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The Bootleg Files: Malice in the Palace

BOOTLEG FILES 595: “Malice in the Palace” (1949 Three Stooges short).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On too many public domain labels.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: There was one, but it was lost amid the cheapo duped versions.

In some ways, bad comedies are more interesting than good comedies. Because when a comedy fails, it is can be a fascinating exercise to pinpoint just where things began to go wrong and to wonder whether the wreckage could have been prevented with tweaks here and there.

For example, take the 1949 Three Stooges’ short “Malice in the Palace.” The film could have been a riotous romp, but it wound up being something of an obnoxious mess. How did things go so badly for this little production?

For starters, it needs to be stressed that the film is strictly an anomaly in a period when the Three Stooges were turning out peak product. Shemp Howard rejoined the team in 1947 when his brother Curly Howard was forced to retire following a debilitating stroke; Curly had suffered a few mini-strokes in the mid-1940s and the quality of the team’s films during this period also suffered from enervation. Shemp’s presence gave the team a new infusion of energy, and their output in the late 1940s included many comedy classics. Thus, we can start the analysis by noting “Malice in the Palace” was very much an exception to the Three Stooges’ output rather than typical of what was being created.

And the basis of the short was also promising. Set in the old Hollywood concept of the Islamic world, the film opens in the Café Casbahbah, where the unsavory duo Haser Ben Sober (Vernon Dent, buried under a huge beard) and Ginna Rumma (George Lewis) are plotting to steal the 100-carat diamond of King Ruttin’ Tuttin. But the diamond has a curse: the first person to handle it will die brutally. Thus, the pair needs someone to do the dirty work for them in purloining the diamond.

Naturally, the villainous characters imagined the dirty work should be done Moe, Larry and Shemp – and that’s where “Malice in the Palace” goes very wrong. The basic set-up for a great comic adventure is immediately jettisoned in favor of anvil slapstick involving food dumped on the diamond thieves and plates broken on the floor. The first few minutes of the Stooges’ screen time is painful to watch – the timing is off and the sight gags are among the weakest imaginable.

Once everything is cleaned up, the diamond thieves are ready to order, but the café has a very limited menu: only hot dogs and rabbit are available. The men agree to order those items and Larry goes into the kitchen to prepare the meals, and that’s where things go from bad to worse.

Larry’s work is interrupted, first by a cat and then by a dog. Larry chases the animals through the café with a cleaver and then brings them back to the kitchen. But while Larry quickly cools his temper and feeds the animals, the diamond thieves and Moe and Shemp mistakenly believe that he is killing and cooking the dog and cat – especially when their various barks and meows are in sync with the dull thud of the meat cleaver slicing the men’s meals. When Larry serves the meals, everyone is under the impression that the cat and dog were chopped up and cooked.

This was not the first time that the Stooges pulled that sort of a gag – their 1937 “Playing the Ponies” had a similar gag with restaurant patrons mistakenly believing they were eating a dog – but this film stretches the joke for so long that it becomes acutely distasteful. It also becomes bizarre when one of the hot dogs served by Larry inexplicably has a living tongue that licks Shemp. So much of “Malice in the Palace” is consumed by this that the film breaks down and never truly recovers.

In any event, the diamond thieves discover that the Emir of Shmow has stolen the diamond, thus ruining their chances of instant riches. The Stooges kick the men out of their café and keep their map, which shows them how to find the diamond. And, at this point, the troubled film develops more problems due to a seemingly endless static shot of the supposedly funny map, which is a riff on the European and Near Eastern nations with gag names like “Great Mitten,” “Yom Kippers” and the neighboring states “I-ran,” “He-ran,” “She-ran,” “They-ran” and “Also-ran.”

The Stooges decide to depart to Shmow and visit the emir. They arrive in a sleigh drawn by a mule wearing antlers – the Stooges disguise themselves in Santa Claus costumes. (The opening shot was lifted from the 1938 “Wee Wee Monsieur,” but the camera is far enough away that the viewer doesn’t realize that Curly is in the sleigh rather than Shemp.)

While the idea of dressing like Santa Clauses in an Arabian palace may seem cute, the Stooges have little to do in the palace except trick the emir into surrendering the diamond by pretending to be a giant – the trio sit on each other’s shoulders and wrap themselves in a very, very long jacket – and order him to stand on his head in a fountain. The palace is conspicuously underpopulated, with only the emir and a very tall but rather inefficient black guard who is endlessly assaulted by the Stooges. The guard is played by an unbilled Everett Brown, who gained a degree of immortality as the Tara plantation foreman Big Sam in “Gone with the Wind.” Brown quit acting in 1940 due to limited opportunities, but came back in 1949 for a few bit parts, including “Malice in the Palace.” Brown was a genuinely talented actor, but in this film he is completely wasted.

The film comes to an abrupt close when the guard is knocked out following a mild fracas and the emir is incapacitated after the Stooges realize he swallowed all of the water from the fountain where he was standing on his head. When a statue starts spitting water at Moe, the Stooges beat a hasty retreat with the diamond.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about “Malice in the Palace” involves a deleted scene. Curly Howard had recovered enough of his strength to make an unbilled gag appearance in the 1947 “Hold That Lion,” and it was hoped that he could make another appearance in this film. Curly was disguised under heavy eyebrows and a walrus mustache and was supposed to play the irate cook in the café. Alas, his health was too weak to make the scene work, and it was cut. All that remains is a production still of Curly and the Stooges (shown above on this page) and, oddly, that image was used in the posters and lobby cards for the film.

“Malice in the Palace” was remade in 1956 as “Rumpus in a Harem,” with new scenes haphazardly inserted into the older footage. But Shemp died in 1955 and the Stooges did not have a replacement ready, so Columbia Pictures used actor Joe Palma to double for him. Palma wore a Shemp-style wig and was mostly filmed with his back to the camera, and this technique for shabby body doubling was later dubbed the “Fake Shemp.”

“Malice in the Palace” was one of four Three Stooges shorts to fall into the public domain, and for years it was the subject of endless second- or third-generation dupes. And while a pristine print was part of an official DVD release with the rest of the team’s shorts, the lapsed copyright enabled “Malice in the Palace” to have more visibility than it ever deserved.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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