Films of Emil Sitka: HALF-WITS HOLIDAY (1947)
by Saxon E. Sitka
Emil's seventh movie role proved to be pivotal, with elements of both triumph and tragedy. This film represents the beginning of a long wonderful association between Emil Sitka and The Three Stooges, one that would go on for thirty years and dozens of films including 35 two-reelers, two television pilots, four feature films, and 23 live-action cartoon segments. It was also Emil's biggest, longest and most substantial film role to date. In "Half-Wits Holiday," Emil has numerous scenes, many lines, a wonderful pantomime performance, and his first pie-in-the-face. He also worked for four days, and since he was struggling financially at the time this provided a welcome if temporary respite from those woes. For Emil it was a truly triumphant development in his acting career.
However, for The Three Stooges, "Half-Wits Holiday" was a film tragically marred by one of the most devastating events in their history. Curly suffered a major stroke while filming this short and was unable to finish his scenes. In fact, it was the end of his career as a Stooge. He did survive the stroke and lived for five more years. He even appeared once more in a later short in a brief cameo role as a train passenger, in "Hold That Lion" where Shemp was the third Stooge. But sadly, his productive days were behind him and Hollywood lost one of it's greatest natural comedic talents.
For now, though, let's go back to Emil's first day on the set of "Half-Wits Holiday," when he first meets the famous comic trio that would change his life forever. We are about to gain access to Emil Sitka's personal diary from 1946, so please keep in mind that these are Emil's most private thoughts that he never intended for publication.
The following is from Emil's diary entry for Thursday, May 2, 1946:
A Stooge comedy - (My movie bit #7)
Like a race-horse just before the firing-gun I was tense and apprehensive this morning as I rode out to the Sunset & Vermont branch of Columbia Studios.
Not having slept well at all last night, I was sleepy but eager to make everything time correctly. I was through those "impregnable walls" at 8 and summarily taken to a private dressing room adjacent to the 3 Stooges themselves! My costumes were there, and soon I shook hands with Jules White & said "Hello" to all those of the crew who by now know me by name.
And, one by one, the scenes came expertly within my scope. Pantomiming a full-fledged "society" dinner being served to the moronic Stooges was "gravy" to me. Never had I to be coached, corrected, or "retaken." And the Stooges did - plenty - with their stuff.
The following is from Emil Sitka's diary entry for Friday, May 3, 1946:
My second day with the Stooges!
A second day with the Stooges is an experience, too. I became accustomed by now to their peculiar antics, and familiar with their technique. Moe, the spittoon-haircut, is the "brains;" Curly, the shaven-head, is the younger brother (huskiest, but most ailing); and Larry is the most argumentative but most sure of line delivery. All in all, they have perfect timing in scenes, especially where they all three participate.
I wished that my comedy would become as definite as Moe's is. He knows every trick, he creates additions to every gag and knows what is and what isn't.
My chores were those of a high-class butler whose polish is a target for the rampaging Stooges. Today I announced the serving of luncheon in the most polite manner - only to be run over by the three madmen! A close-up by the camera will see me gathering myself off the floor with a foot-print across my nose, a heel mark on my forehead & otherwise "wrecked."
Anyone truly familiar with the Three Stooges' work will readily recall the scene Emil describes above. The Stooges actually put their feet on Emil's face as they run over him!
Emil's diary entry for Saturday, May 4, 1946:
My third day with the Stooges.
The Three Stooges are all the same size - very short, a head shorter than I am. And somehow with all their brazenness they respected me on the set. This made me feel smarter than they seem to be. Though I must admit their entire bodies are almost perfect "clown-machines." They squeek just as the situation demands, they jump perfectly, they do everything instantly. Their bodies obey their minds (for comedy) immediately. This came with experience. This is what I want!
The Stooges, kiddingly, tried to foul me up in a big speech.
After three days working with the Stooges, Emil got a Sunday off. Before he got the call for this film, Emil had been in the middle of rehearsals for a stage play that was just about to open. In the following diary entry for Monday, there are references made to this play, "The Trial of Mary Dugan," which was scheduled for it's premiere performance that night!
The following is from Emil Sitka's diary entry for Monday, May 6, 1946:
My first pie in the face!
Even though tonight was "opening night" of "The Trial of Mary Dugan" in Hollywood's Comoedia Theatre the big thrill was that historical pie in my face!
It marked the first time in my life, and I was proud of it! In fact I didn't get enough pies for my real debut into slap-stick "pie-operas." I wanted three or four - and all simultaneously, to be a little different from past pie-in-faces!
Symona Boniface brought me a sandwich & coffee just in case I'd have to rush to the Comoedia Theatre at the enth hour.
But when the final "still" was shot (and the whole set plastered with pies & cream puffs) we all felt Jules White got even more than he wanted for satisfaction.
After his successful one-take pie-in-the-face, Emil was enthused and wanted more. But according to a later interview, Emil said he was quite apprehensive about it prior to shooting his scene. He'd been watching one actor after another do their pie-in-the-face scenes over and over again, to get the timing right. Sometimes a pie would miss or an actors face wasn't turned properly, but most often the problem was the actor recoiling instinctively from the incoming pie. As an actor, you were supposed to let it hit you square on and not flinch, but that wasn't easy to do.
One scene, in which actress Symona Boniface needs to look upward at just the right moment to get hit by a pie falling from the ceiling, was especially hard to get timed correctly. Either the pie fell too early, before she looked up, or the pie fell too late and she'd be gazing upward too long before the pie hit.
Emil said that seeing Boniface take a pie in the face so many times and knowing he was next "almost traumatized" him. When six clean shirts were laid out for him, for the re-takes they expected to shoot, he resolved to get it right the first time. As a result, Emil's first take came out perfectly and is now considered a classic "pie-in-the-face" scene. Much later, author Robert Kurson wrote in The Official Three Stooges Encyclopedia
about Emil and said, "His ability to remain stoic and stately while playing butlers caught in pie fight crossfires is legendary."
Due to his own preoccupation with this pie fight and his up-coming opening night, Emil didn't make any note that one of the stars wasn't present for the final scenes. He later wrote about this film and said that Curly "collapsed in the middle of it, but no one except the Stooges and the director were aware of it at the time. The film ended with a huge pie fight, and we noticed that Curly was not there and the script had been changed. It was only afterwards that I learned that he had suffered a stroke, and had been rushed off..."
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HALF-WITS HOLIDAY (1947)