Thursday, July 7, 2011

CURLY HOWARD: THE TRAGIC STOOGE

Jerome Lester "Jerry" Horwitz, better known by his stage name Curly Howard, was an American comedian and vaudevillian. He is best known as a member of the American slapstick comedy team the Three Stooges, along with his older brothers Moe Howard and Shemp Howard, and actor Larry Fine. Curly is generally considered the most popular and recognizable of the Stooges. He is well known for his high-pitched voice, vocal expressions ("nyuk-nyuk-nyuk!","woo-woo-woo!", and barking like a dog), as well as his inventive physical comedy, improvisations, and athleticism.

An untrained actor and natural comedian, Curly borrowed (and significantly exaggerated) the "woo woo" from "nervous" and soft-spoken comedian Hugh Herbert, but was otherwise an original and inspired performer. Curly's unique version of "woo-woo-woo" was firmly established by the time of the Stooges' second film Punch Drunks in 1934.

By the end of the 1930s, Curly Howard was clearly the star of the Three Stooges. His childlike mannerisms and natural comedic charm made him a hit with audiences, particularly children. He was famous in the act for having an "indestructible" head, which always won out by breaking anything that assaulted it, most notably (fake) saw blades. Having no formal acting training, his comedic skill was entirely spontaneous.


By 1944, Curly's energy began to wane though. Films like Idle Roomers and Booby Dupes present a Curly whose voice was deeper and his actions slower. After the filming of Idiots Deluxe, Curly finally checked himself (at Moe's insistence) into Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, California on January 23, 1945 and was diagnosed with extreme hypertension, a retinal hemorrhage and obesity. Curly's ill health forced him to rest, leading to only five shorts released in 1945 (the normal output was six to eight films per year). It is also believed that Howard suffered the first in a series of mild strokes at this time. Moe pleaded with Harry Cohn to allow Howard some time off upon discharge to regain his strength. Cohn would not halt the production of his profitable Stooge shorts and flatly refused Moe's request. Author Michael Fleming stated that "...it was a disastrous course of action."


The first film produced after Curly's stroke was the lackluster If a Body Meets a Body, and his actions and mannerisms were noticeably slower. In the hands of a sympathetic director like novice Edward Bernds, Curly could produce decent work. This was because Bernds painstakingly devised ways that the ailing Stooge could still be the star without actually contributing a great deal. Films like Monkey Businessmen (in which Curly had to be coached by Moe on camera), Micro-Phonies and A Bird in the Head were examples of Bernds factoring in the reality that Curly was no longer in his prime. Other directors, such as Jules White, simply shifted the action to Moe and Larry. Films like Beer Barrel Polecats and Uncivil War Birds were mediocre at best and clearly showed that Curly was suffering.

Two of Jules White's efforts—Three Loan Wolves and Rhythm and Weep—clearly display a sick Curly as indicated by his much slower movements. Ed Bernds, however, was lucky enough to capture the ailing Stooge on an "up" day when filming Three Little Pirates. Curly seemed better and there was some hope that his illness was finally under control. "I guess I should be thankful that Curly was in one of his 'up' periods," Bernds said later."In Three Little Pirates, he was terrific. It was the last flash of the old Curly."


Half-Wits Holiday would be Curly's final appearance as an official member of the Stooges. The film was a remake of the comedy, Hoi Polloi. During filming on May 6, 1946, Curly suffered a severe stroke while sitting in director Jules White's chair while waiting to film the last scene of the day. When Curly was called by the assistant director to take the stage, he did not answer. Moe went looking for his brother: he found Curly with his head dropped to his chest. Moe later stated that Curly's mouth was distorted, and he was unable to speak: all he could do was cry. Moe quietly alerted director Jules White of Howard's situation, leading White to quickly rework the scene to be divided between Moe and Larry. Curly was then rushed to the hospital, where Moe joined him after filming for Half-Wits Holiday wrapped. After being discharged, Curly took up residence at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California.

Still not fully recovered from his stroke, Curly met Valerie Newman, whom he married on July 31, 1947. A friend, Irma Leveton, later recalled, "Valerie was the only decent thing that happened to Curly and the only one that really cared about him." Although his health continued to decline after the marriage, Valerie gave birth to a daughter, Janie, in 1948.

