“The roaring frontier lives again.”
In the late 1950s, Columbia began releasing the Three Stooges shorts to television and the result was a huge wave of popularity that the trio was able to ride high for almost a decade. One outcome of this late success was the production of several feature films starring the boys — something they had been pushing Columbia for unsuccessfully for a long time. (Their previous feature film appearance had been in 1951’s Gold Raiders, a United Artists release.) By this time, however, both Curly and Shemp had died (in 1952 and 1955, respectively), and so the third part of the team was filled by former burlesque funnyman Joe DeRita, who was thereafter known as Curley Joe. Between 1959 and 1965, there would be eight film appearances, six of which would be starring roles. Most of these would be Columbia productions, beginning with Have Rocket, Will Travel (1959) and concluding with their last feature film ever, The Outlaws Is Coming (1965). Columbia has now released the latter on DVD.
Out west, Rance Roden has a plan to take over the entire territory. With his henchmen (a bizarre group that includes Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, Jesse James, and Billy the Kid), he is killing off all the buffalo, inducing the Indians to go on the warpath. The inevitable confrontation between Indians and the U.S. Cavalry should hopefully wipe out both groups, leaving the field wide open for Roden. Hearing about the plight of the buffalo, Kenneth Cabot, the editor of an eastern conservation magazine, is sent west along with his three assistants to find out what’s going on and to try to put a stop to it.
The Stooges’ brand of slapstick humour was made for short subjects and never translated well to full-length features where they were the main performers. Their best work came about in short subjects that were executed at a frenetic pace and included a variety of inventive gags. The very length of feature films was a detriment to this, as was the advancing age of the three, which meant that there just wasn’t the fluidity in the few slapstick gags that were attempted. Yes, some of the Stooges’ full-length efforts were financially successful, but that was more a case of a fan feeding frenzy brought on by the release of the Three Stooges shorts to a new television generation. People who enjoyed seeing the Stooges on television for the first time were seemingly happy to watch the Stooges in anything, even when their efforts were a pale imitation of their work at its peak.
The Outlaws Is Coming, the Stooges’ last film appearance of any consequence, is sadly not a great swansong on which to go out. Western spoofs have only been marginally successful for the great comedy teams. Way Out West was certainly vintage Laurel and Hardy, but Ride ‘Em Cowboy was only average Abbott and Costello, while Go West was definitely lesser Marx Brothers.
For a film that’s almost 90 minutes long, one can only point to a couple of sequences in The Outlaws Is Coming that come anywhere close to vintage Stooges. There’s a nice gag early in the film that involves Moe getting stuck to an office chair, and there’s a pie-tossing sequence near the end that’s not bad. Otherwise, the film is a lamentable pastiche of unfunny topical references to commercials of the time and to the Beatles, political correctness in dealing with the Indians, and recycled gags that were done better the first time (such as Curley’s using a hand-cranked meat grinder as a Gatling gun). The plot is poorly structured, with events leading to an expected climax that occurs at the two-thirds point of the film, which means one still has to sit through two more reels before the film mercifully grinds to an end. And of course for those who love Curly or even Shemp, having to make do with Curly Joe is a distinct comedown (although anything’s better than Joe Besser). Adam West (of TV’s Batman fame) as editor Kenneth Cabot and Nancy Kovack as Annie Oakley are little more than window dressing.
I was actually expecting to see the cast fleshed out with a few veteran western character actors, particularly in the roles of the various western “names” like Earp, Holliday, Billy the Kid, and so on. This was not done. Instead, these roles were all filled by well-known hosts of local television kids shows of the time. The names didn’t mean anything to me, but they may to you: Bill Camfield, Hal Fryar, Wayne Mack, Ed. T. McDonnell, Bruce Sedley, Paul Shannon, et cetera. Veteran Stooges followers should look for familiar face Ed Sitka playing three different roles.
The film is presented on DVD by Columbia in a 1.85:1 widescreen version that has not been anamorphically enhanced. The black and white source material is in good shape, so the results are very reasonable. Blacks are deep, and there’s a nice gray scale replication with good shadow detail and fine contrast. There’s certainly evidence of the odd speckle, but if you can put up with the film itself, the image transfer certainly won’t be a deterring factor.
The audio too is adequate. We get mono tracks in both English and Spanish. The dialogue is quite clear with little noticeable background hiss. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided.
In a nice touch, the supplementary content consists of a Three Stooges short with a western theme — “Goofs and Saddles” from 1937. I’m not sure that the costuming and make-up works too well for the trio in this film, but otherwise it’s an entertaining outing that, for me, rates in the middle of the pack for their shorts.
The Three Stooges are the only reason to see this film at all. Even a diehard Stooges fan would have to admit, however, that The Outlaws Is Coming is far from showing off the boys at their best. There’s maybe enough plot here to carry a 60-minute B western, but not the nearly 90 minutes we have to sit through. At least Columbia’s DVD with its widescreen transfer (even though not anamorphic) shows off the film to advantage and complements the feature with an appropriate Stooges’ short. Three Stooges completists will likely want to have the disc, but all others should beware.