lloyd French, was smart enough to give Shemp ample room to ad lib. Edward Bernds, who wrote and directed many films at Columbia featuring the comedian, recalls seeing “Dizzy and Daffy” and being inspired to write a similar character for Shemp to play in a Blondie series feature at Columbia. In the Bernds-scripted “Blondie Knows Best” (1946), Shemp appears as a nearsighted process server. While it can certainly be argued that Shemp Howard did his best work at Columbia, his Vitaphone shorts are significant in that we can see the comic development of a performer whose subsequent work has certainly withstood the test of time. Through these lesser known solo efforts, we can see that Shemp was not merely a member of a popular comedy trio, but a great comedian in his own right.