Films of Emil Sitka: DIZZY YARDBIRD (1950)
by Saxon E. Sitka
Years before joining Moe and Larry as one of The Three Stooges in 1956, comedian Joe Besser appeared as the star in his own series of Columbia short comedies. Ten two-reelers were produced between 1948 and 1956 before his introduction into the famous comedy trio, and DIZZY YARDBIRD was the second episode of the series.
For Emil, this first movie acting job of the year 1949 was his thirty-seventh Columbia Short-Subject Presentation, as they were billed, and the first of three films he would appear in that feature Joe Besser as the solo star.
This film also established another rare distinction of Emil's involvement with the legendary Three Stooges comedy team. Most readers are aware that Emil worked with all four sets of Stooges, starting with Moe, Larry and Curly, and continuing all the way through the Shemp Howard and Joe Besser years on into the Curly Joe DeRita era. A lesser-known fact is that by coincidence Emil also worked with each of these "replacement" Stooges before they joined the team, when they were solo stars working on their own careers.
Written by Felix Adler, DIZZY YARDBIRD was produced and directed by Jules White, and the cast includes Dick Wessel, Brian O'Hara, Nick Arno, Bill Wallace, Jim Brown and Jessie Arnold.
Like several other Joe Besser two-reelers, DIZZY YARDBIRD features the short, fat sissy-talking comedian as a soldier trying hard but unsuccessfully to fit into the military way of life. As recruit "Ronald Marblehead," he joins the Army with good intentions of serving his country but inadvertently frustrates his sergeant's every attempt to mold him into a soldier.
Emil is one of the other rookie soldiers in Besser's group who are subjected to several odd situations created by Private Marblehead's ineptitude. In one scene, the group finds it impossible to sleep because Besser whistles when he snores, and this repeatedly attracts a bunch of dogs that jump through an open window into the barracks.
In another scene, Besser's Private Marblehead has painted the mess hall furniture but mistakenly used glue instead of varnish. When the soldiers sit down to eat, they get stuck to the table and benches. At one point, Emil's hand is stuck palm down to the table and he struggles to free it. When he finally pulls hard enough, his hand lurches free but lands on top of his head and sticks to his hair. As he yanks his hand from his head, he also yanks out a large clump of hair. Emil then finds that his other elbow stuck to the table. He struggles to pull the elbow loose but when it finally gives, his own fist strikes his jaw, knocking him senseless. He assumes an empty expression and a silly grin and then mindlessly begins spooning his soup to his lips and letting it dribble down his chin.
When Emil received the call for this job, he was experiencing the same difficult financial circumstances he'd been enduring throughout most of the previous year. Injuries he'd sustained while making the Columbia short BILLIE GETS HER MAN (1948)
in January 1948 had persistent lingering painful symptoms that prevented him from working a day job, and his financial situation had become desperate.
Emil's diary for Monday, January 17, 1949:
Twas the darkest before dawn. And I mean it was dark in our life this morning. Broke, discouraged, frustrated in our honest endeavors, we still hoped.
Gregory promised to help some... with $8. I now have borrowed $2 from the Barrett's, $5 was loaned to me by Judith & Frankie last night, and still I don't know how we'll manage, even though we are getting some groceries on credit.
But - now comes the dawn! At least the sun began to rise a little. For a call came from Columbia Studios. It was Marvin Schmall who apologetically said, "there is a one-day job for only $55" for me. I knew it was a Jules White comedy then. But even the minimum $55 looked mighty big now - and life-saving!
I got my script from White after waiting hours, & then downtown to eat & call home.
Emil's diary for the next day, Tuesday, January 18, 1949:
With a few dollars I went downtown to the Grand Central Market - to spend them. The fruits, vegetables & meat I got should be frugally stretched out until I get paid for my bit-part tomorrow at Darmour Studio for Columbia.
Yesterday I talked at length with Ed Bernds & we discussed my ailing neck & headaches, & when the neck cracked aloud he jumped! Also Glen Ross, the prop man who threw the nose-breaking vase, said to a group of four or five of us outside that he "argued for 15 minutes against throwing that dangerous vase." O God! I thought. If he only knew that even now that damage hurts!
