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`THE SOUND OF MUSIC’ LEADS NEWEST PACK OF RELEASES

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If video were horse racing, the next three months might be described as a kind of holiday Run for the Roses, with a field of well-muscled megahits springing from the sales starting gate like 3-year-olds at Churchill Downs.

First out is "The Sound of Music," to be re-released on Aug. 27 by Fox. The musical, a reliable 31-year-old, has stayed in the center of the video track over the years, selling more than three million copies in a two-cassette version currently priced at $24.99. The new edition, on one cassette at $19.98, is expected to sell several million more copies, a lot of them to viewers who already own the movie but want the latest version.With people buying more videos than ever, studios are not only dropping prices but also in some cases inventing new pricing categories. For example, "Mission: Impossible," which is to be released by Paramount on Nov. 12, will have a "minimum advertised price" - not to be confused with suggested retail price - of $14.79, a new low for a major film. Normally new hit films carry suggested retail prices of $20 to $25, but because so many dealers sell tapes at cut rates, studios have begun to align their own prices.

As an example of a film priced the old-fashioned way, there is "Twister," to be released by Warner on Oct. 1 at a suggested retail price of $22.96.

Each film should sell many millions of tapes, but the season's winner could be "Toy Story," to be released by Disney on Oct. 29 at a suggested retail price of $26.99. Distributors expect to sell as many as 30 million tapes, which would be a record.

This year, too, there is an unusually strong group of repackaged evergreens. The title to beat in the old-timer category is "E.T. the Extraterrestrial," priced at $14.98 by MCA/Universal, to be reissued on Oct. 22 after four years off the market. Another contender is "My Fair Lady," which Fox is to re-release on Sept. 24 at a suggested $19.98 in an edition that truly deserves the term "restored" because the video is derived from a badly damaged movie that was largely rebuilt and reissued in theaters in 1994.

For a short time, though, the field belongs to "The Sound of Music." Like many big titles, this one comes with a grab bag of product tie-ins and consumer teasers.

STOOGES THRIVING: As the 1950s came to a close, it was seemingly over for the Three Stooges.

After 25 years of working for Columbia Pictures, the boys had been given the pink slip from the studio.

Because of the growing popularity of television, Hollywood was cutting back on film production. The first to feel the pinch were the folks who produced short subjects, those little 10- to 20-minute films that were a part of just about any movie theater's program.

On a whim, Columbia decided to release the Stooges films to television. The thinking was that maybe the studio could pick up at least a few extra bucks before the shorts lost all value.

Studio heads were stunned by what happened after that.

During the ensuing years, the shorts were aired in practically every television market in the country and were enthusiastically received by a new generation of fans. The Stooges found themselves more popular than ever and lent their images to dozens of items such as watches, lunch boxes, comic books and coffee cups.

"Spread out, you mugs" and "I'll moider you" became better-known phrases than Hamlet's "To be or not be."

Even the Columbia Pictures brass came begging and asked them to return to the screen for a series of Three Stooges features.

And as we head toward the 21st century, the Stooges' popularity continues to thrive, primarily on videotape. Columbia Pictures has been issuing remastered copes of the Three Stooges on video; each cassette is $14.95 and contains three shorts.

Earlier this year, the basic-cable Family Channel began airing brand-new prints of the shorts at midnight each weeknight. They were so well-received, Family added another hour of Stooges at 7 p.m.

The most popular Stooges were Moe and Curly Howard, who teamed with Larry Fine to form the group in the late 1920s. During the early 1930s, they were a part of Ted Healy's act. They went out on their own in 1934 and began their long association with Columbia that resulted in 190 comedy shorts.

Their first, "Woman Haters," is an oddity because it's a musical. Happily, Columbia abandoned that approach for the next 189 outings.

A change had to be made in the mid-1940s. Curly became too ill to work and was replaced by brother Shemp Howard. Joe Besser replaced Shemp, who died in 1955. Those shorts with Besser rarely hit the mark.

When the Stooges began their feature films in the 1960s, Joe DeRita became Curly Joe and replaced Besser. DeRita wasn't much of a comic, but at least he didn't get in the way of Moe and Larry. DeRita had been a character actor and had played a hangman in the 1958 western "The Bravados."

Not everyone appreciates the boys. Detractors moan at the Stooges' highly visual form of humor, which relies on an assortment of physical shenanigans. But if you look below the surface, there is more to the Stooges than a poke in the eye and a pie in the face.

The Stooges poked fun at everything. They were at their best when they were taking shots at the snobbery of high society, something they did often. And they enjoyed satirizing movie genres such as the western ("Goofs and Saddles"), the period epics ("Squareheads of the Round Table") or the crime drama ("Dizzy Detectives").

Two of their best efforts at satire were takeoffs on Hitler: "You Natzy Spy" and "I'll Never Heil Again." Charlie Chaplin's shot at the Nazis, "The Great Dictator," may be more famous, but the Stooges' efforts were just as funny and as biting.

Other notable Stooges efforts:

"Men in Black," which earned them an Oscar nomination. In it, the boys go berserk in a hospital. Fans quickly picked up the phrase "Calling Dr. Fine! Calling Dr. Fine!"

"Hoi Polloi," in which a millionaire attempts to turn the Stooges into gentlemen, with predictable and hilarious results.

"Ants in the Pantry" has the Stooges turning loose dozens of ants and mice in a mansion and then showing up at the door as exterminators.

"A Plumbing We Will Go," in which the boys try to fix a house's pipes, with more hilarious results.

"Heavenly Daze" is one of the best featuring Shemp. Here he returns to earth as a ghost in an attempt to convince Moe to change his ways.

- Doug Nye (Knight-Ridder)