Friday, December 3, 2010

East Side Kids, No. 10 - Smart Alecks (1942)

After the great, patriotic, racist experiment that was Let’s Get Tough!, it was time for the “East Side Kids” to do what they do every other movie: return to the strictest of formulas, and churn out a generic entry. That is Smart Alecks, notable for essentially no reason beyond fidelity to that formula – a formula that shall therefore become our focus.

Okay, there is one other unique facet to Smart Alecks. It introduces a new “East Side Kid,” joining our roster. As a reminder, that would be these guys”

Leo Gorcey as Muggs McGinnis – the lone member to retain anything remotely “tough” in his persona

Bobby Jordan as Danny Stevens – the “everyman” (or “everykid”), with the expected blandness

Huntz Hall as Glimpy – the most recent malaproper, as that role changes hands often, and a noted comic foil for Muggs

Ernie Morrison as Scruno – the ethnic, the token, the butt of far too many jokes

David Gorcey as Peewee – a bland guy here to fill out the edges of the frame

Bobby Stone as Skinny – a more boring version of Peewee

Oh, right, and Gabriel Dell as Hank Salka (!) – yes, occasionally Dell is welcomed into the official “East Side Kids” fold, when he’s not playing a Nazi or a hoodlum

To this immortal roundup, we may now add Stanley Clements as Stash. There is little of note to this actor’s bio, and he is not allowed to make an impression in Smart Alecks. No matter, he’s in place now, probably as a safeguard as the main troupe is due up for the Army draft.

All that’s left now to discuss is formula…

Introductory hooliganism: This is usually the Kids geting into a scrape with some local, exasperated shopkeeper. But as ideas runs out, it becomes evident. Today, the Kids’ criminality concerns Glimpy playing the harmonica, and Scruno tap dancing. Oh Heaven forefend! (This is a fallout of the series’ increasing reluctance to show their “criminal” leads as criminals.) But who cares, for this moment is always plot-free, simply a way to reintroduce us to the heroes.

The romantic couple: Okay, so Danny always has either an older brother or sister. Whichever one it is gets a romantic subplot with the opposite gender. There is little point to these romances alone; they mostly exist to allow some “adult” characters (though the Kids’ rapid aging really stretches this point) to offer up “social” commentary when appropriate. It is a window into the East Side Kids’ personas, as it were, and a holdover from the stronger leads in the Dead End Kids films.

Today, not that it matters, Danny’s relation is female, Ruth Stevens (Gale Storm – isn’t that the reporter from Scream?). That makes her chaste, chaste lover Mike (Joe Kirk). There are functionally no different from any of their fellow ciphers. Hell, the only reason identities change is to accommodate a rotating actor list, and to free up the writers from the ever-tricky continuity – double hell, the plots usually come about from a distinct non-continuity!

The cop: Oh, and half the time the male part of the couple is a cop (the female is always a nurse, thanks be to this one really hot costume Monogram keeps recycling). This is because the East Side Kids always need a policeman to battle against/listen to. It maintains that “criminality” element these movies depend upon.

In Smart Alecks, the cop is not Mike, but rather Joe Reagan (Roger Pryor, whom I’m told by Wikipedia was a Confederate general who died in 1919). This is because there was a third actor available. That is the only reason it is not Mike.

The crook: Also, there has to be a genuinely criminal element to tempt the Kids, and to deflect any complaints Hays might have. This role is often a chance for the comic grotesques who pass through Monogram like so many kidney stones to flaunt their stuff.

Smart Alecks presents bank robber Butch Brocalli (the exquisitely-named Max Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom). Random new “East Side Kid” character Hank Salka is a part of Brocalli’s gang, and is sent to prison for his trouble. (Ah hah!, so that’s why Dell’s in this one! You can’t use the regular “East Side Kids” in such a way!) So Hank is shut away in the clink, allowing the cop to begin his association with the Kids. Beyond that, though, Hank’s story has hardly anything to do with the eventual plot, beyond time-filling. Oh that dastardly time!

Nonessential comic shenanigans: These are the best parts, as they have really nothing to do with the stifling formula. Today’s major set piece concerns the Kids systematically poisoning Brocalli with bad cake, which the man devours sans silverware with utmost gluttony.

Muggs and Danny have a falling out: This happens around half way through (of roughly 60 minutes), and it’s often the first point where the plotline really coalesces. It’s usually based on some misunderstanding, and provides the unwanted dramatic arc that’ll steal time away from delightful comic tomfoolery.

The falling out of Smart Alecks comes about in a roundabout turnabout. You see, it…it…it… Oh dangit, I’m gonna hafta skip ahead to the next formulaic element, and get back to this one!

