Sunday, December 5, 2010

East Side Kids, No. 12 - Kid Dynamite (1943)

Formula is not bad. It is essential, if one is to consider sequels as a genre. Pleasure comes from recognizing patterns, and identifying variations within that pattern. It frees audiences up from the need to focus on plot, emphasizing rather style. Every franchise over time will develop its own formula, which becomes a self-contained rule set governing that film’s effectiveness. Consider the specific things an audience expects from, say, a James Bond movie that they wouldn’t demand of a one-off spy picture.

The East Side Kids formula is already well established at this point, and any attempts to do something with it have proved less-than-compelling. It seems the filmmakers have been hesitant to embrace what their movies do well – ad-libbed comic nonsense from their effortlessly entertaining leads. This is better than focusing on tricky elements like plot and melodrama, things which just do not work too well in an East Side Kids picture. Well, Kid Dynamite is another turning point for the series, for while it is perhaps the most formulaic yet (an amazing achievement), it is also easily the best yet (an amazing achievement)! This is what happens when the “East Side Kids” are let to roam free!

Okay, a couple of new kids to mention first – shoring up potential future WWII draft losses. In the new role of “kid in the background adding little” is Benny Bartlett (as Benny “Beanie” Miller). Also David Durand (as Joe “Skinny” Collins). Former newbie Stanley Clements, for all the big brouhaha I made of him previously, is already gone, never to be seen again (until Ghosts on the Loose).

Kid Dynamite expresses its generic nature right off the bat, as for the fourth time (or so) Muggs McGinnis (Leo Gorcey) is nursing a boxing obsession. Hey, ya work with what ya got! Even now, though, things are better, as Muggs’ eternal comic foil Glimpy (Huntz Hall) is manager, allowing plenty of back-and-forth. As in every “Muggs boxes” storyline, there is a big cash prize tournament coming up. We’ve seen this scenario so many times now, there is no need to complicate matters – just get out of the actors’ way, let things develop.

Expectedly, for a seasoned “East Sider” (I assume that’s a decent enough fan descriptor), the mob takes an interest in Muggs’ fight. Specifically, nogoodnik Harry Wycoff (career nogoodnik Gabriel Dell) wishes to fix the fight Muggs will almost certainly win – by forcefully kidnapping him! This’ll be easy enough to do, see, since Harry is a regular semi-pal of the East Side Kids down at the pool hall, where we see the gang pool sharking with the worst of them for reasons having nothing to do with story, and everything to do with the fact that it’s fun to see the East Side Kids mess around a pool hall for no reason beyond the sheer joy of it.

So Harry mugs Muggs. At the boxing arena, Glimpy is informed the East Side – the entire East Side – shall forfeit all its boxing glory in perpetuity if they cannot field a substitute for Muggs. Up steps Danny Lyons (Bobby Jordan, the troupe’s every-“Kid”), himself a former boxer, though suspected to be not a whit as skilled as Muggs.

Danny takes to the ring to face Harry Johnson (worst – porn – name – ever) – and the town’s assorted criminal element rides on Johnson, as it were. The fight is off!, and if you see enough films of the ‘40s you learn to love the boxing movie. This was practically a genre at the time, with a studied film grammar one only now sees in assorted Rocky sequels. And the smoky, B&W lairs of the ‘40s add the perfect visual touch.

This is how Kid Dynamite handles things. The the boxing match is another chance for isolated entertainment – which is genuinely entertaining. Credit here partly to regular director Wallace Fox. And for a while we are concerned that Danny is badly losing the match…that is, until some of his fellow East Side Kids make some sort of comment concerning Muggs. This spurs Danny into action, and he easily whacks Johnson! Victory is ours – quite early!

The mobsters have lost, Harry’s (Wycoff, not Johnson, O ye uncreative namers) tipoff a rip-off. In a normal East Side Kids film, this’d be the start of an extended, muddled conflict between the baddies and the East Side Kids, told with the usual Monogram gracelessness when it comes to plotting and exposition. Ah hah, but not Kid Dynamite! The mob is promptly forgotten about entirely, thank you thank you, for the boxing match has achieved a different end – it has sown the seeds for legitimate drama.

