In 1928, the Crawleys meet with two unexpected events knocking at their door. One is an opportunity to boost their finance when a film production company requests to use their estate for a silent film. Two, Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, astounds the family when she reveals that she inherits a villa in France that was given to her by the recently deceased Marquis de Montmirail. To unveil the mystery, Robert and Cora travel to France and hand over the headship to Lady Mary to look after the estate and host the film crew.
Twelve years of legacy of this British cult Downton Abbey that all started as a television drama on ITV back in 2010 and was followed by the first feature film in 2019 has kept its loyal fans like me occupied on our chairs and enjoying the beautiful artistry of their aristocracy. One aspect that was maintained throughout their presentation is that the show remained persistent in facing not only emotional but economic and political challenges. Just like the television drama and the first film, Downton Abbey: The New Era emphasized the changing times testing the old and traditional family.
LADY VIOLET’S CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT
There is a chance that the Downton Abbey-loving audience may get less motivated towards the plot of this film because both the events challenged in this film to the Crawleys may be assumed quite dramatic because these things neither occurred nor hinted at the future. The fan-favorite character of Lady Violet was assumed to die due to old age but the news she broke to the family after watching this drama for twelve years looked like a pretty forced attempt of writing in order to conclude this character. So revealing the news of her French inheritance is eyebrow-raising for me.
Why? If I assess this matter, perhaps will stretch at length but in short, the Crawleys, in the middle of the story met a severe financial crisis to the extent that they decided to cut the working staff. If the dowager knew about her inheritance for a long time, why didn’t she help out Robert when needed. If she came to know in this film in 1928, that’s the other thing.
But the death of Lady Violet’s character is a wise idea because I am not sure if Downton Abbey will continue to the third film although the story has the potential to continue to represent the Crawleys until the second World War if not the whole century. But it is the richness of Julian Fellowes‘ writing that I am concerned about, who is 72 already. How long can he continue storytelling us? What if he breathes his last during the continuity of Downton Abbey? I cannot imagine someone replacing his writing in the middle. After all, this Downton Abbey is his creation and needs to conclude one day. The same applies to Maggie Smith who is 87 at the time of writing this review. Therefore, killing the old character of the dowager was the right decision.
WAS FILM SHOOTING IN THE PLOT THE RIGHT IDEA?
This Downton Abbey film was particular to highlight the silent film industry business that reached the estate of the Crawleys. Shan’t film shooting be avoided and continued with a different plot? Here, there are two methods of judging this film. One is that the film didn’t need to show filmmaking and proceed with the familiar character developments. The audience may think that Julian Fellowes could have escaped the idea of shooting a film inside the estate for the sake of decent humor. Or the film definitely needed to show the change which was either acceptable or not to the old-age aristocratic family who has been facing economic, political, and social challenges. I support the latter.
Why? Because just like the Crawleys faced different events between 1912 and 1926, the art of filmmaking in the very same period was also meeting a change in the direction of the British winds. Many viewers may have not observed the sequence of shooting a silent film turning into sound after Lady Mary pinches the idea to the director that much of this is largely inspired by the making of Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1929 film ‘Blackmail‘ which is the first sound film in British filmmaking history. Blackmail was supposed to be a silent film but the producer let Hitchcock make some portions of the film in sound. But Hitchcock decided to make the entire film talkie. Just like depicted in Downton Abbey, Blackmail had a leading actress with a weak English accent and was dubbed by someone else. Moreover, Downton Abbey’s executive producer Gareth Neame is the grandson of Ronald Neame and was the assistant cameraman for ‘Blackmail’ before he established a prominent name in the film industry.
Should Downton Abbey continue from here? I would love to see Julian Fellowes writing more about the Crawleys until the end of the Second World War if he guarantees that the aesthetics and quality will not compromise at all. Overall, Julian Fellowes offers another masterpiece presentation of the Crawleys with the visible ‘New Era’ elements. The loyalists of this drama will understand the film and praise it highly.
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Born and raised in Jeddah, I had the luxury in my childhood to enjoy many memorable American sitcoms and cartoons on local channels. In the early 90s, Saudi Channel 2 entertained me with countless shows. One of those was The New Three Stooges cartoons, a very popular animated series of the mid-60s. I was hardly seven or eight and wasn’t aware about those three characters in the cartoons were real. I would have never known in my childhood about their being real had my school timings not changed.
