If you’ve followed this column at all over the last several years, then you know that I occasionally like to visit the realm of the Three Stooges. I grew up watching their films as they were a UHF television staple in the 70’s and 80’s. Of all of their films, the one we’re going to look at today is the one I have the clearest memory of. Maybe it’s because the idea of casting Moe, Larry, and Curly as veterinarians is a terrifying thought. Or it could just be that 1939’s Calling All Curs is one of their funniest films.
The boys play the head doctors at a clinic where all the patients are of the canine variety, and all the nurses are young and shapely. Though we actually don’t find out the stooges are vets until a few minutes into the short. We’re led to believe they are people doctors…which is even scarier. At the moment the trio is concerned with the care of a prized showdog named Garson who is in to have a thorn removed from his paw. On this day they are also paid a visit by a pair of reporters wanting to do a story on the hospital. Turns out, though, that they are really a couple of crooks who are out to steal Garson and hold him for ransom.
The boys give the two supposed reporters a tour of the facility, showing them many troubled patients and the unconventional treatments they are prescribing them. However, all three doctors get called away and the crooks are left to swipe Garson. It isn’t until after the doctors and patients all have dinner (at one long table with dog biscuits for all) that they realize Garson is missing. They boys then try to disguise a mutt as Garson, but the ruse doesn’t work. They then have to track down the thieves and get the dog back before the cops are called.
Calling All Curs certainly has the standard kinds of Three Stooges gags…and plenty of them. Slaps, punches, eye gouges…you name it. There’s also a more complex level of sight gags going on in this short that aren’t what most people think of when they think of the stooges. The team doesn’t leave any opportunity for a gag unused, no matter how ridiculous. During surgery, when they ask for their “instruments” they are brought a tray of trumpets which Moe and Larry play while Curly salutes. In another sequence, Moe calls Curly over an intercom box and somehow manages to punch him through the device. But the joke doesn’t end there, as we see Moe’s head stuck in the box…which gives Curly the opportunity to dispense some physical abuse of his own on Moe. The surreal style of humor that run throughout this short can definitely be seen as a precursor to the what we would see years later in films like Airplane!
My favorite moment of the short, though, is the dinner scene. The sequence is filmed quite brilliantly, beginning with a close up on the stooges sitting at one end of the table. Then the camera slowly pulls out to reveal a long table with dogs all seated very politely and wearing bibs. Then when the food is served, Curly seems quite pleased with the feast of bones and dog biscuits placed before him. We then have a very brief gag, which I must assume Curly improvised, in which he takes two large bone shaped dog biscuits and pumps them over his head as if they were barbells. Again, this is much more surreal approach than what is standard for the stooges.
I think one thing I love about this film is that it is probably one of the most charming films the stooges ever did. Often the boys are involved in some kind of scheme; they’re out for themselves. In this film, though you have to wonder how they got their licenses to practice veterinary medicine, they’re truly out to help these dogs. Their methods may be a bit out there, but there’s no doubting their sincerity. Supposedly Curly Howard was known for his love of dogs and that comes through in this film.
I’m the first to recognize that the Three Stooges are not up everyone’s alley. Some people don’t care for the violence and I get that. But if you think that the stooges are only about slapping each other around, Calling All Curs is a great example of them taking a bit different approach to the gags. It is my very favorite of their films.