A Year in Shorts Day 332: "Men in Black"
While I do consider myself a fan of classic film comedy, I’ll be the first to admit that I have some pretty glaring blindspots. Most of the films of Laurel and Hardy, for instance, or the works of Abbott and Costello. But perhaps the biggest gap in my comedy watching habits are the Three Stooges. Which is kind of weird if you think about it. After all, if the rest of their films are anything like their 1934 Oscar-nominated short Men in Black, then odds are I’ll probably like them!
Not even remotely related to the Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones vehicle of the same, Men in Black (directed by Raymond McCarey, younger brother of Duck Soup director Leo McCarey) follows the Stooges on their first day working as doctors in a hospital. If you think this is a bad idea, so does everyone else- they only graduated med school because they'd repeated their senior year too many times. An absurd premise to be sure, but Men in Black is an absurd short, so who's complaining? The film is basically a live action cartoon, filled with slapstick violence, wanton destruction and lots of verbal sparring. Apparently this short originated a great deal of gas the Stooges would employ in late shorts, as well as the now iconic line, "Paging Doctor Howard, Doctor Fine, Doctor Howard." Perhaps my favorite running bit is the Stooges going to the storage closet when paged and exiting with a new, increasingly ridiculous mode of transportation, in an early example of what's known as hammerspace. The film throws everything at the wall, and thankfully most of it sticks. And even if one joke doesn't land, it's no big deal- there's a new bit just around the corner. The result is a fleet and funny short, which doesn't overstay its welcome, even at the relatively long runtime of eighteen minutes.
Look, it may not be high art. Heck, it's not even high comedy; it certainly doesn't match the levels of delightful of a Marx Brothers film, nor does it achieve the artistry of a Looney Tunes or Tom and Jerry cartoon. But it's not exactly trying to, and you can't fault the film for that, can you? The comedy in Men in Black may be extremely stupid, but when stupid humor is as well-executed as this it becomes genius. After all, any old schlub can get a laugh with a witty retort or an expertly timed punchline. But someone who can find new ways to make the sight of someone getting hit in the head with a hammer funny? Now there's a fellow who knows a thing or two about comedy!
Men in Black was the only Stooges short to get nominated for an Oscar, which doesn't surprise me too much. Aside from Chaplin, the titans of early film comedy went mostly ignored by the Academy. (A Marx Brothers film wouldn't be nominated for an Oscar until A Day at the Races, and that was for Best Dance Direction!) Sadly, the Stooges lost the Oscar for Best Live Action Short, Comedy to a film entitled La Cucaracha, which I haven't seen and you probably haven't either. I highly doubt it was funny as Men in Black, though. But I suppose that doesn't really matter in the long run. After all, people still remember the Stooges, and Men in Black is considered a comedy classic. I guess it's fitting that they got the last laugh.
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