In 1994, when I studied in the 5th standard, it was the afternoon shift of my school Pakistan International School Jeddah (PISJ) but my timings shifted from afternoon to morning when I entered my 6th class. The year was 1995when Sony Entertainment Television was launched later that year and the channel was airing three American television series one after one in the afternoon. First The Three Stooges (in English), then Dennis The Menace and I Dream Of Jeannie (both dubbed in Hindi). As Paulo Coelho says, Maktub, isn’t it? And I was astonished at the Stooges being real and funnier than the cartoons. I had to return from school and try to catch this show as soon as possible.
The Three Stooges were the vaudeville team in the golden age of comedy which mostly featured Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Curly Howard. The man who made me laugh at that show was that fat bald funny guy Curly but I used to get annoyed sometimes when I return from school and catch the show and notice that someone else than Curly was featuring on that day’s episode. And I asked myself where did that fatty go? With time, I came to understand the backstories of unarguably the most well-known comedy team the world has ever known.
But those were the sickening times as the world moved towards the second Great War. Sometimes I wonder how the golden age of comedy coincided with those depressing decades. Perhaps the entertainers with a disturbed struggling journey, unhappy life, and tragic personal tales know the meaning of happiness and have the best of laughs.
How The Team Was Created?
In the early days, Moe and his brother Shemp were seeking work in show business. Then in 1921, Moe got the chance to work in Ted Healy‘s vaudeville shows. Two years later, Moe was performing in one of Ted’s stage performances when he noticed Shemp in the audience. Moe yelled at him and Shemp responded which led to a funny argumentative performance between the brothers leading to amuse the spectators. Ted took notice of all this and immediately hired Shemp.
Larry’s parents, in his teenage years, were sending him to a European music school to make his professional career as a violinist and he would have joined if the first World War had not interfered. By 1925, Moe had prematurely retired from acting when he got married and focused on his new life. So only Shemp was working under Ted for some years until Larry met them and joined in 1928. By the end of the same year, Ted pulled Moe out of retirement to rejoin him. By 1929, Moe, Shemp, and Larry worked as a unit for the first time.
Readers! this is how Ted Healy created the team or to be more precise, the three stooges were unified to perform with their boss. Moe, Shemp, and Larry were the original line-ups and along with Ted, they were named ‘Ted Healy and his Racketeers’. Later on, they were ‘Ted Healy and his Stooges’. Together they performed for some years until their contract expired in 1934.
It is said that employer Ted Healy was alcoholic and abusive. Shemp gave up on his behavior, quit the team, and focused on his solo career. And then entered the man who carried this team on his own to make them world-famous, Moe’s other brother Jerome Howard.
When Moe introduced Jerome to Healy, he was unimpressed because he thought he doesn’t look funny with long chestnut-red hair and a mustache. Jerome left and returned with a shaved head and said “Boy do I look girly”. Healy heard girly as Curly and hired him as Shemp’s replacement with a convincing shaved funny face. Boy, I wonder if Shemp had not given up, this team would have never made the name for which we remember them. It seems like sometimes giving up is the best idea. It was a golden twist of fate as, after the contract expiry in 1934, Ted Healy departed and they officially became The Three Stooges and signed with Columbia Pictures.
Curly’s Peak to Tragic End
Columbia Pictures first offered them $600-a-week for the first year with a renewable option. After the huge success of the first film, they earned $1000 for it and the future offer went lucrative with $7500 per film. This hugely successful journey continued for 23 years with the production company. During the period, the team made 190 short films out of which Curly featured in the first 97 films and is widely considered to be the most successful period for the team.
Curly was the God-gifted mercurial talent of the slapstick comedy. Before joining them, Curly used to hang around backstage and enjoy his brothers performing with Healy and enjoying their acts. For me, he is one of the greatest comedians of all time for one major reason, he was an original performer without formal or professional training. Most of the comedy greats of his time were trained but he was handpicked by his brother to take Shemp’s place and the rest is history. His childish mannerism, funny facial expressions, high-pitch voice, silly noises, and physically nonsensical comic timings were his features making most of his fans entertained.