Now…I am the first to bemoan the East Side Kids’ occasional slide into melodrama, but that’s not the case here – indeed, this is genuine drama. Muggs is released, and quickly upset that Danny won the match he was supposed to win – Muggs suspects Danny of rigging it, not Harry (Wycoff). This is a thread they’ve tackled before – conflict between Muggs and Danny – but here this character relationship gets its fullest exploration, dictating the rest of the tale. And with incidents being mostly isolated from here on out (there is little evident plotline, but plenty of great independent scenes), this is the perfect chance to play Muggs and Danny off each other for all it’s worth.

Okay, so there’s one formula element I haven’t mentioned yet: the romance. As usual, a Kid’s older sister is one half of that arrangement, this time being Muggs’ sibling Ivy (Pamela Blake, getting all the good genes in that family)…Wait, Muggs’ sister?! Ain’t it normally Danny’s?! You see, that’s because the male half of today’s coupling is Danny himself – this being a rare moment where the series treats its leads as the full-grown adults they actually are, rather than juvenile delinquent “Kids.” This is very welcome, for it gets rid of the bland romantic hero who takes attention away from the “East Side Kids,” and makes the romance important for once. For indeed, Muggs is none too thrilled about Danny’s horndoggish gambits. Let the conflicts commence!, with Glimpy moderating on the sidelines.

Danny is ostracized from the “club,” that being how the East Side Kids self-refer at this stage. Forbidden from his preferred lifestyle of idle loitering, Danny actually goes and gets a job – Hey now! It turns out this is a job Muggs had always wanted – ah, more conflict! The dramatic stakes become apparent, how Muggs’ whole existence is an attempt to constantly one-up Danny, much as Gorcey had done to Jordan in real life. “I can still beat Danny! I’ve been beating him all my life.” Anything Danny now does will seem like a challenge, and the spiral of rage can continue unabated.

Before I go on, I guess there is some final mention of the mobster storyline. Because Hays demands all on-screen villains be punished on-screen, the film takes a minor detour to punish these villains (on-screen). With absolutely zero effort or convolution or distracting pointlessness, the cops simply pick up all the hoods, take ‘em to court, and sentences are handed out. That was easy! Makes ya wonder why ‘Neath Brooklyn Bridge was so herky-jerky. Of note, the East Side Kids are also hauled into court, this marking surprisingly the first time we’ve seen this (…no, wait, I forget, there was Little Tough Guy, that awful movie)! They earn no sentences, so the whole point of this was simply to keep the “East Side Kids” on screen at all costs. That’s the spirit!

Okay, back to business, all important business. That being…

A jitterbugging contest! Say wha’?! Oh yeah, two thirds through Kid Dynamite, and one can be excused for wondering just where this movie is headed (provided one hasn’t sensed the Danny/Muggs predicament). Of course, ‘tis a contest, and thus a venue for more one-upmanship twixt the heroes (oh just kiss already!). But first –

Well, we’ve got this dance hall set, and a band present by necessity. Let’s take advantage of that, and toss in a big, purposeless musical number! Normally I am not one to embrace the musical genre’s stop-start pattern, especially when so many songs are as dated as most pre-Elvis music. Somehow Kid Dynamite has the key to making such a potentially-intrusive detour good, even as it involves no “East Side Kids.” For the film has been leisurely enough to begin with, so this seems less a distraction than simply a different way of entertaining us briefly. And the song is entertaining, “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” as wildly conveyed by Mike Riley’s Orchestra and Marion Miller. None of that usual “stand awkwardly while singing a slow song” nonsense for these guys, it’s all big band goodness!

I really like this movie!

