Unless you are a foaming-at-the-mouth Three Stooges fanatic, you probably never heard of “Gold Raiders.” This 1951 title is the least known of the trioâ’s feature films and it has been doomed to obscurity for over a half-century due to circumstances which are actually more interesting than the film itself.
From 1934 through 1958, the Three Stooges were the reigning stars of Columbia Pictures’ two-reel comedy department, yet during that period the studio constantly balked at the trio’s pleas to star in feature films. Occasionally the Three Stooges made guest appearances in Columbia features (most notably in “My Sister Eileen” when they unexpectedly tunnel into Rosalind Russell’s apartment in the film’s final minute), and on one occasion they were loaned out to Monogram Pictures to co-star in the musical “Swing Parade of 1946.”
“Gold Raiders” was a Western that was independently produced and released through United Artists. Director Edward Bernds helmed several of the team’s shorts at Columbia and brought them into the film to spice it up with much needed comedy relief. “Gold Raiders” was originally planned as a standard Western with aging cowboy star George O’Brien (whose career went back into the silent movies) playing an insurance agent trying to sell policies to ranchers who’ve been harassed by criminal elements out on the prairie. Clearly any film with a long-in-the-tooth star playing a heroic insurance salesman needs the Three Stooges to save the day.
In the course of the film, the trio appear as dubious salesmen who stage an elaborate production in a saloon designed to peddle their snake oil remedies. Through circumstances not worth detailing, they somehow get allied with O’Brien to bring insurance policies to the poor ranchers. The Stooges actually disappear for a good chunk of the film’s second half, returning for the rootin’-tootin’ finale where several well-tossed sticks of dynamite save the day and give the insurance industry a foothold in the Old West.
The Three Stooges literally made the film during a Christmas break, with principal photography taking place from December 26 through December 30, 1950. The total budget for the production was $50,000, which was ridiculously low even for the B-Movie standards of that era. The finished film clocked in at a brisk 56 minutes and was eventually released without fanfare as part of a double feature with another B-Western during 1951. A trade newspaper of the time stated that the Three Stooges and George O’Brien were going to make two more features, but nothing ever came of that and the comics went back to Columbia to make more short films.
So how did “Gold Raiders” wind up in the Bootleg Files? There are several unfortunate considerations which have prevented it from seeing a proper home video release. First, the vast majority of Three Stooges films (both shorts and the later feature films with Curly-Joe DeRita as the third Stooge) were released by Columbia Pictures, who kept the films on TV and later on home video to great commercial success. The rights to “Gold Raiders” currently belongs to Warner Bros., which has seen no reason to go out of its way to present the home video debut of a 56-minute cheapo Western starring the Three Stooges. Nor has any other studio solicited the rights to license the film for home video.
Furthermore, the Stooges line-up here is not the line-up that most people associate with the team. The Stooges actually began as Moe, Larry and Shemp supporting a comic named Ted Healey, but Shemp quit in 1933 to pursue a solo career. Jerome Howard, who was the brother of Moe and Shemp, came in as a replacement and shaved his head for the act. His nickname, of course, became Curly and he was with the team until a stroke in 1946 forced him to retire. Shemp returned to the Stooges in 1946, but by then the quality of the films began to decline (though no fault to Shemp, who was often the funniest man in those films). While many Stooges fans keep a flame for Shemp, the majority of people envision the trio as including Curly in the line-up. Therefore, marketing a Three Stooges feature without Curly would seem very risky from a commercial standpoint.
Ultimately, “Gold Raiders” is a disappointing film for anyone expecting it to be strictly Stooges. It is not a bad film for its genre. It is a standard B-Western, with the typical white hat-versus-black hat struggle and plenty of chasing and shooting without anyone actually getting hurt. These Westerns were literally churned out by the dozens and none of them can actually claim to be classics. The novelty and sole claim to fame for “Gold Raiders” is having some unexpected knockabout as Moe, Larry and Shemp smack and eye-poke each other at odd moments, and even harmonize on a ditty called “Just Plain Jane.” Had the team not been in the film, “Gold Raiders” would have slipped further into obscurity.
Three Stooges fans never had problems locating bootleg videos of “Gold Raiders,” and these versions tend to have adequate visual and audio qualities. There is even a half-hour version of the film, focusing primarily on the Stooges with the bulk of the Western shoot-’em-ups edited out, which was released for the 8mm home movie market in the late 1950s — and in some ways this is even better than the original. Admittedly there is very little gold to be found in “Gold Raiders,” but for Three Stooges supporters this is a mildly interesting curio that is worth excavating and very easy to find. If you worship the Stooges, give it a peek. If not, keep on moving!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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