Rube Goldberg and the Three Stooges?

Soup to Nuts (1930)
Directed by Benjamin Stoloff
William Fox Film Corporation, 70 minutes, Not-rated.
★ (as a movie)  ★★★ (as camp)

I wanted to watch this film because of an exhibit I recently saw at the Norman Rockwell Museum that featured the work of cartoonist/satirist Rube Goldberg (1883-1970). I had not known that he was ever associated with a movie, let alone one involving The Three Stooges! Soup to Nuts is that film and it’s really, really terrible, though it has high camp value. Its odd title is the movie’s prelude title card. Goldberg prefaced one of his zany contraptions with this rationale:

There can be no harmony in the home while people loudly slurp their soup. There can never be peace in matrimony while wives throw broken nutshells on the floor for their husbands to step on with their bare feet. Somewhere between the soup and the nuts… perhaps in the fish or the applesauce… there must be joy and contentment.

If you know anything about Goldberg, you will recognize that you are about to see a blueprint for a Mousetrap-like machine so improbable that it makes the inventions of Gromit’s owner Wallace seem like pragmatic. There are several of Goldberg’s antigodlin devices in the film and they might seem rather naff, but it’s important to know a few things about the world of 1930. First, Goldberg’s quirky imagination was piqued in reaction to Taylorism, the industrial “efficiency” movement that often made things worse instead of better. Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 Modern Times is the ultimate takedown of Taylorism. Second, sound movies were still very much a novelty, so much of what seems stiff and forced worked better 90 years ago.

This brings me to The Three Stooges. In 1930, they were not headliners; they were part of an ensemble called Ted Healy and His Stooges. Healy, not Moe, Curly, and Larry was the main attraction. For that matter, there was no Curly* as of yet; Shemp was the “leader” of the trio with “Harry” (Moe) and Larry his sidecars. All four came from vaudeville, with Healy probably getting top billing because Larry Fine and Shemp and Moe Howard were Jewish. (Their given surnames were Feinberg and Horwitz.) The Stooges engaged in pratfalls, but had not yet fully evolved their routine. In the film they are upstaged–if that’s the right word–by Fred Sanborn, a mute roister-doister wearing slap shoes and ludicrous pasted-on bushy eyebrows. He’s essentially a poor man’s Chaplin with a fraction of the talent.

To the degree there is a plot, it revolves around Schmidt’s Costume Shop, whose owner Otto (Charles Winniger) loves crazy gadgets but has the business sense of a flea. His niece Louise (Lucile Browne) worries for her uncle and fends off advances of Richard Carlson (Stanley Smith) who is ostensibly sent by creditors to oversee the shop, but secretly to push the old man out. Healy is “Ted,” a salesman; and George Bickel is Gus Klein, who runs a restaurant deli almost as badly as Otto runs his costume shop. You also need to know that ethic humor was a popular holdover from vaudeville. Expect some silly scenes at the shop as Ted tries to make Otto’s business solvent.

Shemp, Moe, Larry, and Sanborn are firemen whose major role is to fake fire calls so they can take out the ladder truck and pick up flappers. There is a running gag of Sanborn being left behind, and another involving Otto’s burglar alarm, a Goldberg machine. (Rube himself appears in a cameo.) The “big” scene is a costumed firemen’s ball that might just save the store and sort out a romance in the offing. In it, we see Healy whet his own comedic whistle and discover that the Stooges were actually skilled crooners. Oh, and there’s a real fire at some point. But don’t try to make too much of the story; it’s not worth it.

The main reason to dip into any of this is if you want to see the genesis of The Three Stooges. In 1934, they parted ways with Healy, an alcoholic, the act took off, and endured into 1970. A secondary reason is to see Goldberg’s gizmos on the screen though, to be honest, Wallace and Gromit is much funnier in that medium. All told, though, Soup to Nuts is best suited for Bad Movie Night. I recommend copious supplies of non-nourishing junk food and beer.

