All roads lead to the Dead End…
As I’ve written before, one of my regrets about Chain of Fools is that I overlooked a certain Hydra headed comedy franchise that went by many names in the mid twentieth century. It centered on a bunch of lovable juvenile delinquents with an-ever shifting line-up of personnel, operating under at least four different names over the years: Dead End Kids (1935-1939), Little Tough Guys (1938-1943), East Side Kids (1940-1945), and Bowery Boys (1946-1958), with a couple of competing franchises happening at the same time. Over the course of a quarter century the series evolved from cutting edge realism with roots in the live theatre of the day…to lowbrow comedy. In conception they became not unlike an older version of the Our Gang/ Little Rascals series; towards the end, Abbott and Costello and the Three Stooges were other major influences. They went from “A” pictures to “B” pictures, from an ensemble to a two-man comedy team. From rich drama to formulaic slapstick. The evolution of the team echoed the country’s, from the Great Depression, to World War Two, to post-war affluence and the Cold War.
THE DEAD END KIDS (1935-1939)
The beginning of the line was the 1935 Broadway play Dead End written and directed by Sidney Kingsley. Kingsley had gotten his start with the Group Theater two years earlier. His play Men in White (a realistic drama about doctors at a hospital) was their first hit, winning huge accolades for both him and the company. Dead End was an even bigger smash — the right play at the right time. Produced at the the height of the Great Depression, it told of a group of directionless, apparently hopeless poor New York City street kids, and some well meaning adults who try to help them. The play was a smash, running for two years, not just on the strength of its writing but also because of the novelty of the apparently authentic street toughs taking over a New York stage. The reality was that while the kids in the cast indeed did know something of poverty and the streets of New York, most of them had attended professional acting classes, worked in radio, or were second generation show biz. Thus, the best of both worlds: reality plus the discipline of craft. The kids included:
Billy Halop — second generation show biz, with four years of network radio experience
Bernard Punsly — one of the few with no stage experience, he auditioned on a lark
Gabriel Dell — attended New York’s Professional Children’s School and had some radio experience
Huntz Hall — he also attended the professional Children’s School and had radio experience
Leo Gorcey — was working as a plumber’s assistant when he came into the cast on his brother David’s suggestion, and got elevated to a much better part when another cast member, Charles Duncan dropped out. Leo Gorcey was the oldest of the group (18); the fact that he was of diminutive stature helped sell the illusion that he was younger
After two years of Broadway success, Dead End was made into a movie by Sam Goldwyn. The cast went with it. They were such a hit nationwide, that numerous sequels were made. If you’ve seen the film or read the play you know that it is a straight drama, and so are the first sequels. Sure the kids are funny, but in the context of being real, in real stories. If you only know the later incarnations of the team, it can be a little bit of an adjustment, watching the same ensemble supporting the top Hollywood stars of the day in (forgive me) REAL movies.
The pictures from this phase were:
Crime School (1938) with Humphrey Bogart
Hell’s Kitchen (1939) with Ronald Reagan
The Angels Wash Their Faces (1939) with Ronald Reagan
On Dress Parade (1939) — first time without a bigger star!
THE DEAD END KIDS AND LITTLE TOUGH GUYS (1938-1943)
Seasoned movie lovers will associate the names of those stars listed above with Warner Brothers, which is where most of the Dead End Kids’ early pictures were made. Almost immediately, Universal Studios also recognized the box office potential of the Dead End Kids. In 1938, Universal borrowed most of the bunch for a drama called Little Tough Guy. Then they followed this up with three features with a bunch of kids called “The Little Tough Guys”, none of whom were any of the Dead End Kids. Then in 1939, the studio brought back the Dead End Kids and mixed both groups up as the “Dead End Kids and Little Tough Guys” for a series of features and serials though 1943. Other kids joined at this stage, and for the remainder of the series there would be an endless amount of mixing and matching.
Now remember, this is Universal Studios. If Warner Brothers was famous for its crime stories, Universal was the home of monster movies, Abbott and Costello and late W.C. Fields. Thus we oughtn’t be surprised at an evolution that begins to take place. Three of the Little Tough Guy films featured Shemp Howard (of the Three Stooges) in the cast, whom Huntz Hall was to call “a major influence”. And the plots (especially in serials such as Junior G Men and Junior G Men of the Air) take a decided move away from realism. Still Universal was a major studio. There are still decades to go!
