Saturday, July 20, 2013
Cowboys vs. Ghosts
As you can see from the handy graphic on the left, we open on a "Wanted" poster. Easy way to build dramatic tension. Moe rips the sign from its post and repeats its headline: "How do you like that? Wanted for vagrancy!" They then have some delightful comedic sparring over the meaning of the word 'vagrancy.' "Boy, are you stupid!" Larry gets to say to Shemp. But Moe quickly brings his boys back in line: he's in full-on serious mode now for some reason. Moe tells them... it's the Old West, by the way... they have to pull up stakes, get out of town and go to work. I should probably point out that this exchange is punctuated with Larry and Shemp saying "Yes?" The last one, however, about work, gets a resounding "No!" Shemp even goes so far as to tell Moe "Oh, you said a nasty word!" Well, work is a four-letter word. Shemp points at Moe, and Moe, in full-on Hannibal mode, bites Shemp's finger. Shemp manages to pull his finger from Moe's toothy grip, and it makes a comical popping noise. I didn't know Moe's mouth was a champagne bottle! Weerd.
Now it's time for Salesman Moe. Even though they're already in the West, technically, Moe tells Lawrence and Shemp that they're heading West to a town called Peaceful Gulch. Moe gives a sales pitch similar to the one that W.C. Fields gets from the huckster in The Bank Dick about easy living vis-a-vis the medium of shares in a beefstake mine.... beefsteak? Anyway, Moe does such a good sales job that Larry and Shemp fall asleep. Maybe he should start a hypnosis business!
Now, screenwriters take note: this is how you do more with less. Moe tells the boys "We gotta get goin'!" Larry and Shemp start to go, but Moe grabs them and says "We're heading West!" They all walk away from the camera. Fade to black... really? That's it? That's odd. The Stooges don't often leave me underwhelmed like that.
Next scene: fade-in on a sign for the town of Peaceful Gulch. There's no sound, but then... gun shots start ringing out. See how they did that? Hmm... this all seems vaguely familiar... BUSTED!!! That's right, not only is it another bloody Western, it's another bloody re-imagining of a previous Stooge short, Phony Express. And so, the conceit of that one is that the Stooges are magically turned from vagrants on the run from the law to deputies helping out the law. And even though actor Victor Travers died in 1948, he lives forever in celluloid form. See? Nothing new under the sun. Sure, everyone complains now about Marilyn Monroe and Martin Luther King Jr. doing ads for vacuum cleaners and toasters. WHAT ABOUT VICTOR TRAVERS? Oh, no one cares about that... and it gets worse. Travers will magically reappear again in 1955's Bedlam in Paradise. To add insult to injury, Travers' voice seems to be dubbed in after he gets a face full of ink. Fade to black... in Phony Express, they cross-fade to the Stooges hiding behind a tree.
Next scene: it's already in the paper. That was fast! Okay, so arguably it's a stroke of genius to deputize three vagrants. Now here's the question: shouldn't you also tell said vagrants that they've been deputized? Of course not! What's funny about that? Anyway, as in Phony Express, the arch-bad guy this time is named Red Morgan. Unfortunately, he's not played by the doughy, Lou Dobbs-ish but in a good way, Bud Jamison. No, it's some alpha male Gary Cooper wannabe who just doesn't realize how far he is from that goal. One of his literate flunkies reads the paper and warns Red that they should hold off on robbing the bank. But hotter heads prevail and Red says they'll do it before the lawmen get there. Next scene: the lawmen come in through the saloon doors. Red quietly tells his henchmen to get ready to shoot, but to also be careful. We don't want to end this Stooge short too soon now!
Next scene: time for a new character to enter the fold. And this is where I begin to think about taking exception. Just as the Oracle was replaced between Matrix 2 and Matrix 3, so too do we have a replacement here. Enter the bumbling Western hero, and he's NOT Jock Mahoney! Jock has been replaced by Paul Campbell and... you know what? He's not that bad. Not quite the all-American face as Jock, but darned close. Kinda looks like Michael Nesmith! Anyway, he plays a character named Cassidy. The Stooges get excited. "What might your front name be?" asks Larry. "Aw shucks... Clarence," says Paul Campbell. Even he's disappointed. Now, let me get this straight... are the Stooges, in fact, time traveling celebrity autograph seekers? Were they expecting Hopalong Cassidy? Looks like Clarence was expecting that too! Poor fella.