Emil's diary for Wednesday, January 19, 1949:
I now meet the star of this Columbia Short comedy, Joe Besser.
He is fat, grinny, eye-bulging and short -- but that's all, I thought. I again felt sure I could get more laughs in similar comedies -- but he (and not me) is the "star."
My role, as many times is the case, was lengthened -- and though it was all pantomime in the script, I did ad-lib some. And only then did Joe Besser come to shake my hand, & recalled my "very excellent work" in Billie Burke's "Billie Gets Her Man."
Ed Bernds was on the set but said nothing about my working in his comedy next week.
Although Emil apparently wasn't too impressed when he met Joe Besser on this occasion, the pudgy comedian had evidently impressed Columbia Pictures' boss Harry Cohn. By the time this film was made, Besser had starred in three features for the studio, including HEY, ROOKIE (1944) and EADIE WAS A LADY (1945) with Ann Miller.
But even earlier, Besser had established himself as a legitimate talent when he worked in vaudeville and on Broadway, appearing with many big stars of the day including Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, Carmen Miranda, Sammy Davis Jr, and Ethel Merman. Besser was also in demand as a radio comedian and worked with well-known stars such as Milton Berle, Jack Benny, and Eddie Cantor.
At the same time he was starring in his Columbia two-reeler series, Besser worked in numerous other projects, including AFRICA SCREAMS (1949) starring Abbott and Costello (with an appearance by Shemp Howard), JOE PALOOKA MEETS HUMPHREY (1950) starring Leon Errol and Joe Kirkwood Jr, THE DESERT HAWK (1950) with Yvonne De Carlo, Rock Hudson, and Jackie Gleason, and ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE KEYSTONE COPS (1955).
Joe Besser, who made sixteen comedies as a member of The Three Stooges between 1956 and 1958, spent less time with the trio than any other comedian, and he is arguably the only member of the team who was more successful with his non-Stooge career than with his stint as a Stooge.
When Columbia closed its Short-Subjects Department in 1958, Joe Besser left The Three Stooges and was eventually replaced by Joe DeRita (who became "Curly-Joe"), but his career was far from over. In the first year after leaving the Stooges, Besser appeared in several more feature films with some major stars, including SAY ONE FOR ME (1959) with Bing Crosby, Debbie Reynolds, Ray Walston, and Robert Wagner, THE ROOKIE (1959) with Tommy Noonan, Peter Marshall, and Julie Newmar, and THE STORY OF PAGE ONE (1959) with Rita Hayworth and Gig Young. Over the next decade, Besser worked in LET'S MAKE LOVE (1960) with Marilyn Monroe, Yves Montand, and Tony Randall, THE ERRAND BOY (1961) starring Jerry Lewis, WITH SIX YOU GET EGGROLL (1968) starring Doris Day, Brian Keith, and George Carlin, and WHICH WAY TO THE FRONT? (1970) with Jerry Lewis, Kaye Ballard, and Paul Winchell.
Perhaps equally impressive is Besser's work on television. He had a regular role on the popular series The Abbott and Costello Show
(1952-1953), playing "Stinky" in thirteen episodes, and a decade later he portrayed a character named "Jillson" in 88 episodes of The Joey Bishop Show
(1962-1965), for which many fans remember him fondly.
Besser also made numerous appearances on other prominent television shows such as The Ken Murray Show
, The Colgate Comedy Hour, The Spike Jones Show, My Little Margie, The Martha Raye Show, The Kraft Music Hall, Shirley Temple Theatre,
and General Electric Theater
. He even made appearances on Batman
with Adam West, That Girl
with Marlo Thomas, The Jerry Lewis Show, The Don Rickles Show, Love American Style,
Despite all this other work, Joe Besser is now remembered primarily for his two years with Moe and Larry as a member of The Three Stooges. But with so much success beyond his role as a Stooge, perhaps it is understandable that he originally called his autobiography Not Just a Stooge
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DIZZY YARDBIRD (1950)