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During the pitch of the Cold War, at the border between China and India, Chinese troops have captured a group of unauthorized travelers dressed in Indian garb--spies, perhaps? Spirited back to Shanghai for questioning, the leader of the group tries to explain that he is Phineas Fogg, traveling the world on a bet, and the others with him are just his servants. The Communist officials find this story unlikely, and suggest that the "enhanced interrogation" underway in the adjacent suite will uncover the truth from his servants.
To the General's consternation, however, the sounds emanating from the brainwashing chamber are just a series of boinks and kersplats, sound effects familiar to just about every schoolchild in the audience of this ridiculous film. The door opens and Phineas' servants Moe, Larry and Curly-Joe swagger in, grinning. You can't brainwash the brainless.
And then, the erstwhile brainwashers stagger in after them--three Chinese soldiers, one bald, one with scraggly tufts of hair trying to escape his scalp, one with a stern bowl haircut. The "brainwashing" seems to have run backwards, and the Chinese Stooges proceed to scramble madly around the room, scribbling moustaches on Mao's portrait and unleashing havoc. When Chinese Moe stabs his fingers into the General's eyes, however, American Moe reprimands him, "No no, that's #47. We don't do that one anymore. We do #21." Twenty-one being a less traumatizing open-palm face slap, of course.
In other words, The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze (1963) delivers just what the title promises: a comic adaptation of Jules Verne's famous novel, with the Three Stooges in it. It is amiable afternoon entertainment, in which the aging Stooges recycle a variety of routines familiar from their shorts and stage shows, with the rougher edges of their trademark comic violence sanded down so as not to set too dangerous a precedent on the impressionable youngsters in the crowd.
Lest anyone think from this description that this film is mere exploitation, however, some history will put that into context. As a comedy troupe, the Three Stooges had been appearing in films since 1930, and had been performing live since the 1920s. Over the years the line-up had changed: Moe Howard and Larry Fine had anchored the group since the start, with the third stooge role alternately filled by Moe's younger brother Jerome "Curly" Howard, Moe's older brother Shemp Howard, and then after the untimely deaths of both Curly and Shemp by journeyman comedian Joe Besser.
By 1957, the Stooges had been making two-reel shorts for Columbia Pictures non-stop for 22 years. With a few exceptions, their career had been confined to the world of theatrical shorts, not features, and when the bottom dropped out of the market for theatrical shorts their career seemed to come to a dead end. When Columbia let them go at the end of 1957, Joe Besser withdrew from the team to tend to his ailing wife. Moe and Larry were now just Two Stooges, and without a contract. Perhaps it was time to retire?
Except, at that same moment, the forces of technological change were working a miracle for them. In response to television's growing importance, Columbia's licensing arm Screen Gems sold a package of Stooges shorts to TV, whereupon they became overnight sensations. In the blink of an eye, the Three Stooges went from being potentially washed-up middle-aged comedians from a bygone era, to being superstars to a whole new generation in a brand new medium. When the first package of Stooges shorts brought in an astounding $12 million to Screen Gems' coffers, they dug deeper into the vaults to put out a second package of shorts.
However, the fact of the matter was that this "comeback" was benefitting the studio, not the Stooges themselves, who received no royalties from any of these sales. Proverbial victims of coicumstance, the Three Stooges were suddenly au courant but just as unemployed.
Until Moe Howard made two very savvy business decisions, that is. The first was to hire a new third stooge, Joe De Rita. An experienced comedian with excellent stagecraft and timing, De Rita also had the advantage of looking and sounding a lot like the late beloved Curly Howard--a link De Rita emphasized by shaving his head and adopting the nickname "Curly Joe." De Rita may not have been the funniest man to occupy that third stooge role, but he was the most lovable and endearing since Curly.
Moe's second great idea was to form a production company with his son-in-law Norman Maurer, called Normandy Productions. Maurer was a comic book artist and itinerant dreamer who had been helping hype the Stooges ever since he married Moe's daughter Joan back in 1947. (Maurer was responsible for franchising the Three Stooges into comic books, and later publishing those comic books in 3-D form). Now he took over as their manager, and through Normandy Productions sought to get them in the nation's theaters in new productions. If these films amounted to little more than retreads of the Stooges' old material, so be it. The Stooges didn't own the original versions, but the remakes could pay the bills.
By 1963, Normandy's cycle of Stooges films was nearing its end, and to keep the enterprise profitable, Maurer was now handling directing duties himself as well as producing. As the film provisionally titled The Three Stooges Go Around the World on 80 Cents moved into production, United Artists complained that the title unfairly trespassed on their own 1956 adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days. That Jules Verne's story and its title were in the public domain did not enter into the dispute--no one challenged the right of the Stooges to make whatever parody they saw fit, the issue was whether the title constituted an infringement on UA's domain. Both sides negotiated, trying to find a mutually agreeable title: The Three Stooges Circle the World on 80 Cents? The Three Stooges Go Around the World on $1.98? Merry Go Round the World? What was the magic word that needed to be altered to make it acceptable?
In the end they settled on The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze, which may be even closer to the Verne title than what was originally mooted. It was Joe De Rita's favorite of their films together, and as low-budget programmers about grown men slapping each other go, fairly warmly received by critics and audiences alike.
By David Kalat
Jeff Lenburg, Joan Howard Maurer, and Greg Lenburg, The Three Stooges Scrapbook
Leonard Maltin, The Great Movie Comedians
James Robert Parish and William T. Leonard, The Funsters