And so, Clarence is off to tell Mr. Higgins... whoever that is... that his three new Marshals are here. "I'm ridin'!" declares Clarence, and then he promptly trips over a chair. That's JOCK's shtick, damn it. Jock's. Oh, right. I forgot; I'm over that already. Anyway, Chairman Moe takes charge in The Stranger's absence once again. The Stooges are still well in the "Safety" section of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, and they'll take work as close as they can get it, or make up a job if they have to. Moe figures the saloon they're in is pretty dirty, so why not try and start there? Boy, they're the stars of this picture, so they're not going to get shot... but they're really pushing it.
Now, screenwriters take note. Just as when cousin Vinny first visited our two young, scared defendants in that Southern jail, so too do the Stooges take advantage of the delicious ambiguity of language. They waltz right up to the bad guy and Moe says "Well, Mister, we aim to do a little ... cleanin' up around here!" "Now, wait a minute. Let's talk this thing over," says the so-called bad guy. Wotta wuss! He's not going to kill a damn thing. And because he's not much of a conversationalist, Red smartly offers the Stooges a drink. The Stooges accept, of course. See, they still don't know what's going on. Besides! The Stooges always have comedic reactions to the alcohol.
I suppose Act Two was about the point when the Stooges came into this place, but I'm going to hold to my usual five minute mark this time. And now, our next plot development... you know, Shemp does seem an odd choice at first to be the ladykiller of the Stooges. But, when you consider what nerds Moe and Larry are, then the choice is clear. As was Curly, Shemp is the lesser of three evils... I mean, clearly the most romantic of the Stooges. Alas, there's no Christine McIntyre (and this is an Edward Bernds pic!!!) or Nanette Bordeaux to work with this time. Instead we have... Marion Martin? Sheesh!! Well, from her IMDb bio, she seems like a nice lady. Then again, she came from old money. I'm just so conflicted over this one! Anyway, she starts hitting on Shemp. Shemp can hardly believe it himself. "Hey, handsome!" she says. "Who came in?" asks Shemp, looking around. Obviously she has to be a little more direct, and Gladys practically yanks Shemp's arm out of its socket to get him over to the dance floor section of the saloon. But soon enough, Shemp starts getting into it. Dare I say he's making Gladys smile? Just as long as he doesn't crush her toes, for God's sake.
Showing incredible restraint for the bad guy, Red says to Moe "Your partner's doing all right!" Moe, showing considerably less, goes over to cut in. Red does, however, strongly suggest to Lawrence to stay and have a drink. "It's on the house!" he says. "Thanks! I reckon I'll have a whole bottle!" says Larry. Leave it up to Larry to make things more expensive for the bad guys. Sheesh.
Back to Moe, who asks to cut in on Shemp's dance. There's a brief moment of levity when Moe and Shemp start dancing together. Oh, those goofballs! They're just lucky they didn't get called to meet with the HUAC in D.C. for that! And for that one about the microfilm in the watermelons. Moe steps on Shemp's toes and Shemp heads back over to the bar for some fermented medicine. Moe starts to dance with Gladys instead, lucky grrrl.
Next scene: two bad guys are on either side of Larry, and Shemp's on his way over. Red motions to his flunkie, and the flunkie moves away from Larry's side. Shemp soon finds himself standing next to Larry, none the wiser. Boy, with that level of synchronization those bad guys ought to have the drop on the Stooges when it comes time for the shootin' to begin.
That bartender looks familiar! He's been in a buncha Stooge films before. He doesn't get credit on the IMDb page for Merry Mavericks... and frankly I'm not that interested in who that guy is to try and look him up... okay, okay, I know. What kind of attitude is that? This is a man we're talking about, after all! Welp, it seems to be longtime Stooge collaborator and specialty stunt man Al Thompson. I'd be more disappointed in the IMDb for not listing him, but they're too busy compiling lists of nip slips and what not. Besides, Merry Mavericks clearly isn't one of the alpha Stooge shorts. However, he's about to have a crucial part in the plot here! He walks over to Red and discreetly slips him a copy of the original vagrancy handbill. "I thought they looked familiar!" says Red. That's the Old West for ya: vagrant one day, Sheriff the next. Something about being so close to the law, I guess.
