Saturday, December 05, 2009

“I’ll smash the first guy who says ‘It’s all Greek to me’!”

The Cultural Relevance of Classical Mythology in The Three Stooges Meet Hercules

The myths of ancient Greece have long been a deep well from which authors, artists, and creative minds have drawn inspiration from. The influence of Greek culture on the development of Western Civilization has run the gamut; from the loftiest ideals of politics and philosophy to advertisers’ renditions of Cupid and providing fodder for B-movie plots. That the myths and legends of a civilization more than two thousand years still bear relevance in Western culture is impressive to say the least. Yet classical mythology is not relegated to the Ivory Towers of Academia or opera houses or other bastions of intellectual snobbery. The true staying power of classical mythology is its accessibility to the everyman, even if a person has no background concerning the works of Hesiod, Virgil, Euripides, or even Hamilton. To remove the pretentiousness surrounding classical myth is ensure its survival. As Peter Schaffer’s Mozart states, “Come on now, be honest! Which one of you wouldn't rather listen to his hairdresser than Hercules? Or Horatius, or Orpheus... people so lofty they sound as if they shit marble!” (Shaffer).

In searching for a modern form of entertainment that has made use of Classical mythology I found that I was not lacking in choices. In the last hundred years cinema has made great use of ancient stories ranging from: My Fair Lady (which has its roots in the tale of Pygmalion) to the famed special effects work of Ray Harryhausen on Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans to the Italian pepla (“sword and sandal”) movies (filmed in lurid Technicolor and sporting titles like Hercules and the Captured Women) to the domestic box office disappointment Troy. My searching ended up focused on the tale of Hercules. I was familiar with Steve Reeves’ Labors of Hercules (1958) and Hercules (1959) and the Reg Park Hercules series of films ranging from 1961-1965. I had seen the Kevin Sorbo series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-1999) on television. I had even seen Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1970 film Hercules in New York on UHF Channel 62 one Saturday afternoon two decades ago. Lou Ferrigno starred as Hercules in two Italian films in the early 1980s. Hercules has apparently not been a subject of interest for film-auteurs like Ingmar Bergman or Francis Ford Coppola.

One film that stood apart from the rest of the B-listers was The Three Stooges Meet Hercules (1962). My curiosity was piqued. More accurately my morbid curiosity was piqued. I had to watch this Stooges film, if only for the presumed fact that it would be of such poor quality that not even the crew of Mystery Science Theater 3000 would touch it. I was expecting a train wreck but was pleasantly surprised. Not only were there more laughs to be had than in most twenty-first century comedies but after watching the film I was surprised by the amount of depth in a Three Stooges film. When I began looking at the reasons why the film was made (including the cultural timeframe) I noticed how the reemergence of the myth of Hercules and the concept of hyper-masculinity in post-World War II societies coincided.

Before discussing The Three Stooges Meet Hercules it is important to mention the mainstreaming of bodybuilding. The pre-World War II development of Charles Atlas (who is still billed as a modern day Hercules), the popularity of Muscle Beach, and the establishment of the Mr. Universe competition (Steve Reeves and Reg Park were both winners of the competition) all laid the groundwork for Hercules to make a comeback. To the Greeks he was the ultimate man physically, so it’s only natural for him to become a template for modern bodybuilders. For a deeper insight into the role of bodybuilding and masculinity influencing the Pepla genre (1957-1965) a number of books have been written on the subject, including Stephen Flassiter’s sadly out of print Muscles, Myths and Movies: An Acquired Taste on Video Guide to the Cinematic Adventures of Hercules.

The Three Stooges Meet Hercules is an amusing satire of bodybuilding and Italian pepla, cashing in on the popularity of the film genre with movie goers. The Stooges were enjoying resurgence in popularity in the late 1950s as well. They had renewed their contract with Columbia Pictures for several feature length films. The Three Stooges Meet Hercules became their highest grossing feature film.

The basic premise is the Stooges work in a pharmacy in Ithaca, New York. Their friend is a goofy scientist Schulyer (Quinn K. Redeker) who is busy working on a time machine. Hijinks ensue and the Stooges, Schulyer, and romantic interest Vicki Trickett (Diana Quigley) and transported back in time to Ithaca, Greece. Through a series of misunderstandings the guys cause Ulysses to lose the throne. King Odious, backed by Hercules (Samson Burke), seizes the throne and the girl and put our heroes on a slave galley. The movie takes off from there, working with classic sight gags, double entendres, and general mayhem – there is even a pie fight/chariot chase at the climax of the movie.

Directed by Edward Bernds, the film plays with many classical mythology conventions. A good deal of the humor in The Three Stooges Meet Hercules is based on an assumed knowledge of Classical mythology. Most of the humor relies on sight gags and subtle asides but the real gems rely on the source material. For instance: after Curly Joe incites Hercules’ rage by accidentally tossing a cup of wine in Hercules’ face, Hercules begins to crush Curly Joe’s head between his forearm and bicep. The evil lord says to Hercules, “How many times do I have to tell you? Not in the palace.” This subtly alludes to the classical Hercules’ penchant for manslaughter. Indeed, Hercules is portrayed as a mindless brute until his comeuppance.

Familiarity of Classical mythology continues through several characters. Theseus is portrayed as a bloated buffoon upon his pleasure boat. Played for pure ham by Hal Smith this is not the Theseus as hero. Hal Smith is one of the high points of the movie. In a sharp departure from the Classical myths it is Theseus who sets Schulyer and the Stooges upon their quest not Eurystheus. They have convinced Theseus that Schulyer is Hercules because of the guns he has developed during his time in the slave galley. Theseus offers the lads a job. The lads begin taking on the labors, not for any glorious cause, but for cold hard cash. There is a long section of the film where the Stooges are promoting Schuyler/Hercules in arena fights. The hydra is mentioned and the Lion of Nimea is fought (using a real lion). The jokes keep rolling in. There is a face off between the real Hercules and Schulyer during which Hercules learns his lesson, Kind Odious is deposed, the girl is rescued, and the time machine whisks our heroes home.
The Cold War, Pax Americana, undertones in The Three Stooges Meet Hercules are, as a 21st Century viewer, difficult to ignore. There are several moments, whether intentional or otherwise, in the film that caused me to rewind the scene. One moment in particular, the climax of the film during which Schuyler defeats Hercules; Schulyer demands that Hercules live up to his modern day reputation as a hero, a supporter of justice and liberty.

Ultimately, The Three Stooges Meet Hercules is a fairly disposable piece of early sixties fluff. That being said, the writing is sharp and the comedy is excellent. The tongue in cheek references to Hercules and other characters and events in classical mythology make for some enjoyable viewing.

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