Shemp Howard is certainly a notable name among comedy buffs, but not due to 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” (1930) at Fox.
Having trouble getting along with the hard drinking Healy, 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. In fact, it was figured that Curly may recover well enough to return to the act, so Shemp was figuring this to be temporary. Sadly, Curly got worse, dying in 1952.
Shemp’s solo career had him on stage for a while, then some movie opportunities beckoned. Some of his best early film 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” (both 1933). That same year, Shemp appeared in films supporting Ben Blue, Harry Gribbon, George Givot, and Gus Shy before being allowed to have his own name above the title in “Smoked Hams”(1934) 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 me during a 1985 interview: ” I worked with Shemp many times at Vitaphone and he was really inventive. I think he would’ve been a big star on his own like he was with the Stooges. Shemp didn’t stick to the script much in those Vitaphone shorts, but he sure came up with some funny business. Shemp’s 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 and also freelanced in feature films with everyone from W.C. Fields, to Abbott and Costello, to John Wayne, to John Barrymore. Many of Shemp’s solo films for Vitaphone are now on DVD and in two volumes.
Many of Shemp’s solo short films at Columbia were Stooge-like. This is especially noticeable in “A Hit With a Miss” (1945), which is a remake of the 1934 Stooges comedy “Punch Drunks.”Perhaps Shemp’s 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). Shemp’s solo appearances in the Columbia comedies, including those where he plays support for Andy Clyde, are also available on DVD.
In 1946, Shemp rejoined The Three Stooges after Curly suffered a stroke that rendered him inactive on the set of the film “Half Wits Holiday.” Curly would never return to the act, but would 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 while returning home with friends 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 comics 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.
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. It is great that they are now available and accessible on DVD.