I don't know if it's true that all women hate the Stooges, but my mother sure did.
Local station when I was a little kid used to show an hour of The Three Stooges every morning between six and seven. Back then I was an early riser, the earliest riser in the Mannion homestead, and I loved having the house to myself. I'd pour myself a bowl of cereal and a glass of juice and settle down in front of the TV to watch the Stooges. I had to keep the sound down very low, though, because Mom Mannion was a light sleeper and as soon as she heard the first Nyuck nyuck she'd come flying downstairs to turn off the television and chase me out to the kitchen with my breakfast. She'd be furious with me too, because if she'd told me once, she'd told me a thousand times, she did not want me watching the Stooges, ever.
I guess I never thought she was serious, because this was the one rule I defied over and over again. Frankly, I don't know how I got away with it. Mom Mannion was often threatening to sell me to the Indians, and looking back on it now, as a parent, I think that in this case the transaction would have been justified. At least, she'd have had grounds for opening negotiations.
Not that I understand even to this day her objection to the Stooges.
She tried to explain it to me again and again, and I tried to explain my position back---I was not learning that "Pick two" was a legitimate way to settle an argument, I assured her, or that drawing a saw across some porcupine's head would do more harm to the saw than to the porcupine. And the Stooges looked out for each other, I said. No matter how mad Moe got he still stuck by Larry and Curly. This is true, by the way. The Stooges loved one another. For all the violence they inflict on each other, their mutual affection is always clear and always made a point of, which is not true of the Marx Brothers, who often seem bound together more by mutual hostility than by family loyalty. Mom Mannion didn't buy this. As far as she was concerned, the only lessons the Stooges taught was that people were idiots and violence is funny.
Well, people are idiots and violence can be funny, but nevermind.
Mom Mannion and I reached what I thought was a fair compromise---I would continue to watch the Stooges and she would continue to turn off the TV whenever I made the mistake of letting her catch me watching them. Consequently, I had the entire Stooges oeuvre memorized by the time I finished first grade.
I wonder how Mom Mannion would have felt, though, if she'd known that what I was really learning from the Stooges is what America looked like in the 1930s, when she was growing up.
It was from watching the Stooges that I learned who the iceman was and what he cameth for, that people used to listen to the radio instead of watching television, that a dime would buy you a cup of coffee and a piece of pie, that there were still horse-drawn delivery wagons working in the streets, and that men wore suits everywhere, even in the unemployment line.
It was from the Stooges that I learned what America looked like when it was poor.
The exhibit currently on display at the Roosevelt Library and Museum, Action, and Action Now: FDR's First 100 Days---and I'm sorry I'm still full of news from Monday's visit---includes lots of pictures from the worst days of the Depression, before FDR took office---runs on banks, dust storms, farm children in rags, and lines of men in suits in front of soup kitchens and employment offices.
The pictures are shocking, but they're familiar. You know them from history books and documentaries. Doesn't lessen the shock. It's distressing to see people in pain and trouble, to see families that are homeless and children who are actually starving and adults whose spirits are broken and who can't help them, and it's unnerving to realize that these are Americans not European war refugees whose pictures are also on display and in some cases impossible to distinguish from the Americans in the other photographs. Still, as I said, the pictures are familiar.
I'm convinced, however, that the pictures were familiar to me before I ever saw them in books.
I already knew what America looked like during the Depression because the Stooges had shown it to me.
I'm thinking of one of their shorts specifically and I can still recall it vividly. It opens with Larry, Moe, and Curly as soldiers in the trenches on the day World War I comes to an end. There's a short scene of the three of them celebrating the fact that they're going home and then there's a fade out and fade in and now we see them in the present, their present, the early 30s, in civilian clothes and walking sadly down an empty city street. Empty as in there are few people out shopping, store fronts are boarded up, and nobody seems to be doing any business or any work. The Stooges are looking for jobs. They're out of work and it's clear they've been out of work for a long time.
Now, you may be tempted to think, of course they're out of work, they're the Stooges, who in their right minds would hire them?
If you're thinking that then you're probably a woman and never watched the Stooges.
Larry, Moe, and Curly held all kinds of interesting jobs, jobs that required skill and competence, jobs at which they were apparently good when they weren't poking each other in the eye and knocking each other over with errant swings of sledge hammers and accidentally setting each other's pants on fire. The Stooges were eminent surgeons ("Calling Dr Howard, Dr Fine, Dr Howard, Dr Fine, Dr Howard..."), they were college professors ("B-A Bay, B-E Bee..."), they were house painters, plumbers, airplane mechanics, veterinarians, chefs, moving men (of course), and famous detectives. During the Civil War they were the best secret service agents in Grant's army. Which is my too cute way of saying that the Stooges were whatever the writers needed them to be for the purposes of plot or bits of slapstick...or to make a point.
There was a point in showing the three out of work, there was an extra point in showing that they had fought in the Great War, that they were veterans. I didn't make the connection when I was six, but audiences in their time would have grasped it immediately.
The Stooges were potential Bonus Marchers.
This was not meant to suggest that the Bonus Army was made up of knuckleheads. It was meant to suggest that the government of the United States, before FDR became President, was.
The Stooges, although ragged and unshaven (and of course they're wearing suit coats, those coats just don't match their patched and threadbare pants), and having to put newspaper in their shoes to plug up the holes in the soles, have great dignity as they make their way down the street. This is another instance of their sticking by each other, too, which adds to their dignity. They are what they often were, everymen. The Bonus Marchers, by comparison then, are everymen too. Every-Americans. And, you'll remember, that the Bonus March ended when the United States Cavalry, under the command of Douglas MacArthur, charged the marchers with their sabres drawn.
The Bonus March revealed what most people had pretty much come to suspect, that under Herbert Hoover and the Republicans the government of the United States was not on the side of the people.
FDR and the New Deal changed that.
When conservatives take to the air and to the op-ed pages to tell us that the New Deal didn't work they're hoping people have forgotten that the New Deal wasn't just a series of government handouts and public works projects.
The New Deal Roosevelt offered was a deal between the government and the people, and the deal was this, that the People of the United States and the Government of the United States were one in the same. The New Deal was an old deal, the old deal, the one that had been broken by the Republicans. The government did not exist to keep the People in line, certainly not to keep them out of their own capitol city. The government was there so that the people could help each other and take care of their country together, their country. Under the New Deal, the government would treat its People as people and not as invaders to be chased away at the point of a sword.
The Stooges' moment of dignity in that short doesn't last long. This is the Stooges, after all, not Sullivan's Travels. Pretty soon they're back to their usual knuckleheadness. But it in that moment they came down on the side of the Bonus Marchers and by extension the People and the New Deal.
And that's what I learned before I knew I had learned it from watching the Three Stooges.
Can I turn the TV back on now, Mom?
Dedicated to the memory of Steve Kuusisto's dad.