EAST SIDE KIDS (1940-1945)
At roughly the same time, low budget Monogram Pictures started their own franchise, starting with the film East Side Kids (1940), featuring two of the Little Tough Guys and a bunch of new boys. Members of the Dead End Kids drifted in shortly thereafter, as did none other than Ernie “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison of Our Gang, thus creating a continuity of sorts, as well as something new at the time — a racially integrated gang.
Now we are into different territory. These are definitely B movies now, done on low budgets, with formulaic and extravagant plots (although nothing like what was to come). Realism, the raison d’etre of Dead End, is out the window in favor of murder mysteries, spook comedies, and stories about Nazi spies. Starting mid-way through this series all sorts of portentious things happen. The Gorcey brothers’ father Bernard (whose best credit had been in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator) starts to play bit roles in the films (he’ll later be a key player in the ensemble). William Beaudine (a director with a solid history in silent and sound comedy shorts) becomes a frequent director of their films. And Huntz Hall, always a reliable laugh-getter, starts to inch his way to the front of the pack, with definite, all-too-apparent ambitions of being a comedy star. Billy Halop ,one of the strongest of the franchise, never made an East Side Kids film and he dropped out of the Dead End Kids in 1943. Bobby Jordan, another of the top kids, dropped out temporarily to serve in WWII. This strengthened Leo Gorcey’s hand to be undisputed leader of the team. Malapropisms (which had always been a comic feature of the series endemic to ALL the kids) became his domain entirely.
BOWERY BOYS (1946-1958)
In 1945 the East Side Kids folded when the series’ producer refused to double Leo Gorcey’s salary. A bunch of the team went back to Monogram with a pitch for a new series almost identical to the old, with the important difference that now Gorcey owned 40% of it, was one of the producers, a contributor to the scripts, and the undisputed star. The name of the series was changed to the Bowery Boys. Gorcey, formerly known as “Muggs”, is now “Slip Mahoney”. Huntz Hall is now his official sidekick and called “Sach” (rather than the previous “Glimpy”). While Bobby Jordan had returned to the team following the war, he found his part now much diminished, as was David Gorcey’s, and for the remainder of the series the so-called “Bowery Boys” really consisted of Gorcey and Hall as a comedy team, with 2, 3 or 4 other guys hovering around the background, getting to say perhaps 3 lines during the entire movie.
Already formulaic, the pictures now went into high formulaic gear. The films all start at Louie’s Sweet Shop, their hangout, with Louie played by Bernard Gorcey, now a regular cast member. Usually something will happen to Sach (he gets hit on the head, or gets an electric shock) which magically gives him a special skill (e.g., psychic powers) that lead to adventure. Another frequent plot device is a variation on the Mickey-and-Judy plot: the boys have to raise money to save Louie’s store. These are very much like sit-com plots, very much influenced by radio, and by the comedy shorts that had preceded them but Hollywood was no longer making. B movies had replaced shorts. There are 48 Bowery Boys movies. It’s really giving them a lot of credit to call them movies. They are more like episodes in a series. I think that is fair to say.
But wait! There was also this:
THE GAS HOUSE KIDS (1946-47)
Relax, it’s not the gas chamber kids. The kids aren’t that bad. The name refers to a New York neighborhood called the Gas House District, not unlike the East Side, the Bowery, Hell’s Kitchen, and so forth. There are those who refer to this series as a knock-off, but as with the other series we’ve talked about, there is talent overlap (just less of it), so I don’t see how it’s any different from any of the ones that came after the original Dead End Kids. Billy Halop, one of the main Dead End Kids, is in the first Gas House Kids movie, and the second film in the series was directed by frequent East Side Kids/ Bowery Boys director William Beaudine. Another member of the Gas House Kids was none other than Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer from Our Gang, creating the same kind of continuity we had when Sunshine Sammy was in the East Side Kids. There were three films in this series, which was produced by Producers Releasing Corporation, a step down even from Monogram, which is maybe why people are unkind to this little branch of the phenomenon.
THE END OF THE BOWERY BOYS
Bernard Gorcey died in 1956 in a car crash. Leo went on a serious drinking binge that effected his work and he was pressured to leave. By that stage he was 39 years old, stout around the middle, and frankly not much of a “boy”. Nor were his confreres. Yet Huntz Hall and David Gorcey managed to stick it out until 1958, and then, we finally get to the REAL “Dead End.”