With the dramatic tension ratcheted up, time for one of the Stooges to release some dramatic steam. In this case, it's done by Moe! Usually it's Shemp or Larry who unleashes the chaos, but he's the boss and the boss wants to have some of the fun this time. He's still dancing with the blond floozy when... dayamn! He's stealing Curly's dance moves! Oh, this aggression will not stand. And of course, Moe forgets about his dangerous boot spurs and ends up boinging Red in the ass. Red yelps in pain, jumps up, and unleashes his fury upon Moe. He can't hide behind the façade any longer. "Vagrant!" he calls Moe. "Try to fool me, will ya?" Red draws his gun to shoot Moe, and Red and Moe struggle over the gun. Maybe Moe's sheriff material after all! The gun fires and it dislodges a hanging lantern from the ceiling. There's three bad guys watching the struggle from afar: two of Red's flunkies and that turncoat bartender. The lantern knocks out the bartender and one of Red's flunkies. There's still one flunkie who's conscious, but he's a bad shot, so he has to pistol whip Moe into submission. Moe and Red keep spinning around so the bad guy's waiting for the right moment. You know, like when you're trying to do the double jump rope and you're having a hard time just getting in, for God's sake! But suddenly... the girl throws a bottle. The bottle hits the bad guy. Back to the girl, who makes a "Sorry!" face. I guess it was an accident then. The bad guy lurches forward and hits Red on the head with the gun! See? It all balances out.
However, the Stooges' chivalrous nature will have trouble with the dame, for she picks up the gun and sticks it into Moe's back. She lines up the Stooges against the bar and says "Now I'm gonna let you have it!" Shemp leads the charge in the pleading for their lives. "I got a golden-haired sister that looks just like you!" says Shemp. The waterworks are starting to flow now, at least from the Stooges. Wait... he's not going to do the "I've got a brother THIS HIGH" bit, is he? He is! But surely he's not going to strike a lady? That's a crucial part of the bit, you know... he does! That misogynist bastard. Well, he just slaps the gun from her hand, which is tame for the Old West.
And so, the Stooges are once again in control of the situation. Larry goes over to a couple of the unconscious guys and says "Don't move a muscle, you guys!" Real productive, Larry! Way to help out. Next scene: the triumphant return of that clumsy ox Clarence Cassidy. Clarence, of course, tries to take credit for all the hard work, the little sneak. And so, Clarence leads the charge of getting all the bad guys to jail. Maybe they should handcuff them first! Shemp's not going easy on Gladys. "Come along sister, or I'll knock your brains out!" Moe says to Shemp, "Hey! Is that any way to talk to a lady?" Shemp then removes his hat... and says the same line. "That's better," says Moe. Ah, the Old West. And so, with their guns on the bad guys, Moe and Larry wake up their unconscious prisoners and walk them to the jail cell.
Next scene: the jail. It's not a co-ed jail, so Gladys gets a cell all to herself. Shemp almost gets locked in with her. "Hey, bud, you got a calendar?" says Shemp to the jailer. It seems like the Stooges are in one jail cell or another. If only there were a blogger out there who kept better count of such statistics. "WAIT A MINUTE!" barks Shemp and is released. Shemp takes out some of his anger on the jailer, but Moe slaps Shemp into submission.
Next plot wrinkle: Clarence, within earshot of the bad guys, tells the Stooges as quietly as possible that the money's been moved to "the old Horton place"? And, much like Butch Cassidy and Sundance were briefly hired as payroll guards, so too are the Stooges. "A job's a job!" says Moe as the good guys exit.
Now here's a nice modern touch. I kinda hate to spoil it... so I guess I won't. Needless to say, the bad guys get out of jail, and rather soon after they were put in! Nice touch. Something Elmore Leonard probably came up with.