Now that a crazy, energetic musical number is over, we can get on with –

Another crazy, energetic musical number! This is the big jitterbugging contest we’ve suddenly been thrust into, a chance for basically all the “East Side Kids” to strut their stuff at physical comedy, flailing their bizarre bodies like the screwballs they are (especially Glimpy). Somehow, only Scruno (Ernie Morrison) is denied the dance floor, odd since he’s regularly shown himself to be the troupe’s best dancer – maybe they didn’t want him showing up Gorcey or Jordan. Rather, Scruno is relegated to acting as a soda jerk, alongside Dudley Dickerson, a black actor offered the rare 1940s opportunity to act like a normal, non-stereotyped human being – Let’s Get Tough! aside, the East Side Kids have often been surprisingly forward-thinking in their depiction of race (see That Gang of Mine for an example).

Audience sufficiently entertained, the jitterbugging contest boils down to its two predictable finalists – Muggs and Danny. Only Muggs sees this as a personal vendetta, so he puts in that extra needed effort to win. That is, until the judges discover his partner is a professional dancer – Oh shock and perfidy, the rascal! Zounds! (This is the ‘40s equivalent of “taking steroids.”) Instead Danny (and Ivy) win, Muggs’ ire exacerbates, and an adult is allowed a rather funny one-liner: “Will you please stop butting in while I’m interrupting.”

Ostracized even further than before, what’s Danny to do? If you’ve picked up on the agreeable tempo of Kid Dynamite, the answer is another narrative non sequitur. At the final stage, the movie takes on a degree of WWII-appropriate patriotism, thankfully without an iota of xenophobia. Danny is told of a “new gang,” one he plans to join – the U.S. Army. To some this would seem needlessly propagandistic. Still, it makes perfect dramatic sense for Danny – the desire to kill all Hitlers is just another part of his strange battle with Muggs. (Also, the Bill of Rights is discussed at length here, with 100% more accuracy than its consideration in Let’s Get Tough! Damn that entry!)

Danny is becoming a man, in the non-Jewish sense, moving away from Muggs’ delinquent tendencies and taking his naturally responsible place in society. Muggs, meanwhile, is just getting worse, bossing around his fellow East Side Kids with an admission that bossing people around is his hobby. Danny’s endless success is really grating on ol’ Muggs McGinnis – and that’s even before he catches wind of Danny’s enlistment. Oh man, does the s%@# ever hit the fan then!

Not to mention Danny has just proposed to Ivy, becoming Muggs’ future brother-in-law. This leads very understandably to more Muggs-on-Danny verbal abuse – and I realize none of this sounds humorous in writing, so ‘tis a testament to the actors’ comic skills that it is. But there is one odd line of dialogue whose humor is surely unintentional. Quoth Muggs: “I always said, if you wanted my sister, you’d have to lick me first.” My mind is a filthy mind.

My own childish snickering aside, this means Muggs is rarin’ for a fight, to prove his mettle against Danny in the field where they first schismed – fist fighting! One series premise is the Muggs-Danny relationship, meaning it can never truly resolve, but this is a pretty good narrative climax. You need snapback at the end; all must return to normal.

It is a universal truth about being a guy that a single well-aimed punch can resolve heaping piles of festering anger. And so Muggs punches Danny in the face, and like that they’re instantly the bestest of buds again. But it isn’t unrealistic, not a bit, as I’ve experienced this very arc myself. (Besides, the jerk was asking for it.) Ah, being a guy is so easy!

In retrospect, there’s a lot more plot in Kid Dynamite than first appears, courtesy of Muggs’ dramatic arc. The odd thing is, it never once plays like a drama, simply a comedy with some very strong character underpinnings. These moments are entirely in-character, making the conflict seem natural not just within Kid Dynamite, but in the context of the franchise as a whole. This is the logical extreme of the East Side Kids so far, cashing in all the formula and actor rapport into its purest and best form. With all of this, Kid Dynamite is wholly amusing first and foremost, like a more heartfelt “Simpsons” episode. The sentiment is pure and good, but the gags remain at the center.

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. 10 Smart Alecks (1942)
• No. 11 'Neath Brooklyn Bridge (1942)
• No. 13 Clancy Street Boys (1943)
• No. 14 Ghosts on the Loose (1943)
• No. 16 Million Dollar Kid (1944)

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