Sunday, May 22, 2011

Film Review: HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL (1959)

No DVD yet?  Why I oughta....




"Why the Hell isn't This on DVD Yet?" -- Number 60





HAVE ROCKET WILL TRAVEL (1959 Columbia) Starring The Three Stooges (Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Curly Joe DeRita), Jerome Cowan, Anna-Lisa, Robert Colbert.  Directed by David Lowell Rich.


Inept NASA janitors Moe, Larry and Curly-Joe decide to help scientist Anna-Lisa after her latest failure at developing a fuel formula.  The bumbling custodians wreak havoc on the mission rocket and end up accidentally launching themselves as America's first space travelers.  After landing on Venus, they encounter a friendly talking unicorn, a fire breathing tarantula, and the planet's computerized leader. The latter clones our heroes, setting up a battle with their evil robot replicas.  Finally the maintenance men make it back to Earth, returning to a hero's welcome and a high society party.  Uh oh.

With short subjects no longer in production and the Three Stooges hotter than ever in 1959 thanks to television, Columbia fulfilled one of Moe's longtime wishes--a legitimate shot to make full length features.  HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL was obviously rushed out to capitalize on the Stooges' resurgence and perhaps as a result many longtime Stooge collaborators are nowhere to be found.   The sci-fi spoof is written by Rafael Hayes and directed by David Lowell Rich (A LOVELY WAY TO DIE); both specialized in westerns and crime dramas and neither had much of a background in any comedy, much less Three Stooges comedy.

At a short 76 minutes HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL feels more like three different two reelers shown in sequence than a standalone feature.  Specifically, it's as if two slightly below par Curly shorts are bookending one of the better Joe Besser sci-fi efforts.  The opening third at the space center is reminiscent of any number of Curly/Shemp shorts with the trio being employed as handymen, with particular homage paid to A PLUMBING WE WILL GO.  It's familiar but executed well enough.  The Venus section is loaded with cheesy charm if lacking in fresh gags.

The film is topped off with a truncated celebration much like the party in HOI POLLOI, which was already long past its first remake (HALF WITS' HOLIDAY, Curly's 1947 swan song), and it had to be disappointing to kids in 1959 to see this setup without the obligatory "pie fight" payoff.  Despite this oversight (gotta keep the running time short enough for a double feature, eh Columbia?) there's more slaps and headknocking in HAVE ROCKET WILL TRAVEL than the aging Stooges would have in their subsequent movies (Moe was 62 and Larry 57)--in fact, this film probably contains the very last eye poke from Moe, as that part of the routine was soon retired due to fears of children imitating it. 

Curly Joe DeRita
This was Joe DeRita's debut as the third Stooge.  While his attempts to imitate Curly's vocal mannerisms are ill-advised, they are brief and would (thankfully) be missing from the rest of the team's comeback efforts.  DeRita was still settling into his role at the time of HAVE ROCKET and while he's no Curly (who could be?) he proves to be a solid old vaudeville pro who fits well overall with this more mature version of the Three Stooges and reestablishes some of the chemistry sorely lacking in the Besser shorts. 

With Anna-Lisa
The Three Stooges took a couple of tries to really hit their stride in the Curly Joe era.  After the big-budget misfire SNOW WHITE AND THE THREE STOOGES (1961), longtime Stooge collaborators such as director Edward Bernds, screenwriter Elwood Ullman and ace utility player Emil Sitka were brought aboard and the stories became more appropriate for feature length while continuing to liberally lift gags from the team's heydey.  None of these films quite reached the level of the Curley two reelers (i.e. the boring romantic subplots continued), but the four flicks from 1962 to 1965 are all worth watching, with the 1965 finale THE OUTLAWS IS COMING! being probably the best of the bunch and allowing the legendary comedians to go out on a high note.

So---why isn't this on DVD yet?

This one is a puzzler, because virtually everything Stooge related is available, including all of the Columbia shorts and the other five Curly-Joe full length features. HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL stands alone, undeserving of its isolation.


Why it should be on DVD:

Okay, so there's the creative missteps, the rushed quality and the lack of longtime Stooge cohorts. On the plus side HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL also has the least intrusive romantic subplot of the Curly Joe era.  Neither the best nor the worst latter-day effort from the team, it would certainly be welcomed to DVD by Stoogemaniacs--much more than the awful and demeaning "Fake Shemp"/Joe Palma concoctions and the mostly subpar Besser two reelers.

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