Tuesday, December 7, 2010
The Bowery Boys, Nos. 1 - 3 (1946)
In 1935, the Broadway play “Dead End” dramatized hard real-world slum conditions on New York’s East Side, making a grand social message. To portray a gang of pre-teen street urchins, various actual street urchins (and some-times actors) were cast.
When Warner Brothers made “Dead End” into Dead End, six of the play’s original kids were recruited to star alongside Humphrey Bogart. A cinematic classic was made.
Dead End Kids was the franchise that resulted, of utmost seriousness and quality, peaking with Angels With Dirty Faces, a wonderful piece of ganstery goodness. All in all, the “Dead End Kids” troupe made 7 films.
Universal was struck by these films’ success, and borrowed many of the child stars for their melodramatic variation, Little Tough Guy. This spawned a parallel franchise which ran alongside, and outlived, Dead End Kids. As needed, new kids were added to the “Little Tough Guys” troupe when the originals were needed elsewhere – damn that contract law. And so the mass of children associated with the franchises “Dead End” spawned grew.
Little Tough Guys was successful too, with 12 entries. And there can be no easily-copied success in 1940s Hollywood without Monogram Studios getting their greasy Poverty Row claws all over it. As a cheapo knockoff, they made East Side Kids, a movie which then led to the East Side Kids franchise. Many of the “Dead End Kids”/”Little Tough Guys” gravitated to this series now, most notably Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall, who were evolving as comedians. All told, the actors possessed tremendous comic sensibilities, leading a once-melodramatic series to become anarchical fun, largely in the style of Abbott & Costello. Under Monogram’s limited resources, East Side Kids could never have the quality of the major studios’ efforts, but the actors were at their best.
For such an actor-led franchise, it’s no wonder East Side Kids star Gorcey eventually scuttled the franchise in salary negotiations. The movies ceased production, but not after 22 entries were already in the bag.
That was the situation in 1945, with “Dead End” having somehow initiated 44 movies. But none of these three series was still around. It seemed the “team of criminal youths” subgenre cycle had run its course.
Costar Bobby Jordan, in the immediate death of East Side Kids, convinced Gorcey to reconsider what he’d done. Teaming with a talent agent, Jan Grippo, these three put together Jan Grippo Productions. This granted more creative and financial control to Gorcey, resolving the issues he’d had with Monogram’s treatment of East Side Kids.
With his 40% of the company, Gorcey would star in a new series, picking up where East Side Kids left off. He would have a hand in the script, star (naturally), and produce. Most importantly, this new series would be even more formulaic than East Side Kids, if such a thing is possible, creating a perfect framework for Gorcey to affix his comedy stylings to again and again.
It is easy to reject formula when it becomes so prescribed, but this is definitely a good thing for Gorcey and his team of performers (as most of his former “East Side Kids” pals would return). The best elements of East Side Kids are the comic detours, the nonsensical tangents which work best when plot is the slightest and most predictable. So by increasing that possibility, the likelihood of unsuccessful dramatic entries decreases.
Basically, Gorcey and Hall would have even greater exposure than before, at the cost of the various other troupe members’ screen time.
Monogram was again distributing, this fourth and final “Dead End” franchise being called The Bowery Boys, after a neighborhood in Manhattan (also because alliteration is nice). And 44 movies down, we still aren’t halfway through, as The Bowery Boys produced a mighty 48 entries! The only solace in that number is the fact that not a single one of those movies can be found. Oh well, that’s two months of my life I won’t have to waste. As for what I’ll be missing:
1. Live Wires (1946)
2. In Fast Company (1946)
3. Bowery Bombshell (1946)
4. Spook Busters (1946)
5. Mr. Hex (1946)
6. Hard Boiled Mahoney (1947)
7. News Hounds (1947)
8. Bowery Buckaroos (1947)
9. Angels’ Alley (1948)
10. Jinx Money (1948)
11. Smugglers’ Cove (1948)
12. Trouble Makers (1948)
13. Fighting Fools (1949)
14. Hold That Baby! (1949)
15. Angels in Disguise (1949)
16. Master Minds (1949)
17. Blonde Dynamite (1950)
18. Lucky Losers (1950)
19. Triple Trouble (1950)
20. Blues Busters (1951)
21. Bowery Battalion (1951)
22. Ghost Chasers (1951)
23. Let’s Go Navy! (1951)
24. Crazy Over Horses (1951)
25. Hold That Line (1952)
26. Here Come the Marines (1952)
27. Feudin’ Fools (1952)
28. No Holds Barred (1952)
29. Jalopy (1953)
30. Loose in London (1953)
31. Clipped Wings (1953)
32. Private Eyes (1953)
33. Paris Playboys (1954)
34. The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters (1954)
35. Jungle Gents (1954)
36. Bowery to Bagdad (1955)
37. High Society (1955)
38. Spy Chasers (1955)
39. Jail Busters (1955)
40. Dig That Uranium (1956)
41. Crashing Las Vegas (1956)
42. Fighting Trouble (1956)
43. Hot Shots (1956)
44. Hold That Hypnotist (1957)
45. Spook Chasers (1957)
46. Looking for Danger (1957)
47. Up in Smoke (1957)
48. In the Money (1958)
Ugh! That is a lot of IMDb linking! Hope ya like it.
So anyway, more formulaic, greater emphasis on the comedy. Of course, this would itself evolve over time, growing more and more comic – And how do you get 48x more comic than a series that was already cladding its stars in drag and making an even bigger joke out of Bela Lugosi?!...They found a way!
