But for a thing called High-Definition, I might never have gotten around to watching two that had so far slipped my radar, Dead End and The Young Savages. Turns out these are like buttons and bows for being an ideal tandem bill and barometers of juve delinquency as viewed by Hollywood. To have been a Bogart completist and skipped Dead End for this many years seems odd. Was it my antipathy towards The Dead End Kids/Bowery Boys/whatever? I’d ducked them growing up for being obnoxious in that threadbare way that made The Three Stooges anathema, having condescended but to a pair they’d done with Bela Lugosi that I watched purely for him. Maybe their shtick was too urban-based, Northern-centric if you please, for a child of such outer provinces as myself. Anyway, Dead End is distinctly something else, a class drama that doubtlessly made 1937 folk feel they were seeing real life and problems along mean streets as (presumably) existed then. It’s not canned theatre in spite of stage-derived origin, for William Wyler was too capable to betray that. You get a sensation here of sharing the experience with first-nighters for whom this was a shocking blast of social reality, even as we find it quaint and altogether removed from present circumstances. If "bad" kids were no worse than Dead Enders here, we’d have ourselves a modern utopia, for hope sprang eternal in both Dead End and The Young Savages that any boy can be reached given positive influence or kind offices of a big sister (or Mom) who cares. Was the opposing reality too harsh for moviegoers to contemplate? Hollywood’s depiction of thoroughly rotten teens would wait until the fifties, but even then it was limited to isolated bad apples among bushels otherwise salvageable. Dead End kids were mostly about street patter, batting each other around, and stirring mischief we could only wish were the extent of latter-day misbehavior on the part of wayward youngsters. They beat up a rich kid who impliedly has it coming simply for being privileged, an irksome device that rearranged my sympathies and left me hopeful they’d be brought to book for it. The idea of bad neighborhoods as cradles of crime excuses bad acts on the kid’s parts, so to buy into the drama, you’ll need to share the social attitudes behind it. Best perhaps to focus on elements more ancillary at the time, such as remarkable thesping by Humphrey Bogart in one of those isolated (really) good parts he had in an otherwise barren 1930’s when most of his screen gangsters were no more nuanced than budget western heavies. The business of Bogart’s Baby Face Martin as tutor in ways of crime was frowned upon by Code supervisors, and indeed was the ball Warners ran with the following year when they essentially took the best of Dead End and turned it into Angels With Dirty Faces. Bogart was here a variation on his previous year breakout of The Petrified Forest with further embellishment on sympathetic outlawry, which remained his stock-in (better roles) trade right through High Sierra. That one was long awaited reward and transition to (more or less) a right side of the law. Did producers spend those five or so initial Warner contract years thinking he could play nothing but bad men? Obviously so, as internal memos reveal efforts to widen Bogart’s range and disappointment over his seeming inability to manage same.
What’s a Dead End Kid as opposed to an East Side Kid alongside a Little Tough Guy? Post-graduate level fans know. I’ve spent near a lifetime floundering over permutations of a series that lasted seeming longest of any feature group with more or less ongoing cast members. Did I mention the Bowery Boys? They were later. We’ll assume Monogram (later Allied Artists) did about a thousand of these and leave it at that. Warners owns an indeterminate number and wants to release some on DVD, despite negatives long junked and even collectors (that last resort all studios must eventually plead to) unable to supply missing links (there may be more interest in Mr. Hex’s restoration than that of a complete Magnificent Ambersons!). Further digging into exhibition life makes me admire all the more sheer brilliance behind these programmers (and they were surely that --- playing low end on duallers and singly but in small bergs and action houses). Dead End/East Side/ Bowery Boys were inspired amalgams of comedy plus youth/action. Fists and quips flew for six reels with nary a demand upon viewers beyond showing up and dumbing down. They were sure money a debased Hollywood earned best, for so long as budgets stayed rigid, you could blow creative impulse to the wind and avoid penalty for serving lowest brows among patronage. Dead Enders (let’s call them that for simplicity) were ideal for serials. Those plus an Axis threat were Heaven sent. I’ve watched 1942’s Junior G-Men Of The Air over the last several weeks. No, it isn’t good and you’re better watching something (almost anything!) else, but such backwash draws me like honeysuckle to bees and what’s twelve chapters fed into a psyche benumbed by chapter-plays even worse? Junior G-Men Of The Air (there were several --- the first a mere Junior G-Men serial of two years before) was inspiration for kids everywhere to ferret out possible fifth columnists in their own backyards. Were such networks indeed operating on local street corners? There’s nary an eyebrow raised when Billy Halop and his gang (not a criminal or particularly anti-social one) discover Japanese spies acting at the behest of lightly slant-eyed Lionel Atwill, his crisp diction given over but tentatively to Oriental inflection. Dog heavies make glancing gestures toward Nippon appearance, as if instructions from chapter-to-chapter (and revolving co-directors) were random at best and received with indifference at most. Universal did serials like most people put out a cat. You want them gone before they smell up the house. I’ll risk coming off an utter imbecile and say Junior G-Men Of The Air actually insulted my intelligence, something Republic serials seldom did and reason enough why fans to a boy prefer them today.