The raising of cash (sport-of-the-day TBD): The raising of cash is a simple way to get the Kids dramatically involved. Of course, you can never depict ‘em working (that’d be against the premise and all), but still… Often, this cash is meant for some sport entry fee, or something, usually boxing. Today it is baseball – the money is intended to buy the whole gang fancy new uniforms, a non-essential little desire which somehow drives the plot.

So here’s how it goes down: Whilst aimlessly playing baseball at the film’s halfway point, Hank/Dell completely forgotten about, the East Side Kids confront Butch Brocalli by pure happenstance. Danny nabs the fat tub o’ lard, achieving Brocalli’s arrest. (And all this has nothing to do with the bank robbery stuff, except to assure us Brocalli is “bad.”)

As there was a $200 reward out on the baddie (does this sort of thing still happen today?), Danny gets the whole $200. That’s where the falling out comes from, as the other Kids feel they deserve 6/7ths of the “dough” or “misoula” or “simoleons” or whatever. (Thank goodness Scruno doesn’t insist upon 3/5ths of it!) So they steal that amount, get momentarily arrested (see image above of Scruno inappropriate jitterbugging), and so forth on. Danny wanted to buy those baseball uniforms, but now he cannot, and the other lads have instead used the $ to purchase that same jalopy which features in all these films.

And that is where things lie at the start of the Third Act.

The Third Act medical trauma: Peewee usually earns dire injury, which in turn earns the films the chance for melodramatic weeping – Why must all comedies revert into bad dramas at their conclusions?! This can often tie into the raising of cash – as it does today – but most often it’s a chance for the “Kids” to stretch their dramatic chops when they’d much rather be ad-libbing impromptu harmonica-based Heimlich maneuvers, or whatnot.

Anyway, rather in Smart Alecks it is Danny who earns a trip to the hospital, and potentially to Tartarus/Hades after that, for Brocalli has conveniently escaped from prison off screen, and used his newfound freedom to beat a child within an inch of his life. Then Brocalli is promptly forgotten about (for now). And Danny is in a bad way…he needs a brain transplant to live! WOW!

Hence the raising of cash – to afford noted brain technician Dr. Ormsby (Walter Woolf King, occasional Marx Bros. villain). On the Unearned Melodrama Front, Smart Alecks really distinguishes itself from its fellow East Side Kid movies by descending furthest into heart-plucking schmaltz. Muggs (Danny’s recent enemy, remember) breaks down and prays, Gorcey’s big Acting Moment. And let us ignore the over-obvious angelic strings on the soundtrack, for that is heavy-handed. Instead, Gorcey’s performance, as out-of-character as it is, earns some genuine emotion due to Muggs’ relative hesitancy/cynicism towards Our Lord. Gorcey even manages to work up some tears!

Ruth, as a nurse – which apparently implies medical knowledge on top of simply looking good – suggests the real solution to Danny’s health issues. The boys must simply be by his side! Oh yes, never mind the brain surgeon, we’re going the Christian Scientist route here! (I’ve seen this cheap-ass solution before, as it affords more emotion than an off screen brain tinkering ever could.)

Of course, Dr. Ormsby does his surgery anyway, free of charge what for that emotional-type reasoning, which is really why Danny is still alive at film’s end. So all is well.

The artless and chaotic fistfight: Except that the films, as they edge ever more into pulpy B-movie territory, demand the defeat of the obvious bad guys – Hays has something to say about this too. These battles are never choreographed, even in the old Hollywood sense of “choreography.” Rather, these are simply insane free-for-alls, visual chaos, which the East Side Kids always win. And thus Brocalli is defeated, and sent off to prison – where we assume this time he shan’t escape, lest the Third Act simply repeat itself ad nauseam with all the Kids on their death beds.

A final closing joke, oft flavored with the sour stink of racism: Scruno takes another one for the gang!...Well, occasionally. Here Muggs gets the gag, meaning it is not off-color. It involves the serial kissing of nurses, the ‘40s type, which is a cause I can definitely get behind! (This moment somehow predicts that famous nurse-sailor smooch that was World War II’s own final closing joke.)

This concludes Smart Alecks, possibly the most generic East Side Kids movie to date.

Related posts:
• No. 1 East Side Kids (1940)
• No. 2 Boys of the City (1940)
• No. 3 That Gang of Mine (1940)
• No. 4 Pride of the Bowery (1940)
• No. 5 Flying Wild (1941)
• No. 6 Bowery Blitzkrieg (1941)
• No. 7 Spooks Run Wild (1941)
• No. 8 Mr. Wise Guy (1942)
• No. 9 Let's Get Tough! (1942)
• No. 11 'Neath Brooklyn Bridge (1942)
• No. 12 Kid Dynamite (1942)
• No. 13 Clancy Street Boys (1943)
• No. 14 Ghosts on the Loose (1943)
• No. 16 Million Dollar Kid (1944)

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