This is from their short film Pardon My Scotch, a short film released in 1935 (their 9th of 190 films). Here you see his reaction to the bread as if it is staring at him. These are the three different facial reactions he gave to bread in around 0.75 SECONDS! If I include the retakes, I wonder how many times he pulled his muscles to one single shot. And many more in his career. And that was Curly’s greatness in the comedy. He was fast and holds an absolute distinction in physical comedy.
Collectively, the team peaked from 1934 to 1941 and many critics agree that Moe, Larry, and Curly were physically at their best to make the viewers laugh. But to the team’s unfortunate innocence, the team never realized their potential and worth. They could never believe how significant was their rank in the world of comedy that for 23 years of business with Columbia Pictures, they remained underpaid and their salary never increased. The biggest culprit was Harry Cohn, the co-founder of Columbia Pictures whose deception of their misjudgment made them realize too late that they were worth millions. All those prime years, Harry Cohn kept lying to them that the market of comedy shorts was meeting downfall.
Harry Cohn’s biggest damage to the team was not taking Curly’s dropping health into a concern for once. In the early 40s, Curly’s physical decline began, and suffered minor strokes. His weight increased, wasn’t physically and verbally quick as he used to be. In 1945, Curly was found to have serious hypertension, obesity, and retinal hemorrhage. The doctors had recommended the rest so that he can regain his health and strength. Moe had pleaded to give him rest for good but Cohn was afraid of losing profits. So he refused to give Curly rest and forced him to continue working leading to disturbing consequences.
As expected, Curly’s health deteriorated further. In the last few films from 1946 onwards, Moe was coaching him in his dialogues as he was forgetting. Frequently collaborated director Jules White had admitted difficulties shooting with Curly. Curly’s voice went deeper and his actions slowed further. A viewer can easily observe the decline in Curly’s comic timing in his final 20 films out of 97. Curly had to prematurely retire from acting when he suffered a stroke during the shooting of Half-Wits Holiday. Shemp was immediately called back to take his place.
Curly being the biggest reason for The Three Stooges’ success faced the most painful years. The miseries hadn’t ended at retirement. After work, he suffered a massive stroke in 1947. A few years later, he was partially paralyzed and was in a wheelchair by 1950. He suffered another stroke the very next year and had to live in the hospital. Later that year, the Howard family was informed to collect him as his mental condition was collapsing and had become a problem for the nursing staff. Moe, being under the contract, was unable to give his family the much-needed time and moved his brother to the other hospital. In early 1952, the Howard family was informed that Curly has died in the hospital. He was only 48.
With Curly’s departure from the films, the team met an obvious decline in humor. It was pretty obvious and predictable that none of his replacements (Shemp, Joe, DeRita) will match his comic timing or fill the gap he left wide open. The weakest of all replacements was Joe Besser. While joining the team, he actually put a clause specifically prohibiting not hitting him. The physical beating was one of the norms of the team’s prime segments of comedy when Moe used to hit the other stooges. In Curly-Joe DeRita‘s time, the team met resurgence when they featured in six films and the animated series ran in the 1960s.
In the past few weeks, I have watched all the 97 short films featuring Curly and I want to sum up that there is no comedy team like The Three Stooges who could perform better surreal humor than them. Their nonsensical slapsticks are a separate dimension of comedy-verse. You can pull the same silly actions they attempted but you won’t get that popularity and acceptance that they built in their time. They were unique assembling. They were hardworking and dedicated comedians. In one of the earliest films, Pardon My Scotch in 1935, Moe broke three ribs during one shot. The camera continued to roll, he lifted and walked towards Larry and Curly, slapped them, and then fainted down.
See, every comedian or a comedy team had the artistry to attract the viewers. But The Three Stooges had no honest quality of presenting comedy of above par standard. They were the stooges who make people of all ages and in every period laugh and burn their bellies out. Entertaining the people by being stupid was their main charisma. They didn’t hold any critical acclaim but watching all those short films makes me think about their characters being lower-class fellas struggling to find work and failing again and again when the Great Depression was alarming at their very pinnacle of comedy.
A bunch of degenerates faking as highly reputed officers, doctors, scientists, and businessmen joining elite parties and ending up throwing pie cakes at each other was a slap on society. How immoral of those socialites!
Besides Curly, one major reason for the team’s success was that Moe Howard and Larry Fine stayed from the beginning until the end. The Three Stooges lasted for around 50 years in the business, and Moe and Larry featured in almost every single project.