Rob Weir  

* If you’re keeping score, Shemp left the Stooges in 1932, and Jerome, another Howard brother shaved his head and became Curly. Shemp returned when Culry had a stroke in 1946. When Shemp died in 1955, two other actors played him and still another actor semi-revived Curly’s role.


Hail Satan is Provocative and Funny. Is it a Goof?

Hail Satan?   (2019)
Directed by Penny Lane
Magnolia Pictures, 95 minutes, R (nudity, language, snakes)

Can this be banned under the First Amendment?
I’m about to tell you to go online and watch a documentary titled Hail Satan? Hear me out before you dispatch a team of exorcists to my door. It’s not what you think. At least I don’t think it’s what you think. You might notice there’s a question mark in the title.

Penny Lane’s fascinating (and often hilarious) new documentary takes a look The Satanic temple (TST), a group that either worships the Devil or is an effective collection of First Amendment warriors in the nation. They dare ask if actually want to live in a theocracy or have some groups tell everyone else what to believe. There are many who assert that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation,” but that may be (ahem!) snake oil. Most of the Founders thought Christianity was useful, but many were (at best) deists who rejected numerous basic Christian tenets. And I don’t just mean Thomas Jefferson who (in)famously used a razor to excise all references to the divinity of Jesus from his personal Bible.

The First Amendment explicitly states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The word “Christian” does not appear in the Constitution and the very idea of a “Christian nation” is antithetical to American pluralism. Imagine how it sounds to Americans who are atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Rastafarians or Pastafarians. (The latter is a real thing. Look it up!) There’s another factor that ought to give fire-breathing Bible-thumpers pause. You would be hard-pressed to find an American Christian denomination that was not once persecuted for being the “wrong” flavor. That list includes the Amish, Baptists, Congregationalists, Catholics, Methodists, Quakers, and Unitarians.

If we take the First Amendment seriously, what should be done when a state or local government sanctions a monument of the Ten Commandments on public property? Sorry, but it’s a very, very middle-class thing to expect a petition, letter to the editor, or a phone call to resolve matters. The most effective protests are those that get in people’s faces. Enter TST. Through its spokesperson, Lucien Greaves, TST hoists Christian zealots upon their own petards. If the Ten Commandments can stand upon the state capitol grounds in Oklahoma City, why in the name of the First Amendment can’t TST erect one of Baphomet, the winged goat-headed god of occult movements? (The TST’s crowd-sourced statue is 8 ½ feet high and is flanked by two small children who look up in admiration!)    

My goodness; watch evangelicals throw a holy (pun intended) hissy-fit! And when they do, they play right into TST hands. Lane’s documentary approach is neutral; she merely points her cameras and sound booms to record what advocates on each side say and do. TST correctly asserts that many of the alleged foundations of a Christian America are products of the Cold War. “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954; “In God We Trust” was added to paper currency two years later. (It is printed just to the right of decidedly non-Christian Masonic symbols, if you care to look.) TST also reminds viewers that the images of Satan they have appropriated–horns, pitchfork, tail, snakes–come more from Dante, William Blake, and medieval artists, not the Bible. In Hebrew, Satan translates “adversary,” and is also generally depicted as a fallen, but attractive, angel.

Here’s where it gets hairy. Is TST just street theater? Or maybe a group of Metalheads and Goths? Do they really believe in Satan at all? It depends on whom you ask and when. TST is often analogous to churches; some members are true believers, some are Marjoe-like hucksters, some are hypocrites, some are nine dimes short of a buck, and a handful are scary. Also like churches, success–it is now tax-exempt–has led to greater centralization and that seldom goes down well with those who like a DYI approach. In Detroit, Jex Blackmore strayed into zealotry akin to a black (or is it pink?) mass version of Torquemada. On the other hand, Greaves—odd looking with his cloudy right eye–and cofounder Malcolm Jarry come across as ironic cosplay hipsters who do everything from sponsoring an Afterschool Satan Project in Florida schools to participating in adopt-a-highway schemes. One fascinating Arkansan is a bowtie-wearing clean-cut young man who looks like he interned with George Will; another evokes a park ranger. But there are also bikers, Goths, and more tattoos than a New Jersey beach.

