Edward Bernds

Active - 1929 - 1965  |   Born - Jul 12, 1905   |   Died - May 20, 2000   |   Genres - Comedy

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Biography by Bruce Eder

It may be difficult to take Edward Bernds' directorial career -- highlighted as it is by the short films of the Three Stooges and the features of the Bowery Boys, as well as such camp classics as Queen of Outer Space -- entirely seriously. As a pop culture influence, however, Bernds had few peers, even if he was seldom ranked even near the top of B-movie directors -- it's a safe bet, however, that virtually every baby boomer viewer saw his work at some point growing up, and that most of them enjoyed a lot of it.

Edward Bernds started out at Columbia Pictures in the sound department at the end of the '20s and was responsible for mixing the sound on such early talkies as Roy William Neill's 1929 Wall Street and Erle C. Kenton's The Song of Love, released that same year. His studio assignments involved him in such high-profile features as Dirigible, Platinum Blonde, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Lady for a Day, and It Happened One Night (the latter featuring a bravura example of early cinematic sound mixing in a key singalong sequence on a bus), all directed by Frank Capra, and Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century, up through 1934. Although he continued to work on major features, including Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth and Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, until the end of the '30s, his career was never quite the same after 1934. That year he was assigned as the soundman on Woman Haters, the first Columbia short starring Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Jerome "Curly" Howard, a newly signed trio of comedians also known as the Three Stooges. An odd mix of musical, verse dialogue, and mayhem, Woman Haters was a success, mostly because the mayhem was executed as theatrically and artfully as the music. For the next decade, Bernds was largely responsible for supporting the trio with an array of brilliantly edited, split-second-timed sound effects that gave their brand of roughhouse humor the surreal, cartoon-like edge that came to identify their work.

To judge the importance of Bernds' contribution as a soundman to the Stooges' movies, compare the eye pokes and face slaps. It's a sign of the unusual nature and arc of Bernds' career that one would have a serious analytical discussion about eye pokes and face slaps in determining his success, as in their Columbia shorts, which were usually accompanied by a loud, plucked violin string or a ridiculously loud smacking noise, respectively, to the more "realistic" unaccompanied eye pokes and face slaps in their MGM and Fox films. It's the same three performers (or two or the three the same) in all three groups of films, committing the same mayhem on each other, but the Columbia mayhem is funnier all the way around because of the sound effects Bernds created and used in their movies. Similar accolades may be given to the noises he used to accompany the hammer hits (anvil clanging), punches in the stomach (kettle drum), and other examples of slapstick activity that littered their movies. Indeed, given studio chief Harry Cohn's well-documented personal appreciation of the Stooges' work, Bernds and the trio might well have been able to take credit for a major percentage of whatever laughter regularly emanated from Cohn's office across the years that followed.

In 1945, Bernds moved up to the director's chair on the Three Stooges short Micro-Phonies, a film that, appropriately enough, had the trio using their own sound "dubbing" technique to help a lady friend land a singing job. The resulting film was one of the most successful and satisfying of their releases in what was otherwise something of a declining period for the trio, in tandem with the failing health of Curly Howard, who was usually regarded as the funniest of the Stooges.

Bernds directed most of the Stooges' shorts that followed, and he was a major help in maintaining the quality of the trio's work when Shemp Howard finally replaced his ailing brother in the act in 1947. Over the next seven years, he guided the trio through innumerable pratfalls, pies in the face, and other comedic events. In between Stooges shorts, he also directed entries in the later part of the Blondie series, starring Arthur Lake and Penny Singleton, features starring comedienne Joan Davis, and two features adapted from the long-running comic strip Gasoline Alley.

In 1953, Bernds left Columbia to work for Allied Artists, the successor company to Monogram Pictures, principally directing the Bowery Boys movies starring Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall. With all of those Stooges and Bowery Boys movies to his credit, Bernds was responsible for furnishing and shaping a lot of the staples of entertainment for postwar baby boom audiences, especially once those movies made it to television. He had a good light touch to go with his flair for slapstick comedy, and he knew how to move a story along in a hurry. Following the retirement of Leo Gorcey from the Bowery Boys films, Bernds moved on to other types of pictures, including Westerns such as Escape From Red Rock, historical dramas like Quantrill's Raiders, teen-exploitation melodramas such as Reform School Girl, and even science fiction. Bernds distinguished himself in the latter genre with the earnest World Without End and the campy Queen of Outer Space, the latter starring Zsa Zsa Gabor. Both were not only popular in theaters but became perennial favorites on television, and Queen of Outer Space was still being shown (in restored prints, no less) in repertory film theaters into the '90s, delighting new generations of viewers. In 1958, as the film business went into full retrenchment, Bernds began directing for television on a regular basis and moving between film studios, including American International Pictures (where he made High School Hellcats), and Fox, where he wrote and directed Return of the Fly, the sequel to the hit 1958 sci-fi/horror film. He also went back to Columbia to assemble and direct new scenes for a re-edited feature-length compendium of the Three Stooges' work (Stop! Look! and Laugh!), and made the Jules Verne-style fantasy Valley of the Dragons, and directed the latter-day incarnation of the Stooges in two full-length features, The Three Stooges Meet Hercules and The Three Stooges in Orbit. In between all of these efforts at comedy and fantasy, he worked in another straight science fiction credit as director of Space Master X-7, which was not only a first-rate thriller but gave Moe Howard his one opportunity to show his ability as a straight, serious actor.

At the start of the 1960s, Bernds also showed his relatively untapped skill as a dramatic writer and director on episodes of the adventure series Assignment Underwater. Bernds retired from filmmaking in the mid-'60s after delivering two more screenplays, the western action film Gunfight at Comanche Creek and the Elvis Presley vehicle Tickle Me. He chose to bow out, ironically, just at the point where his Stooges and Bowery Boys movies (and, to a lesser degree, the Blondie films), not to mention World Without End and Queen of Outer Space, all started to gather their most enduring fans through constant showing on television, and turned Bernds himself into something of a low-level pop culture icon.

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