Vaudeville star Ted Healy plays a man whose fascination with fire leads him to hang around the fire department, much to the annoyance of his girlfriend, who wishes he’d spend more time with her.
She works in Mr Schmidt's costume shop, which has fallen on hard times in part because Mr Schmidt spends to much time on wild inventions. When the shop is taken over by creditors who put their own man in charge, Schmidt, is too proud to stick around, so he gets a job waiting tables at a friend’s restaurant.
But it turns out the restaurant business isn’t so great either. One customer brings his own lunch and a teabag and orders only hot water. Asked if he’d like anything else, he requests the song “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” Another customer orders nothing at all. He just sits at a table and answers his mail. The owner identifies him as the cartoonist Rube Goldberg. Oh, says Schmidt, I’ve heard all about those cartoonists.
In fact, Goldberg wrote the film’s screenplay, and while he’s today mainly remembered in the expression “Rube Goldberg machine,” in 1930 he was a one of the top cartoonists in America, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and so popular with the public that the film was advertised (and referred to in the opening credits) as Rube Goldberg’s Soup to Nuts. (For more on Goldberg, see www.rubegoldberg.com.)
Meanwhile, Ted Healy does his bit to make the costume shop successful again, so it can dig its way out of bankruptcy. The creditors' young on-site representative, Carlson, is a nice guy who goes out of his way to help as well. He's fallen in love at first sight with Schmidt's lovely niece Louise. She wants nothing to do with him because he works for the creditors, so he keeps his extraordinary efforts on behalf of the shop secret for fear she'll think he's trying to buy her affections.
Healy comes up with an idea that helps turn the corner for Schmidt et al: He arranges for the Fireman’s Ball to be a costume party held at the struggling restaurant where Schmidt works and with costumes supplied by Schmidt's shop. The ball’s entertainment involves Healy and three of the firemen doing bits that I gather actually come from Healy’s real-life vaudeville act. The three firemen are credited as Larry Fine and Harry and Shemp Howard. Harry was later better known as Moe.
After this film Shemp dropped out of the act to pursue an independent film career, replaced by his and Moe’s younger brother Jerome (Curly) Howard. Healy and the revised Stooges later appeared in some rarely seen MGM shorts and in secondary roles in a number of features, including the rather strange Meet the Baron (1933), reviewed here. The Stooges finally broke with Healy for good in 1934 to do the short films for Columbia they’re most famous for. Shemp rejoined the act many years later when Curly’s stroke left Moe and Larry a Stooge short. There's a lot more to the story than that, including Healy's sudden and somewhat mysterious death in 1937 at the age of 41, but you can find the details elsewhere.
Soup to Nuts is not awful. It’s mercifully just 70 minutes long, and it features some of Rube Goldberg’s famously overcomplicated inventions. There are some laughs, but the truth is the film is not particularly good. It’s interesting mainly as a curiosity. The Fireman’s Ball scene conveys a sense of what vaudeville was like, and anyone familiar with the Stooges might enjoy the novelty of seeing Moe, Larry, and Shemp successfully hitting on women, with Larry all but making out with one. I guess women really do go for firemen, even if they’re Stooges.
Incidentally, one of the last appearances of the Three Stooges in a feature film was near the end of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World in 1963, in which they once again played a trio of firemen in a brief cameo, nicely bracketing their film career, though by that point the third Stooge was “Curly Joe” DeRita. (I previously wrote that this was their final appearance in a feature, but I was mistaken; the same year they had a larger role in 4 for Texas with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, and they starred in The Outlaws Is Coming in 1965.)
Soup to Nuts is today probably best known for the earliest appearance of the Stooges on film, but it was also the film debut of Billy Barty, who at the age of five portrays a rather acrobatic toddler. Barty had just made his start in vaudeville at the time, and he went on to become a famous comic actor and activist for the rights of little people, among other things founding the Little People of America in 1957. Barty’s feature film career lasted an amazing 64 years and he made appearances in television shows even after that.
Instead of a trailer for Soup to Nuts, here's a rarely seen MGM short featuring Ted Healy with Larry, Moe, and Curly together with a woman named simply Bonny (Healy's girlfriend at the time) who sometimes served as a fourth Stooge, even going in to football-style huddles with them:
And here's the one brief scene from many years later with Larry, Moe, Shemp, and Curly, made after Curly's stroke had forced him to retire from the act. I believe this is Curly's last appearance on film, and the only time there were four Stooges in one scene:
(Updated 2015 April 30 and November 6 to fix miscellaneous problems and again 2016 May 12.)