Next scene: the old Horton place. Clarence has got one large bag and one small bag, but really, both of the bags are rather small. It ain't Fort Knox, basically. Seems like an awful lot of hoopla swirling around an awful small amount of money. But it's probably a good first assignment for the Stooges. Clarence puts the bags into a cabinet to hide them. Maybe the drawer's got a combination lock on it or something. And then, Clarence gives the Stooges a little backstory of the old Horton place. Rumor has it... right, Adele? Anyway, rumor has it that the ghost of an old Indian chief returns every once in a while looking for revenge against Jeff Horton, the (old) head of the old Horton place. Note how Cassidy laughs inappropriately as he recounts the tale. As he tells it, Horton blew the Indian's head off with a shotgun. Sounds like an Indian version of the Sleepy Hollow Headless Horseman. The Stooges laugh nervously because they're so damn afraid of ghosts. Clarence makes a quick, non-clumsy exit, and the Stooges are left to their own devices, as they try in vain to calm their fears alone. Larry's no help, of course. He always seems to be asking the "suppose" question. Case in point: he asks Moe "Suppose the chief comes back looking for his head?" Perhaps to take their minds off the crippling fear, they get hung up on little details. Moe asks Larry, "What are ya... scared?" "No, just apprehensive!" says Lawrence. Moe does a double take and says "...That's a mighty fancy word! What does it mean?" Larry replies "It means you're scared!... with a college education!" Oh, s'z'nap! See, in the olden days, going to college didn't used to mean sitting on the couch in your shorts with a laptop doing tests in a web browser by clicking radio buttons and typing in text. You actually had to dress up and travel to buildings! Imagine doing that today!
Anyway, Moe's only temporarily impressed with encroachments on his supremacy by the other two. He punishes Shemp just for existing, and he does it before hitting Larry. Therefore, Larry must've done something right! And furthermore, Larry gets sleeping privileges, while Moe and Shemp have to stand guard! Larry notices the thick layer of dust on the couch, puts his shootin' iron under his hat, rests hat and gun on the arm of the couch and proceeds to lie down. He hits his head on the couch's arm, the doof.
Next scene: Moe and Shemp are standing guard in... a warehouse? Boy, this old Horton place must be quite a place! And seeing as how there's no other place around the place... anyway, Moe's in a bad mood. A little extra bad, it seems like. Take, for instance, his reaction to Shemp's line: "Gee, I hope nothing happens." I think he did this once before, and he does it again. Moe says to Shemp, "What could happen? Well, ANSWER me! What could possibly happen?" Geez, Moe! Step it back a little bit, why dontcha? I think we're overdue for another character to enter the fray.
Next scene: another character enters the fray. Someone flown in from the Eyes Wide Shut masked orgy peeks up from behind an old crate in the old Horton place. This shot is a close-up. Next scene: a wide shot of the warehouse room. The masked person's still looking at Moe and Shemp. Shemp swings his head around and the masked individual ducks back down behind its hidin' crate.
Next scene: back to Larry who hasn't fallen asleep yet, but he did find a nice blanket with which to cover himself. Actually, it looks like a throw rug. He just covers his torso with it, the doof. I mean, awwww, isn't that sweet. NOW the boy's ready to do some serious snorin'! Just then... the sound of footprints! Lawrence's eyes bug out of his head. The footprints are gettin' closer! Larry asks if it's Moe or Shemp... geez, but I hate to see him like this. He covers himself up with his pathetically small rug and... next scene: the door opens, and there it is... White Man's worst nightmare come to life. Okay, maybe second. I learned from Bill Maher's little HBO show that White Man's absolute worst nightmare is having their castle in the gated suburban community stormed by the marauding poor people, like some kind of scene from 300 or Lord of the Rings. I know, probably more like 300. At least it turned out badly for them! The second worst nightmare is a headless Native American come to life, brandishing a weapon of some sort. And here it comes, slowly marching into the room, while Larry shivers under his teeny little blankie.
And yet... Larry still can't help but look. Larry gets an eyeful of the headless body, gets very scared, and then he RUNS AWAY!!! Better link to that, I guess... The headless Indian takes a couple of swipes at Larry with its tomahawk, but to no avail. I guess the ghost doesn't have good eyesight.
