Thursday, March 26, 2009

In Praise Of Larry Fine: Sean Penn May Finally Give The Greatest Stooge His Due

By Lars Trodson

If you don’t believe that Sean Penn is one of the best, and also the most perceptive and smartest actors of his generation, then you can put that doubt to rest with the recent announcement that he will play Larry Fine in the upcoming Farrelly Brothers picture about the Three Stooges.

This may seem counter-intuitive. Wasn’t Larry the perennial second banana? Isn’t Curly the recognized genius of the group? Wouldn’t Moe be the largest, most important role? Then why would Sean Penn play Larry?

Because Larry Fine has always been the most interesting Stooge. He’s the gentlest and the true surrealist of the threesome. He may have also been the most frustrated and saddest of the trio. That makes for an interesting character to play.

I read once that Norman Maurer, who was married to Moe’s daughter and directed the comedy group’s later feature films, wanted to put Larry more in the center of the action, but Moe refused. It is true Larry almost never -- perhaps never -- had a short revolve around him. Moe and the other Howard brothers, either Jerome or Shemp, hogged the camera.

So there Larry was, trapped in the body of a stooge, assuredly denied work anywhere else, with a boss who wouldn’t bother to give him the good shift once in a while.

No matter. In almost every one of the shorts they ever made all you need to do is look off to the side of the frame. There you’ll see Larry and what he’s doing will almost always give you a smile, if not an outright laugh. He has a great, effusive sense of surprise in the lilt of his voice, and he has the body movement of a true clown. His slight, almost imperceptible comic gestures are close to the kind of movement you see in the best clowns, whether its from Chaplin or Catinflas or Marcel Marceau.

Now, now, now, before anybody goes ballistic and thinks I’m comparing Larry Fine to three of the great clowns of the 20th century, I’m not. Only, come to think of it, maybe I am, and why the hell not? That could in fact one of the great robberies of all time. Did Moe steal Larry away from their fans in order to keep himself and Curly in the spotlight? If he had been given the stage, would Larry have knocked us out with what he could do? Would we remember the Stooges not for Curly but instead for Larry? And what would The Three Stooges look like if the writers and directors had been inspired by Larry’s talent?

Who knows? But even posing the question makes Larry an intriguing choice for Penn to play.

When I was in middle school -- this is the early 1970s -- The Three Stooges were on for an hour every afternoon on Channel 38 out of Boston. I also have the slightest flickering memories of them before that -- I thought I might have seen a show of theirs, but YouTube makes me think I had seen a color commercial they had shot for Simonize car wax in the 1960s. I think I saw that, because by the time I saw reruns of the shorts when I was in my early teens, I had already been exposed to them, somewhere.

At any rate, in one of the shorts Larry did a little reaction to an empty shoebox that once in a while I repeat, even when (most of the time) there is no one around to enjoy my clowning. I first saw that little dance more than 35 years ago. So Larry was always my favorite. I was always looking at him. He was the most interesting. And I have a natural disposition to side with the underdog -- to root for the guy who is always chosen last for the team -- when in fact he probably should have been chosen first.

So I’m not saying that Sean Penn will put Larry Fine front and center. What his casting really means is that you won’t any longer be able to set him aside.

Here’s the article from Variety announcing the casting, which is fascinating:

And here’s a clip that gives a pretty good illustration of what I mean about Larry’s delicacy. Just look at Larry’s physical reactions, and the way he moves his hands and arms -- and his expressions. He’s a dancer! There was a great actor there.