Because of Lane’s commentary-free approach, you’ll have to watch and decide what to make of all this. I suspect Lane has a nobler task in mind; she wants us to think! In case you’re wondering, there are no human sacrifices and their core beliefs are humanistic. Be warned, though, there are plenty of snakes so be ready to look away if you’re squeamish.  

Rob Weir


The Happy Prince a Flat Look at a Fallen Star

The Happy Prince (2018)
Directed by Rupert Everett
Lionsgate, 105 minutes, R (nudity, adult situations)

During the 1880s and first half of the 1890s, there was no brighter light in Victorian England than Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854-1900). A brilliant playwright, celebrated novelist, and incisive wit, Wilde was the darling of the English drawing room set, even though he was of Irish stock. Today Wilde is best known for his dark novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and his rollicking theater farce The Importance of Being Earnest, the latter a lampoon of Victorian conventions.

Alas, there was a price to be paid for defying some conventions. Wilde was irreverent, flamboyant, and–though married–attracted to men. He well understood the dangers of being gay, which is why he failed to heed his friends’ advice and sued a nobleman who accused him of being a homosexual. His1895 libel suit, Wilde v. Queensberry, fared badly. The day after the judgment, Wilde was arrested. He was found guilty of sodomy and indecency, and spent two years in London’s dreary Newgate Prison. He left a broken man.

Wilde the bon vivant appears in many movies and plays, but that Wilde is not the subject of the ironically named film The Happy Prince. (The name comes from a collection of Wilde’s children’s stories.) We come in on Wilde (Rupert Everett, who also directed and wrote the screenplay) as he is leaving prison. Loyal friends such as journalist Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) and Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), who was one of Wilde’s conquests and in love with Oscar, greet Oscar. Dreams of restoring Oscar to his former glory quickly founder upon the realities that Oscar is broke, he became religious in prison, and he outwardly desires to reconcile with his wife Constance (Emily Watson). In other words, Oscar is only occasionally his old self. Mostly he’s a gloomy lad. To make matters worse, the lover at the center of his 1895 troubles, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Colin Morgan) reappears to tempt Wilde’s resolve. Everyone, it seems, except Oscar sees Bosie as selfish, immature, and vain.  

We follow Oscar Wilde to his final demise in a cheap Paris hotel, where he dies. Everett’s tale is of the struggle between spiritual piety and fleshly desire. This is true not only for Oscar, but also for Robbie whose advice to Oscar to cast Bosie aside is tainted by his own obvious desire for Oscar’s love. Even Father Dunne (Tom Wilkinson) is conflicted. Does one administer last rites to a sodomite whose “confession” rings false?

Perhaps there’s a reason why not many have tackled Wilde’s final years. The Oscar Wilde in The Happy Prince is neither jolly nor regal. As if to emphasize the heaviness of matters, cinematographer John Conroy often bathes his frames in dark Victorian gaslight. In my view, though, Conroy’s choices detract rather than enhance; the film only comes alive visually when the cast leaves England. Although the film features a bevy of talented and respected actors, the tone is often as flat as the lighting. It’s as if the players are trying too hard to achieve gravitas. Everett’s Wilde has the look of Wilde as a puffy faded rose. Again, this has verisimilitude, but it also makes Wilde’s brief forays into wit and gaiety seem contrived rather than convincing.

The Happy Prince won praise on the LGBT film circuit and garnered mostly good reviews from critics who saw it. For the most part, though, both the press and moviegoers ignored it. Ultimately, The Happy Prince is neither droll enough to connect to Wilde’s former genius nor tragic enough for audiences to understand how far from the sun he fell.

Rob Weir