Soup to Nuts (1930) is one of those flicks better known as a comedy artifact than as an actual movie. The first onscreen appearance of the Three Stooges, it features Moe (credited as “Harry Howard”), Shemp and Curly when they were still part of a larger vaudeville act headed by “nut comic” Ted Healy. The comedy stars Healy as a smart-allecky salesman working for Schmidt’s Costume Company, a struggling (this is the Depression, after all) shop in the middle of the big city. Instead of actively selling in the shop, Ted spends most of his days playing checkers at the local firehouse, which is where we meet the boys along with a fourth member of the act, Fred Sanborn, who plays a mincing little guy named Whispering Louie. Sanborn doesn’t much interact with anyone but Healy – when the crew dashes off on a fire call, we always see him left behind and then racing after the firetruck – but when it’s time for the gang to put on a show for the Firemen’s Ball, he’s also a part of the proceedings, playing xylophone.
Nuts was written by cartoonist Rube Goldberg (who even gives himself a brief cameo in the flick), but he can’t have spent a heck of a lotta time working on the plot, which is similar to any number of early movie comedies: there’s a business on the verge of bankruptcy, a budding romance ‘tween a sweet young thing and a strapping lad with money, beaucoup banter, and a sequence near the finale that gives the vaudevillians in the cast time to show off part of their act, as well as a big concluding crisis.
Because it’s Goldberg, we’re also presented with some comically pointless inventions. Turns out that Otto Schmidt (Charles Schmidt), the costume shop owner, is a would-be inventor, so there’s a sequence in the film where he shows off several of his creations to the wise-cracking Healy. The most elaborate turns out to be a burglar alarm that utilizes a large boot to kick intruders out the second story window and down a chute like some human-sized version of the game of Mousetrap: this device improbably reappears during the fire sequence where a steady stream of firemen is shown sliding down that chute after climbing into the building through a first floor window. Not sure how that was supposed to really work, but it still made me chuckle.
As the movie’s lead, Healy could play wise-cracking and devil-may-care, but there’s a cruel urban edge to his character. In his original act with the Stooges, it was he who initiated all the slapping, usually after one of the trio delivered a punchline (we see a little of this when the quartet do a part of their act at the Firemen’s Ball), and we also see some of this nastiness in his relationship with the perennially gum-chewing blond Queenie (Frances McCoy), who admittedly dishes it back just as roughly to Healy. The two threaten to clobber each other much like the more amiable Stooges would later do in their shorts, though it’s a lot more disconcerting for a modern audience to see this interplay between a man-&-woman than it is between three more cartoonly males.
As for the Stooges themselves, they’re a more amorphous group – without the distinct personalities that they’d develop on their own – who, by and large, look like any other group of movie character actors: their hair, for one, isn’t as distinctive as it later would get (kind of strange to see Larry’s fly-away hair look much more manageably combed and curly), while their banter with Healy, often staged on a racing firetruck, is fairly standard jokery. At two points in the movie, the threesome perform some three-part harmony, which you can also imagine ’em doing up on stage. The germ of their act as the Three Stooges can be glimpsed in Nuts, but it’s nearly buried within a morass of pointless subplots about Otto Schmidt losing his business and getting a job as a waiter in a German restaurant, the boy/girl romance and its subsequent misunderstandings, as well as a series of comic bits set in the dress shop.
The last provides what has to be the movie’s most surreally memorable moment: as Healy is attempting to nail an order of military uniforms to a would-be army of revolutionaries (you know, the kind that always just walks into the store off the streets of New York!), a baby in a bonnet played by a young Billy Barty(!) is showing doing back flips in the store onto a balloon. (His mother has come into the shop to buy the little tyke something to wear.) We see the “baby” repeatedly land onto the balloon, and we wait for it to pop at an auspicious moment (which, of course, it finally does), but each time he does his little flip, it looks stranger and stranger. Hours after I finished watching this movie, I still kept visualizing Barty in his baby costume: an oddball image that surpasses anything else in this slight little feature. . .
(NOTE: Soup is set to debut in April on DVD, and the packaging emphasizes the Stooges’ involvement in the film. But unless you’re a completist or a serious fan of old movie comedy, you’d probably be more satisfied with a collection of the boys’ later shorts.)