‘False Alarms’ (1936) is the 17th short comedy made by The Three Stooges for Columbia Pictures. It was photographed from Tuesday, May 19th through Friday, May 22, 1936 and released on Sunday, August 16th of the same year (the 229th day in the Gregorian calendar). This is one of the best Curly shorts in the early-middle period (1936-1939) and I’m ashamed to say I have little to no memory of having ever seen it. It’s pacing is assured and the gags are plentiful and, at times, rather astounding. Moe pulls Larry up from a fire pole that he’s already half-descended by grabbing him by the hair and yanking him up. I’ve watched this shot over and over and can’t figure out how it was accomplished–there appear to be no wires strung up and attached to Larry, and his feet are clearly visible so there is nobody underneath to push him. Indeed, Larry is given more to do in this film than in most others and, in one quite surreal gag, becomes ‘headless’–his anguished cries to Moe to help find his vanished head are actually rather painful to hear. There’s a multitude of exteriors featuring wonderful shots of L.A. in the mid-thirties and some excellent car chase material as well. The director, Del Lord, began his career as a stunt driver for ‘The Keystone Kops’ and obviously had great facility at staging these kind of things. The film is a beautifully crafted specimen from an era where enormous invention went into the production of even filler stuff (which, one way or another, the Stooges were considered). Excellent though a number of Shemp’s outings are, they never venture into stunts, chases or elaborate sight gags–at their worst they feel like low-budget TV shows of the early 50s, shot on simple sets with few (if any) exteriors shot away from the Columbia lot.
A word about the writers of these short films. In these days of the WGA and its members making national news, it’s important to recognize the role the screenwriter plays in so many films that we enjoy–even Three Stooges films. It’s hard to imagine, but these films were actually carefully scripted–right down to the action/gags–by professional screenwriters who made a living checking onto the Columbia lot every morning, heading for the Writer’s Building, and spending the day in a small cubicle smoking and typing. (I once had a number of original Stooge scripts in my position which, in a moment of insensibility, I stupidly donated to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library. They thanked me profusely for the donation then promptly shoved the scripts into a dark hole where they presumably remain, uncatalogued and thus unavailable to the general public). The Stooge scripts generally had a number on the title page instead of a title–‘Stooge Production #07493’ for instance–and were the work of writers like Felix Adler, Clyde Bruckman, Edward Bernds and Ellwood Ullman (my favorite name–he sounds more like the Ambassador to a foreign county than a man who wrote two-reel comedies). John Grey, the writer of ‘False Alarms’, is a man who made a living writing comedies in relative anonymity. But his list of credits is impressive and plays an important role in the history of screen comedy. In the 1920s he was closely associated with Harold Lloyd–he has co-writing/story credits on ‘The Freshman’ (1925), ‘The Kid Brother’ (1927) and ‘Speedy’ (1928). Most of his talkie credits are on short-subjects–Clark And McCullough, Leon Erroll, Gus Schilling and Dick Lane and the Stooges of course. He spent most of the 1930s and 1940 employed by the Columbia Short Subject department and worked into the late 1950s, ending his career writing episodes of television westerns like ‘Death Valley Days’. What I’m getting at is that he was professional, a person who understood the craft of putting together twenty-five or so pages that would be funny, achievable on the available budget and right for the featured star’s character. Writers of movies from that era need to be recognized–and not just Dalton Trumbo, Robert Riskin etc.–but the worker bees who clocked in and dreamed up the madness that we now take for granted somehow came into being on its own.