Ironically, Leo Gorcey, the Little Napoleon of the Bowery Boys, was to be one of the least successful of the members of the team after the franchise ended. Too closely identified with his character, he scarcely worked at all. Most of the others worked fairly consistently as bit players and in dinner theatre and the like.
Ironically, the most successful member after leaving the group is one we have scarcely talked about: Gabriel Dell, who was there from the beginning and was in the group’s movies through 1950, decided to stay true to the origins of the franchise: realism and the Method. He studied at the Actor’s Studio, and was in a total of ten Broadway shows, and was nominated for a Tony for his role in the 1976 show Lampost Reunion. He had actual roles (as opposed to bit parts) in movies like Earthquake (1974) and The Escape Artist (1982). Interestingly (and amusingly) he was in a nightclub comedy team with Huntz Hall from 1950 through 1953, which BOTH their wives used as grounds for divorce.
Another interesting side note. Billy Halop, one of the main kids, went on to play Munson on All in the Family:
It’s interesting that the franchise broke up just when the juvenile delinquency films of the 50s were at their height. But of course by this stage, the so-called Bowery Boys were old enough to have teenage sons of their own. Technically, some of them were old to be grandfathers in 1958. Also, the juvenile delinquency films of the 50s were about actual juvenile delinquency. The plots may have been melodramatic but they didn’t feature any silliness like swamis, Russian spies or ghosts and vampires. But…really, that can’t have been a dealbreaker back then.
And yet I can’t help noticing that at the very same time the Bowery Boys petered out, some of the top theatrical artists in the country were creating an undisputed MASTERPIECE out of the juvenile delinquency genre. It looked like this:
And then there was the fact that America was changing. By 1960, the demographics of the nation had changed dramatically. Many of the people who had grown up in the tenements and the slums of New York City had made good and moved out to the suburbs. And the population center of the U.S. moved west. It seems to me that the teenager friendly formula of the Bowery Boys, tweaked a little for greater affluence, and moved west, might look something like…a beach party film. Of course the heroes of the beach party movies (roughly 1963-1966) are now “good, clean” kids (although still with too much free time on their hands) and the rougher, tougher guys, the bikers are the bad guys. But it occurs to me that this idea isn’t too far distant in conception than Louie’s Sweet Shop:
But not everybody joined the middle class. There were (and are) still urban poor. Could an idea like the Bowery Boys still work in the post 60s era? Huntz Hall thought so. As late as the 1970s he was floating an idea for a series he called “The Ghetto Boys”. If he was referring to a black ghetto, it’d be kind of ill-advised to have him be the one to front it. But there was interesting precedent for such a series.
HARLEM TUFF KIDS (1939, 1942)
In 1939 an outfit called Million Dollar Productions released the race movie industry’s answer to Dead End. Entitled Reform School a.k.a Prison Bait it featured Louise Beavers as a matron of a juvie hall, with a gang of tough kids that included Eugene Jackson (a veteran of the Our Gang series as Farina’s older brother Pineapple), as well as Freddie Jackson (no relation), Eddie Lynn and Deforest Covan. These kids returned for Take My Life (1942). Only in the second picture were they dubbed the Harlem Tuff Kids.
But three and four decades later? Not only do I think it COULD work, but it DID work. It was called Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (1972-1985). Like the Dead End End Kids, the Cosby Kids were poor (they hung out in a junkyard) and maybe streetwise, but basically good at heart. Didn’t Huntz Hall watch Saturday morning cartoons? The Ghetto Boys had already been done!
In the context of Dead End, I can’t help thinking of yet another African American series of the 70s that made an almost identical descent from initial high minded motives and an aesthetic of realism…to buffoonery. That show was Good Times (1974-1979). The show ostensibly had a mission to talk about life in Chicago Housing Projects. It rapidly became a forum for Jimmy “J.J.” Walker to play a stereotype character the likes of which the country has not seen since Amos ‘n’ Andy. And look! He’s wearing Leo Gorcey’s hat!
What about since then? Any attempts to revive a similar franchise since the 1980s? No. Think that through. A tv or film series in which our heroes are a bunch of poor people? Are you kidding? But the lack of sympathy for the poor in American media since the Reagan years is the subject for another post.
For more on comedy film history see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.