Have Rocket, Will Travel
Show business works in mysterious ways, though. Television, by now the dominant entertainment medium, needed product to fill airtime, and studios began to comb through their vast libraries to find movies and other material that they could sell to stations all over the United States. Vintage cartoons like Popeye, which were originally targeted to adult movie audiences but which worked beautifully as juvenile fare, were already immensely popular kiddie programming, playing in afternoon and early evening time periods to multitudes of youngsters who rushed home from school to catch their favorites. Columbia got the bright idea to test the waters with a batch of their old Three Stooges shorts, releasing them at the beginning of 1958. The slapstick trio soon found slots on channels across the country.
And a funny thing happened to the Stooges on the way to oblivion. Their comedy shorts became the top-rated programs on many stations, and Stooge-mania was revived again. With new Stooge Joe DeRita now in their live act, Larry, Moe and Joe were about to experience a phoenix-like resurgence in popularly. DeRita, a veteran burlesque comic and Minsky revue regular, shaved his head ala the original Curly, and was given the nickname "Curly-Joe" to distinguish him from both Curly Howard and Joe Besser. Something clicked, and with the help of millions of kids across the country who discovered they loved the Stooges' antics, demand for the trio surged. Personal appearances at county fairs, supermarket openings, movie theaters and anywhere else lucky enough to book them broke attendance records. Their salary grew from $2500 a week in nightclubs to ten times that for just an hour or so at an outdoor event filled with crowds of screaming kids barely held in check by uniformed policemen.
Not missing a trick, Columbia wanted to capitalize on this resurgence. The classic Stooge shorts were free for them to exploit and shockingly lucrative for the studio not a penny of residuals flowed back to the boys, per a SAG rule which eliminated payments for pre-1960 material. After editing together old shorts to create a makeshift feature for theaters, they realized that the Stooges would be a lucrative deal even if they had to pay them real salaries again. Columbia offered them the chance to make a new motion picture, specifically targeted to the Stooges' new-found juvenile fans. Despite continuous carping from parents' group about the bad influence of Stooge slapstick on children's behavior, Columbia announced that they would produce a full-length space travel comedy starring the Three Stooges called Have Rocket, Will Travel (1959). America was space crazy -- the competition with the Russians for space supremacy was on and kids all over loved the gadgetry and especially the fact that monkeys were an integral part of the U.S. space program. What kid doesn't love monkeys? Needless to say, a monkey was cast in the new Stooges movie.
Have Rocket, Will Travel began filming in mid-May 1959. A very tight production schedule nothing Moe and Larry weren't used to and a budget under $400,000 (of which the Stooges got $30,000 and 25% of any eventual profits) kept the boys busy. Director David Lowell Rich came from television, with credits on top shows like Maverick, Playhouse 90 and 77 Sunset Strip. Writer Raphael Hayes was also a TV veteran, penning episodes of popular anthologies such as Studio One and Suspense. Moe, Larry and Joe DeRita starred, with Norwegian actress Anna-Lisa cast as a beautiful lady scientist, and veteran actor Jerome Cowan as the head of the fictional National Space Foundation. Cowan had appeared in over a hundred movies and as many television roles over his long career, and is best remembered for his role as Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon (1941), and for his part as the D.A. in the original Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Robert Colbert co-starred as a NSF psychologist and love interest for Anna-Lisa. (Colbert would be part of another science fiction endeavor several years later as star of Irwin Allen's short-lived, now cult television series The Time Tunnel).
It was during the filming of Have Rocket, Will Travel that the Stooges, influenced by Moe (who took on most of the business decisions for the group), decided to part ways with longtime personal manager Harry Romm. Wanting more control and more of the profits from the burgeoning Three Stooges resurgence, Moe replaced Romm with Norman Maurer, Moe's son-in-law who was instrumental in creating Three Stooges comic books and also worked as a producer. Maurer was responsible in great part for the Stooges' continued popularity at that time and for orchestrating their subsequent movie careers primarily in movies for Columbia Studios. (A highly recommended read for all Stooges fans is The Three Stooges Scrapbook, written by Jeff Lenburg, Joan Howard Maurer, and Gregg Lenburg; it's still the best reference book on the Stooges.)
Have Rocket, Will Travel (the title primarily a pop culture reference to then-current TV Western hit Have Gun, Will Travel) was a fanciful mix of science fiction gadgetry, funny costumes, elaborate alien creatures including a giant spider and a unicorn, and robots. Most importantly, many of the comedy routines in the film were classic Stooge bits like dancing with a spring on the back of their pants and wrestling with a tangle of pipes -- which both old fans and new ones just discovering the trio on TV would recognize and enjoy. Adding to the enjoyment was a lively musical score from veteran Mischa Bakaleinikoff with a title song from Oscar®-winning Columbia Studios musical talent George Duning.
Have Rocket, Will Travel was released in the era before critics and scholars took the artistry of the Three Stooges seriously, and reviews deemed the movie fit only for juvenile audiences. To be fair, that was precisely what Columbia was hoping, and the movie pulled in a quick and tidy profit, leading to more movies for the aging but energetic comic trio. As a humorous take on America's fascination with the Space Race, Have Rocket, Will Travel has moments that really take off. It's a more-than-respectable entry in the Three Stooges' cinematic legacy that needs to offer no apology for the laughter it provides for audiences of all ages.
Producer: Harry A. Romm
Director: David Lowell Rich
Screenplay: Raphael Hayes
Cinematography: Ray Cory
Art Direction: John T. McCormack
Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff (uncredited)
Film Editing: Danny B. Landres
Cast: Moe Howard (Moe), Larry Fine (Larry), Joe DeRita (Curley-Joe), Jerome Cowan (J.P. Morse), Anna-Lisa (Dr. Ingrid Naarveg), Bob Colbert (Dr. Ted Benson), Don Lamond (The Venusian Robot/Reporter/Narrator, voice).
by Lisa Mateas