BOOTLEG FILES 392: “Disorder in the Court” (1936 short starring the Three Stooges).
LAST SEEN: The entire program is available on numerous video websites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On numerous public domain labels.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Columbia Pictures has included it in its official offering of Three Stooges DVDs.
I recently watched the 1936 Three Stooges short “Disorder in the Court” for what must have been the one-thousandth viewing. And as with the previous 999 viewings, I found myself laughing out loud – even though I had long since committed every line of dialogue and outrageous sound effect to memory.
“Disorder in the Court” is among the most prominent of the Three Stooges’ short films, if only because Columbia Pictures inexplicably neglected to renew its copyright. Thus, it has been the subject of endless (and, frequently, visually dismal) print duping by every video addict who scrounges through the public domain.
But at the same time, “Disorder in the Court” is not only one of the best Three Stooges shorts, but it is also among the most pricelessly funny comedy short films of all time. It is certainly the funniest spoof of courtroom melodramas ever created. Running a compact 16 minutes, it packs in an extraordinary amount of commotion – including a musical number – into a very short time frame.
A key element to its success is the short’s ability to ensure that everyone on screen gets a laugh from the audience. One of the more frustrating elements of many comedy films is the selfish notion of reserving the lion’s share of the funny stuff to the comic star. The star could be the ultimate life of the party, but the film inevitably falls flat once he or she is off-screen.
While the Three Stooges are at the chaotic center of “Disorder in the Court,” the film spreads the love by giving amusing dialogue and/or sight gags to the other players – including those assigned to bit parts. Perhaps the funniest line in the film belongs to the uncredited Alice Belcher, who plays a member of the jury. When an unexpected discharge from a revolver brushes the vast backside of defense attorney Bud Jamison, he topples over the jury box railing and lands on the hatchet-faced Belcher. She responds to this surprise physical encounter by offering a wildly inappropriate grin and whispering in Jamison’s ear, “Broadlane-9972 – after 5 o’clock!” Jamison, in turn, reacts with a double take that suggests Belcher’s invitation is a fate worse than death.
The second funniest line belongs to Edward LeSaint, who plays the stern judge that watches the Stooges’ mayhem with nary a hint of emotion. After a bizarre interlude when Moe fires a gun into the court clerk’s toupee (Larry accidentally removed it off the clerk’s head while playing a violin and mistook it for a tarantula), LeSaint’s judge squints at the Stooges and sternly remarks in utter seriousness, “Gentlemen, you must control your killing instincts.”
LeSaint is also crucial to the most memorable scene in the film: Curly is asked to take the witness stand to testify on behalf of nightclub dancer Gail Tempest, who is accused of murder. Curly comes into the courtroom with a derby and a cane, and the unlikely Chaplinesque attire only makes sense when he goes through an exasperating swearing in ceremony. The court clerk (James C. Morton) requests that Curly take off his hat. He obliges, holding the hat in his right hand. The clerk then asks Curly to raise his right hand. Unable to raise the hand while wearing his hat, he puts it back on his head. The clerk then asks Curly to put his left hand on a Bible – but he’s holding the cane in his left hand and wants to transfer it to his right hand. However, the judge insists that Curly take off his hat – which starts the process all over again, with Curly expressing frustration in high-pitched angry grunts while LeSaint’s judge becomes increasingly frustrated with the hat-wearing witness.
(This classic scene was reportedly lifted near-verbatim from the 1931 Buster Keaton feature “Sidewalks of New York.” Jules White co-directed the Keaton film and produced the Stooges’ short. White’s brother Jack – working under the pseudonym Preston Black – directed “Disorder in the Court.”)
“Disorder in the Court” was the Stooges’ 15th short film for Columbia Pictures. They joined the studio in 1934 and were immediately assigned to the short film division. The first two years of the team’s output was uneven, and many of their early films (particularly their Oscar-nominated 1934 production “Men in Black”) have a lethargic stiffness that blunts much of the fun. By the time “Disorder in the Court” was made, however, the Stooges’ films had finally found their rhythm and the pacing of their frenetic slapstick was more imaginative.
Yet Columbia balked at having the Stooges at the center of feature-length films. In watching “Disorder in the Court,” it is easy to understand why the Stooges felt frustrated by Columbia’s refusal to graduate them out of the shorts department during the peak years when Curly was part of the team. (Their sole feature starring effort with Curly, the 1945 “Rockin’ in the Rockies,” was uncharacteristically weak, with Moe mostly working separate from Larry and Curly.) Moe would later bitterly claim that Lou Costello stole a great deal of his physical and vocal mannerisms from Curly, which were used in full force for the popular Abbott and Costello feature films made by Universal Pictures during the 1940s. (Ironically, the Stooges had received an offer to work for Universal at the time they were signed by Columbia.)
As a public domain title, “Disorder in the Court” has been the subject of endless indignities from various distributors, including colorization and the addition of extra sound effects. Columbia Pictures has included a visually pristine version for its TV syndication of the Stooges’ films and for an official DVD of their short films. But the truth is that this film transcends the worst of the public domain jungle and continues to provoke laughter, no matter how crummy the print works. Or as Curly informed LeSaint, “Truth is stranger than fiction, judge-wudgie!”
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!