Oh, right! The Act break. Anyway, back to Moe and Shemp. The masked person is tired of waiting, so they start sneaking up on Moe and Shemp with a knife. When suddenly... we hear Larry yelling from a distance, lol. I gotta hear that again... that may be the highlight of the film. Larry's obviously quite agitated, but Moe's still pretty fed up, and Moe's moods usually win the day. "Ya dreamed it, ya birdbrain!" declares Moe. Then, perhaps as a punitive measure, Moe sends Shemp to get some sleep, and Larry will stay with Moe instead. Moe might end up regretting that, however, seeing as how fed up he is. Moe calls Larry a fraidy-cat, and Shemp responds "But Moe! I'm a fraidy cat, too!" Moe slaps Shemp and sends him on his scary way.
The masked knifer starts to make his approach again. Moe calms Larry down some more, then says "Why don't you get yourself a book and improve your mind?... Aw, skip it." Nailed it! See, because... ah, skip it.
"C'mon, you're blocking my light!" barks Moe as the masked knifer gets closer. But how can Larry be blocking his light when he's.... "NYAAAAAHHHHH!!!!" Moe and Larry squeal in unison. And yet another chase is on. What is it, like, the 150th or something? Does somebody have that data in XML form? Anyway, Moe and Larry run away like cowards instead of facing their demons. Well, they are getting on in years, and the demon has a knife, and he almost gets Moe when he goes around the tables. Larry and Moe go to the door on the left and open it... nyaaah again! 'Tis pity it's a ghost! Time to run the other way. They go to the window against the wall and... NYAAAAHHHH!!! A third daemon which looks like the first's twin brother! This is almost as action packed as the big finale of If a Body Meets a Body!! "We get..." yells Moe as he and Larry do everything they can to move Heaven and Earth and the furniture in front of them to get to the door at Stage Right. Note the audio during this section.
Next scene: Shemp in the sleepin' room. Remember the audio I told you to make a note of? Moe or Larry at about 4:02.5 says "Yep," which gets repeated at 4:06. That's Cannery Row for ya! Anything to cut corners. And God bless 'em for that. It helps you remember it better when it's repeated. Shemp hears all this commotion and assumes it's coming his way, so he pulls a giant piece of Western furniture in front of the one door; it's some strange combination of a desk and a tall closet. Ask someone else about it. So he pulls the giant piece of furniture in front of the first door, and puts a tiny table in front of the second door. Lol. Barricade complete! Well, it could arguably be a little bit sweeter. Shemp goes over to the chair and starts to pull it. As always, he doesn't look at what he's doing, and he doesn't see that the headless Indian ghost is sitting in the chair. He eventually turns to apologize to the ghost, saying that... GHOST!!!! It takes a swipe at Shemp with the axe and just barely misses. And so, the hard work of un-barricading the doors begins. Shemp, of course, starts with the big piece of furniture instead of the small table, lol.
Next scene: Shemp manages to move the giant piece of furniture enough to get the door open just enough for him to slip through. He's now out in the hall. The other Stooges come around the corner at that precise moment and... NYAAH!!! They scare each other and run in opposite directions. However, the Eyes Wide Shut twins are also barreling down on Moe and Larry. Larry reverses course a second time, while Moe manages to sneak past one of the bad guys.
Next scene: Larry's in a room by himself again. Meanwhile, even though we don't see them, we hear the screaming of multiple Stooges and the sound of multiple footsteps as they run from more bad guys. I'm going to assume that it's just sloppy work on the part of the audio editors. They however get one crucial detail right: Larry gets hit on the head with a rather dusty box which makes a "bonk" sound at the right time. Larry clutches his head in pain; hope it wasn't too heavy!! The extra noise eventually stops as Larry approaches a suspicious-looking chair-shaped object in the center of the room. Gee, there's no chance that it's suddenly going to come to life, is there?.......... sheesh! Larry didn't even give it a chance to grab him! And then... Larry runs smack dab into one of the masked bad guys. "Hey, turn on the lights!" cries Lawrence. What a dweeb. And then... the disguises come off. It was Gladys as the chair, and Red Morgan as the masked bad guy. Gladys takes over for Red and grabs Larry around the neck! Damn, that's a butch move. Larry's in a tight spot!