Later that year, Curly suffered a second massive stroke, which left him partially paralyzed. He used a wheelchair by 1950 and was fed boiled rice and apples as part of his diet to reduce his weight. Curly's condition failed to improve. Valerie admitted him into the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital on August 29, 1950. After several months of treatment and medical tests, Curly was released, though he would return periodically up until his death.


In February 1951, Curly was placed in a nursing home where he suffered another stroke a month later. In April, he took up residence at the North Hollywood Hospital and Sanitarium.

On January 7, 1952, Moe was contacted on the Columbia set while filming He Cooked His Goose to assist in moving Curly for what would be the last time. Eleven days later, on January 18, Curly died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage; he was 48.

21 comments:

  1. One of these days I'll read something nice about Harry Cohn and I won't believe it!

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  2. I remember a documentary where Ed Bernds was asked about Curly and stated flatly, it was a combination of strokes and his syphilis.That was the first and last time I ever heard that.

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    1. I have checked a multitude of sources on this, including the Three Stooges Fan Club, and there is not an ounce of truth to your statement. If you have a link to this interview, please provide. Otherwise, Curly's reputation should not be tarnished like this.

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  3. Curly never had Syphillis. He went from being the healthy Curly we all loved, to the sick Curly from his last twelve episodes, from Idiots Deluxe to If A Body Meets A Body, both released in 1945, and filmed just a few months apart.

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    1. Thank you for presenting the facts.Curly was an American icon period.

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  4. Curly Howard was the most gifted comedian of the 20th century bar none. Using no vulgarity or disrespecting of women, his raw power and energy, and childlike determination makes him the GREASTEST COMEDIAN OF ALLTIME

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    1. one of the funniest, without a doubt. vastly under rated. but not in the Stan Laurel or Groucho Marx or W. C. Fields class.

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  5. Thanks, Anon. You hit it "poifectly". I cannot think of a more original. Curly was totally unique, one of a kind. The greatest - yes!

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  6. Curly made a second cameo in MALICE IN THE PALACE. all that survives apparently is the script (see Stooges Journal, number 6) and a lobby card photo of "The Four Stooges". :)

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  7. Curly was a true natural comedian.
    Fantastic original talent.
    He was The Stooges.; I laughed until I cried ; timeless comedy ...

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  8. Does anyone know if there is footage of Curly out of character?

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    1. To my knowledge, only in the few home movies that exist with him and his family and/or his brothers and Larry Fine. He did have a few roles as a straight man before the Stooges hit it big, but once that happened - that was the end of that.

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  9. Curly was truly the heart of the Three Stooges. Even after so many years, My family and I still enjoy their timeless comedy. So sad that Harry Cohn did not afford them their true worth at Columbia.

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  10. There was a film in the early 1930s that supposably Curly played a straight character. I don't know the name of this film or ever viewed it.

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  11. My mother, Sherry, dated Curly in Hollywood when she was a very beautiful young red-head with green eyes. She said he was a very kind, shy person off-screen and was always a gentleman.

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    1. you are full of it.... liar

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    2. A gentleman, not like you, Anonymous.
      Why be cruel? My God, you know SOME people ACTUALLY lived in Hollywood and MIGHT have dated someone famous. For cryin' out loud.
      Just because you live in Nebraska or some similar place (no offense to Nebraska) doesn't mean that everyone does.
      Go back to your Twinkies and stop disrespecting on a page meant for respecting Curly.

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  12. Don't know all the details about Cohen and all of that...but it wouldn't surprise me. One thing that WILL NEVER BE DISPUTED is that Jerome Howard was undoubtedly the single GREATEST comedian to ever live. I seriously doubt this world will EVER see another like him...or even remotely similar to him. He was a prodigy.

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    1. Robin Williams came close. Very similar energy.

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  13. myreddrumset@hotmail.comNovember 18, 2016 at 8:59 AM

    I know this is rare but has anyone seen or heard of interviews of Curly? He is the legend and it saddens me that he didn't have anything we can enjoy about Curly, himself. Video of himself talking or interviews about him... I would love to see stuff like that... A personal look into the life of Jerome Howard. My email is myreddrumset@hotail.com email me if you have anything to share thanks and God bless!

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  14. bobdowne@ntlworld.comJune 6, 2017 at 6:41 PM

    a magical comedian...a true great. Thank you for you movies. What a star

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