But all that with time. At its start, The Bowery Boys seems little more than a revamped, retitled East Side Kids. It’s still a slum-set, gangster-ridden series, and rumor has it the earlier entries continue to dabble in that dag-blasted melodrama which suits this troupe so poorly. The only variation is new character names, and the added possibility for some actual honest-to-goodness continuity for once, ignoring the rank dis-continuity of East Side Kids. For what it’s worth, here are the stars as they appear in the first film, Live Wires:
Leo Gorcey, franchise owner and proprietor, as Terrence Aloysius “Slip” Mahoney. So, basically, Slip.
Huntz Hal as the like-pretentiously named Horace Debussy “Sach” Jones. That means they’ve sown the seed for the potential comedy duo of Sach & Slip, which is such an utterly titter-worthy appellation. Ah hah, but for as much as I love going on about the Gorcey/Hall team-up, even that will expand and nuttify with Bowery Boys time.
Moving on, Bobby Jordan plays…[drum roll please]…Bobby. Well done.
Billy Benedict is Whitey. This is an odd name because, again, the troupe is all white.
(Token "East Side Kid" Ernie “Sunshine” Sammy Morrison turned down Gorcey’s offer to join the new team, feeling himself the member most likely to be subjugated, being a minority and all. He wasn’t comfortable with the degree of power Gorcey had self-appointed. Morrison “didn’t like the setup.” Good for Morrison, because he was always the “East Side Kid” with the best singular talent, able to garner laughs sans comic back-and-forth. As a big band leader, vaudevillian, prominent black entertainer, and dancer, Morrison didn’t need The Bowery Boys anyway.)
Right, so who are the others, for there have to be six? Well, there’s only five (budget cuts and all), and the last one is William Frambes, as Homer. Frambes is the lone member who wasn’t of the “East Side Kids.” He’s only in this one entry anyway, soon to be replaced by Leo’s brother David Gorcey (God bless nepotism), so let us not expend more effort over Frambes.
Anyway, that leaves Gorcey, Hall, Jordan, Benedict, and Gorcey the Lesser. Said secondary Gorcey’s role in # 2, In Fast Company, was as Charles “Chuck” Anderson. I don’t know why that matters. Seven more actors would filter through the troupe over its twelve years of existence, but for now this is the gang – the gang the series is best known for. And Bernard Gorcey was there too, Leo’s father, because again double-dog God bless nepotism!
1. Live Wires (1946) – We stick with Slip, the lead 29-year old “Boy,” in his endless quest to find a job. A number of jobs come and go, each one the opportunity for a different isolated scene of hijinks. That’s what serves these guys the best.
But you can’t make a movie out of such sketches alone, not when ostensibly aiming for an ongoing narrative series. So at last Slip must find a job that works for him, and embroil himself with some sort of plotline which will create the illusion of resolution. That job is with the D.A., and that pre-resolution conflict is with “several notorious gangsters.” Gangsters, eh? That’s just like 90.9% of the East Side Kids films! One assumes faces are punched.
2. In Fast Company (1946) – Except the info on In Fast Company informs that it is the first entry to feature all-out face-punching fisticuffsmanship. This info further assures me this violence becomes a series standard…just as it was for East Side Kids. Tell me again how this is a different franchise.
For one, In Fast Company introduces some repeated formula elements which do distinguish The Bowery Boys. Most important is Louie’s Sweet Shop, an ice cream parlor run by Gorcey’s father Bernard in the immortal role of Louie. This sweet shop becomes the Bowery Boys’ regular hangout, in lieu of the relatively dingy basement the East Side Kids called lair.
Now let’s ponder a bit…“Cheers” had its bar, “Community” its study room, “Gilligan’s Island” its Gilligan’s Island. Television shows, a product of a future era, often boast formulaic and regularized settings – and this is never considered a fault of their formula. As the B-franchises of the late ‘40s were really just the nascent form of television, these are the standards one must hold The Bowery Boys to. As such, Louie’s Sweet Shop is a good move, the starting point for each new adventure.
The conclusion to In Fast Company’s adventure feels a lot like that of Live Wires (me senses a formula element!) – Slip gets a job, this time at Cassidy’s Cab Company, and uses his new job position to uncover and foil a crime ring. And faces = punching targets.
The events leading up to such employment seem a bit more freeform and random, like a “Simpsons” episode. The Bowery Boys duke it out with a vegetable vendor, the police interfere, a priest takes them in as wards, convinces Slip about the joys of gainful employment. It’s not as formally pure as Live Wires, perhaps, but it’s plenty random – all the better for unmitigated shenaniganism.
As a reminder, this was David Gorcey’s first franchise appearance. Good riddance, William Frambes, we hardly knew ye.
3. Bowery Bombshell (1946) – The setup – Louie needs money.
The result – Bowery Boys in assorted sketches concerning the raising of money.
The fallout – Sach happens to be in a bank when it is robbed. He foils the holdout by sheer proximity (I saw Chief Wiggum do something similar once or twice). Sach is handles comical “$” bags when he photo is taken. Sach with sacks.
So Sach is a wanted man, and it’s up to Slip to give the gangsters the slip. He impersonates a “notorious gangster” (a very specific form of gangster this series seems to specialize in), in an effort to clear Sach’s rap.
Even in summary, some decent gags are evident. The head gangster is called Ace Deuce. And the movie ends with an explosion, that old standard, sending a tire marked “Dead End” around the respected necks of Slip & Sach. By ‘40s standards, this is very meta.
And by ‘40s standards this is very prolific. I’ll have to come back to this tomorrow. Three movies down. Forty-five to go…
• Nos. 4 - 16 (1946 - 1949)
• Nos. 17 - 28 (1950 - 1952)
• Nos. 29 - 39 (1953 - 1955)
• Nos. 40 - 48 (1956 - 1958)