Next scene: Shemp's in a furnished room for once! It's a bedroom, and he must be confused by the furnishings. He doesn't know which way to go. He zigs, then zags, then heads for the closet. The cameraman had to do extra on this one, that's for sure. The camera dollies after Shemp when he starts running towards the closet. Next scene: the closet interior proper, where Shemp shuts the door behind him. Gee, I wonder who's in the closet with him!..... oh no! It's the headless Indian!
Next scene: we're back out in the room looking at the closet door, and we hear Shemp cry for help from his fellow Stooges, but to no avail. Is this the end of Shemp as we know it? Will we need that Shemp double early? Could be! Shemp stops making noise. The closet door opens, and the headless Indian emerges triumphant from the struggle. The Indian heads for the door and exits. Oh, this just does not bode well at all for Shemp.
Next scene: Moe has just discovered the piece of furniture blocking the door to the sleepin' room. He only moves it enough so he can get in. I guess we're not doing the bit where... ah, skip it. I'm tired. And Moe is too, frankly. I mean, look at him! Is he about to have a heart attack? He's clutching his chest and breathing short rapid breaths! It's all he can do to get over to a chair and sit down... oh, no. He would pick the one that looks like a dude covered with a cloth. Actually, there seems to be quite a few of them! But for now, only Moe's chair moves, and it takes too long driving the point home. Yes, we get it. It's a guy pretending to be a chair. He raises his arms like a cat about to pounce on a harmless grasshopper and... a might struggle ensues. All Moe can say is "Lemme go! Lemme GO!!!!" I think Moe thinks it's Larry strangling him. The struggle goes on for about thirteen seconds, as the chair guy struggles to free his arm so he can grab Moe's gun from its holster. The bad guy takes off his mask, and the struggle stops. Moe looks at the guy and says "Oh! It's only you!" I forget which one of the bad guys it is! Then Moe sees the gun aimed at his belly, at which point he snorts and raises his hands reluctantly. Next scene: apparently, it's Pete. Red Morgan and Gladys come into the room with Larry. "Nice work, Pete" says Red. But where's the other one? I mean, Shemp? Oh, Red's not too worried about him. He must've seen his boxing from previous Stooge shorts. Shemp just flails his arms as much as he can and says "Cop a sneaker, eh?" Then he leans in for a chance to punch the other guy and WHAM! Right in the kisser for Shemp-a-rino. No, Moe and Larry will tell Red where the money is, or it's lead poisoning time.
Moe seems ashamed, but he's nevertheless standing on principle, and taking Lawrence with him. "I don't know" says Moe when Red asks him where the money is. Larry starts to tell but Moe says "WE DON'T KNOW!!!" Moe makes things worse by daring the outlaws to shoot, saying that they'll hang if they do.
And then... damn, for some reason I really don't want to spoil this, even though it probably seems obvious to you jaded screenwriter types out there. Far too easy to put two and two together these days.
Needles to say, Shemp saves the day, and the boys once again find themselves alone with Gladys, forced to walk the fine line between gentleman and lawman. And then... it's the triumphant return of Clarence Cassidy! He does his usual shtick, not exactly trying to take credit this time, but saying that he really would've let the bad guys have it, etc. And then... I think this is a Stooge first! Clarence looks at one of the bad guys, and he has a relatively tiny streak of blood coming from his mouth. Blood is not usually seen in Stooge films. No, they know how to hurt and not leave marks somehow. Needless to say, Clarence is as shocked as any Stooge fan, and his eyes roll up and he falls down backwards. Wotta wuss. The camera dollies in on Moe. Moe doesn't look directly into the camera, but he seems to be gazing at some unseen fourth wall when he says "What's the West coming to?" He's the man for his time and place, no question about it. Oh, but this is a Stooge film! We gotta end with a corny joke, not a statement of irony! Gladys ends up providing that, which probably makes her role all the more demeaning. But I'm going to give this haunted house Western three and a half stars, which probably makes me a chauvinist. Now this is how you blend genres!
-so sayeth The Movie Hooligan