I’d characterize Universal chapter-plays as indifferent. Also repetitive (grindingly so), unimaginative, and given to dulsatory special fx. Junior G-Men are constantly in and out of the same abandoned warehouse and hopping rides on back of (again the same) truck effecting escapes from endlessly duplicated scenes of perfunctory crime. Serial loyalty entailed sacrifice when they were Universal ones. Our Liberty and Allen Theatres had a product split and cliffhanger spoils were divided so that all Republic output went the former’s way, leaving a depreciated Allen the scraps of Universal, Columbia, and whatever independents were issuing (or reissuing). Junior G-Men Of The Air at the Allen went head-to-head on our Main Street against the likes of Spy Smasher and Perils Of Nyoka offered by the Liberty. I should think the victor would have been a foregone conclusion, but who really knows how preferences ran among serial fans in 1942? Immediacy and thus greater tension were advantages a Junior G-Men Of The Air had with a war just underway. Atwill and minions are in fact preparing throughout its twelve chapters for an invasion they’ll launch December 7, a plot device sufficiently compelling as to mitigate sloppy execution otherwise. The wing pin made of etched brass shown here was exhibition’s giveaway and an invitation for kids too young for enlistment to engage the enemy weekly and feel themselves part of a struggle unfolding on the greater world stage. That alone lent urgency to Junior G-Men Of The Air we’ll not know for missing 1942’s initial run, making it seem almost churlish to point up weaknesses so many years after. Maybe Universal understood the ephemeral nature of its serials too well by 1956 when it sold outright all those chapter-plays not reverting to comic publishers (such as Jungle Jim and Flash Gordon). Revenue realized after federal taxes at the long-term capital gain rate was just over a million, boosting reported studio earnings that helped disguise profits diminished from 1955. Universal serials had played television from the early fifties and were figured to have little if any value beyond that. Most fell into the public domain and became available on duped 16 and 8mm when Thunderbird Films began releasing them to collectors in the early seventies. VCI maintains said policy with DVD’s mastered from hardy 16mm survivors of early syndication days, and its release of Junior G-Men Of The Air is actually pretty good for a serial we’re never likely to see truly restored.
Internal friction and rivalries among Dead Enders could fill volumes if not provide content for its own series of melodramatic programmers. These boys did not pal around. Many (most?) graduated from Bowery mirth-making to plain mean drunkenness as careers skidded toward bits and forced retirement. They were funny/goofy/geeky in appearance and stayed pretty much that way to the last, coarsened by ravages of intemperance but otherwise unchanged and forever resistant to what life’s lessons taught others. Billy Halop admitted to lack of esprit de corps among Dead End membership, citing his own better billing and money as basis for smoldering on-set jealousies. Respective agents hustled favored positioning for individual boys much as stage mothers sought dominant turf for Our Gangers over at Roach and MGM. Dead End reunions would likely have ended in as many bar fights, old resentments being a match struck often in latter memoirs and interviews. Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall ended up driving their Bowery jalopy the furthest. Monogram and successor Allied Artists ran its series to an astounding 1958, long after most "B" groups went off the chart. A man could go proud producing these. Ben Schwalb kicked around town thirty years before securing a Bowery berth, as sure a lock on steady income as an uncertain industry allowed. Schwalb called it a peculiar chemistry. I guess it’s that the public likes the boys and that the format has been continually changed so that the series is kept interesting and different. Schwalb and AA’s chemistry was indeed applied science, all exploitation angles … deliberate and planned, he said, not accidental. By the fifties, four Bowerys per year came surely as changing seasons even as Schwalb’s notion of comedy constructs remained unaltered: It seems like the physical things, like a man bumping a nose on a door, is the best yock getter. Ben preferred what he called hurt gags. So did the Bowery Boy’s public. They kept running beyond the series’ finish as small theatres continued booking oldies into the sixties. Dead End influence permeated even mainstream and presumed serious treatments of juvenile crime. 1961’s The Young Savages took cues from neighboring smash West Side Story, but prevailing examples for its street toughs were more Slip and Sach than authentic delinquents filling 60’s police blotters. D.A. Burt Lancaster’s suspect list amounts to vaudeville turns by varied ethnic youth parading eccentric if not comic "personalities" no different from ones that originated with Dead End’s cast back in 1937. In fact, the latter come off as more authentic than Method exertions of The Young Savages, whatever its ambitions toward hard-hitting realism. Veterans Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall were meanwhile game for an encore, but who’d have dreamed they’d turn up in a cornpone slopshoe like Second Fiddle To A Steel Guitar? This 1966 compilation of hillbilly music acts was manna to drive-inners here in Greenbriar country (and invariably the supporting feature would be something like Red River or Horror Of Dracula!). I’d venture Second Fiddle got more North Carolina dates than Doctor Zhivago. Leo and Huntz act as in-betweeners for solid performing talent, first as inept paperhangers (well, it was good enough for Bobby Ray and Babe Hardy back in the twenties), then back and forth/in and out of a mummy case, these routines seemingly improvised on the go by Gorcey and Hall. Attendees to Second Fiddle To A Steel Guitar probably wished the boys would get back to full-time foolery. Indeed, but for encroachments of age and market realities, The Bowery Boys might just have gone on forever.