Thursday, December 21, 2006

Ted Healy: In Memoriam

In his own time, Ted Healy's biggest problem was Ted Healy. Ted was an out of control actor before it became fashionable. Highly talented and blessed with the ability to woo a tough crowd in record time, Ted also drank to excess, gambled, womanized, fought, and was even a bit of a pyromaniac, reportedly carrying a hip flask full of kerosene. He was a true eccentric, given to whims and not at all afraid to make a scene in public if the mood struck him. He could be generous and fiercely loyal to his friends, but his hair-trigger temper repeatedly landed him in hot water and, in several instances, undoubtedly set back his career. 69 years ago today, the risks of living dangerously caught up with him and he died of liver failure following a drunken brawl at the Brown Derby. He was only 41.

Today the problem with Ted Healy is his stooges. If they had never split for the cozy, atavistic comforts of Columbia, if they had never become baby boomer pop culture icons, if they had remained the rough-and-tumble goons of their vaudeville days with Ted, then Ted himself would probably be much better regarded today, probably as exactly what he was; a top-notch, talented and extremely innovative comedian who died the very peak of his abilities. But that isn't the way it worked out. If Ted Healy is remembered at all, it's never just Ted that most people remember, it's Ted Healy and his stooges.. or Stooges, rather. His best work in film, his two pictures for Warner Brothers, remain sadly obscure, especially in contrast with the 190 bite-size and comfortably similar Stooge shorts that have been TV mainstays since 1958. Ted's only starring feature, Soup To Nuts, remained largely unseen until 2005 when it was released on DVD with a sleeve featuring a huge picture of the Stooges. Them's the breaks.

Don't get me wrong.. I love the Stooges. I grew up with the Stooges. But the unbridled hate so many die-hard Stoogephiles feel towards Healy, witnessed in full during my time as webmaster of, saddens me. There's certainly no poetic justice in Ted's fate unless you accept the fairy tale notion that the Howard, Fine, and Howard spent their formative years toiling anonymously, propping up an ungrateful, talentless ham. This handy and highly marketable myth aside, the real problem is that the dynamic between Ted Healy and his stooges is innately divisive. The comedy emerges from that division. There is no real common ground to be found between Healy's eccentric and off-handed cynicism and the Stooges' classic clowning, nor should there be. That's why Moe, even as "leader" of the Stooges, is still a stooge (whether he knows it or not), whereas Ted, when his role as leader is literalised in films such as Meet the Baron, is simply a world apart, a tinpot tyrant, and there's no doubt whatsoever that he is in charge. When an audience accepts the complete package, as they did in the 20s and 30s, that innate divide between the cynical proxy and the clown (or clowns) is gold. But when an audience favors one side over the other, it's poison. To someone weened on the Columbia shorts and incapable of seeing beyond them or contextualizing them, Ted must come across as the worst kind of interloper and, as such, is apparently worthy of the kind of scorn usually reserved for serial killers and politicians. A pity.

The cynic and the clown; if Ted Healy didn't invent the formula, he certainly popularized it. Milton Berle brought it lock, stock, and barrel into the television age, with Arnold Stang regularly playing stooge and Berle playing the wiseass go-between. Martin and Lewis became the hottest nightclub comedy act in history with it before Paramount pissed it all away by repeatedly casting Dean as some kind of humorless villain. Even today, you can see a down-to-earth equivalent of the dynamic between David Letterman and many of his guests. At least Letterman can move on to the next guest. Ted is currently locked in limbo with his Stooges, his post-stooge film work remaining largely unseen or ignored. Unfortunately, it's in that work where Ted Healy really is, the gruff, scene-stealing character actor who could handle both comedy and drama with flair. By 1937, he and his writers at Warners had even discovered ways to make you care for the guy (think W. C. Fields). Everything pointed towards a brilliant future for Ted. Given the trajectory that American showbusiness actually followed, Ted Healy would have been ahead of the curve every step of the way, from the sharp cynicism of wartime comedy to the dawn of "vaudeo" where Ted's quick wit and ability to work an audience would have certainly given Uncle Miltie a run for his money. As far as I'm concerned, Ted Healy will remain the greatest "what if" of classic comedy, and I'll be drinking a 60-proof toast to his memory this Christmas.

Reader EastSide has been kind enough to draw my attention to these vintage Healy clips from YouTube. First, 6 minutes and 8 seconds from Plane Nuts (1933), the second most complete record of Ted's vaudeville act (the first, and superior, being the recreation of the act in Soup To Nuts (1930)).

Here's a nice clip of Ted hitting on a couple of unbilled Chinese women in a clip from Myrt and Marge (1933). They're singers, but I have yet to discover their names. Myrt and Marge is easily the finest hour for Ted Healy and his stooges as supporting castmembers in a feature. MGM never handled the team nearly as well as Al Boasberg and Universal. Ted's rueful glare at the camera at the film's close is one of my all-time favorite Healy moments. Brilliant.

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Blogger East Side said...

You're right -- Ted & the Stooges absolutely dominate "Myrt & Marge." As I've told you, I'm on the cusp of becoming a Ted Healy fan after being a long-time hater. You put his act into perfect perspective.I can see now where Berle acquired his whole act -- if only he were as tenth as subtle as Healy!

You can see, too, where Moe took much of his personality when the Stooges went on their own. Even the delivery is almost identical. Letterman, too, as you've pointed out. Funny how this almost-forgotten actor wound up having an influence on comedians who probably never heard of him.

; I urge you to find a rich widow to support you so you can write a full-length biography of Ted. (And while you're at it, can you write a bio of Harry Langdon?)

8:49 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

Berle certainly heard of Healy and I understand he even admitted to being "inspired" by Ted's shtick. The secret of Healy's influence lies in the simplicity of the formula. Comics probably picked it up without even thinking about it, much as Harry Langdon's mannerisms were "in the air" during the mid-to-late 20s.

Nick(o) pointed out a moment in "Sing, Baby, Sing" to me in which Ted does a machine gun imitation by rattling his bowler hat against his head.. a gag commonly associated with Curly. I'd love to know who did it first.

8:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a huge fan of Ted Healy and was delighted to find your site. He reminds me of W.C.Fields, another favorite. Also, I thought Bonnie Bonnell might have had a future, but it sounds like she had some bad luck. I really did not think of her as a no talent, although her dancing left something to be desired. Must remember, though, that styles have changed and some very famous dancers of that era would not have a chance now. Thanks for the articles--they were great.

3:21 PM  

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