Hokus Pokus: Now You See It, Now You Don’t

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The Stooges prepare Mary her breakfast and deliver it to her home.

All right, time to talk about those loveable wise guys: The Three Stooges. Due in a large part to my father’s influence on me as a child, I have a fondness for The Three Stooges that would likely rival any fan. I own every episode and have watched them countless times. I liken them to my television “soul food.” So, with the stress of my impending graduation mounting, I’ve turned to Moe, Larry, Curley (occasionally Shemp—Joe is avoided at all costs because I don’t consider him a “real stooge”) to calm my nerves. Enter “Hokus Pokus” a 1949 episode where “a neighbor’s plan to use the unwitting stooges to her scam to defraud an insurance company backfires” (taken from The Three Stooges Collection Volume 6: 1949-1951).

The short opens with The Three Stooges’ neighbor, Mary, inviting a caller to come in. After she sees that it’s her boyfriend, Cliff, she jumps up out of the chair, throws her arms around him and kisses him. After setting the scene by having Cliff ask Mary how long she’s going to “keep up this act with the wheelchair; when’s the insurance company going to pay ya off?” (if you listen to their dialogue, you’ll understand why I italicized wheelchair). Mary then obligingly explains to us that she’s going to get the money today, after she meets with the insurance adjuster one more time and her three neighbors vouch as witnesses of her condition. She describes them as “three saps who live downstairs and wait on me hand and foot and will swear that I’m a hopeless cripple.”

To make a short story shorter, Moe, Larry, and Shemp painstakingly/painfully make breakfast for Mary, bring it to her apartment, set her up, meet the insurance adjuster and go off to work to hang advertisements. While at work, they meet a hypnotist, Svengarlic, who hypnotizes them into walking out onto a flagpole of the building Mary is in. When Svengarlic is knocked unconscious, The Stooges awaken from the trance, hop into the nearest window and frighten Mary so badly that she jumps out of her wheelchair in shock, just before the insurance agent hands her the check for $25,000.

While this episode isn’t necessarily the “be all, end all” in representation of disability in pop culture (is it still pop culture if the “pop” in reference was 63 years ago?) it does highlight some very interesting cultural conceptions and anxieties regarding people with disabilities that were relevant at the time and certainly relevant contemporarily.

This short episode highlights a cultural anxiety of people with disabilities being a drain on societal resources ($25,000 was a good chunk of change back then). The fact that Mary is faking her disability also contributes to the notion that people with disabilities aren’t trying hard enough, are complainers, are only looking for a handout, and could be “productive” members of society if they just tried hard enough. Despite the fact that the episode is made with comedic intentions, it utilizes tired and true cultural scripts regarding the representation of people with disabilities nonetheless. One reason the audience could find the episode amusing is because of the way it encourages viewers not only to set themselves apart from those “cheaters/drains” on “the system” but also that the good guys win and the deceivers get what’s coming to them. In it’s most basic sense the brief storyline could be boiled down to “good trumps evil”—in this case the “good”=the (able-bodied) Three Stooges and the “evil”=the deceitful wheelchair user.

Food for thought? I think so.

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