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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Back To The Bowery

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 deliver.

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.


Anonymous East Side said...

Is the DVD of "Dead End" better than the dupe that's been floating around forever? Having seen that years ago on TV, I was stunned to see what good dramatic actors the Dead End kids were -- I think they were the only cast members from the stage version hired for the movie. I think it was a waste of their talent to wind up as human chimpanzees in the lowest of the low comedies.

9:59 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

It's been a good half-century since I saw a Bowery Boys movie, and God knows I shudder at what I'd think of them now, but I must admit I enjoyed them as a kid. And yes, it did seem like we were getting a new one every three months. Can't remember a frame of them now, though.

But what an eye-opener was that one-sheet for Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar! I'm sure "cornpone slopshoe" is an accurate description, but I wish I could get the chance to see it, for there on the poster are my old friends Homer and Jethro (born Henry D. Haynes and Kenneth C. Burns) -- two fine gentlemen who always found time to join our family's table after-show when they played club dates in Sacramento. Expert jazz musicians, too, when the spirit moved them to prove it. I'd sit through a lot of cornpone slop to see them in "gorgeous Eastman Color and Superscope."

And finally: You're right, John, that those old Republic serials never disappoint. A big reason for that (giving all due credit to Gene Autry, Roy Rogers et al.) was the work of those unsung heroes, special effects wizards Howard and Theodore Lydecker; what those boys could do on a ten-buck budget would make George Lucas and James Cameron hang their heads. (Howard went on to do the effects for, among others, Run Silent Run Deep, Sink the Bismarck! and Damn the Defiant!, three movies I loved growing up and was amazed to see his name on later, when I was old enough to recognize it.) An authoritative book on Ted and Howard's hundreds of credits is long overdue. Or has that been done?

12:55 AM  
Blogger Booksteve said...

I once strongly considered writing a book on the Bowery Boys but someone beat me to it.

Over time, I figured out that the attraction of their films is in the repetition.Like other series from Laurel and Hardy and Blondie to the Carry On films and even, say, Star Wars, one comes into each new installment with certain expectations and considers it a familiar treat when they are met and an unexpected pleasure when those expectations are turned upside down! The important thing is the sheer delight one takes in seeing old friends again no matter how creaky or sub-par the material itself might get.

1:14 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

BookSteve, I've really enjoyed your site about the final films of great stars ...

... and would strongly recommend it to Greenbriar readers.

East Side, the "Dead End" I watched was on the MGM/HD network, and it was fabulous.

Jim, I'd say the nearest thing to a book on the Lydeckers would be those incredible Republic volumes Jack Mathis wrote. And I would emphasize that the country acts in "Second Fiddle To A Steel Guitar" are indeed first-rate and I'm sure a boon to fans of these musical artists.

8:13 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

My Mother, now a less-than-spry eighty-eight, would be a good example of why the DEAD END KIDS were so popular.

Some time ago, she told me that when DEAD END first was released in 1937 (Mom was approaching her seventeenth birthday), that all of the kids she knew (in Santa Fe, N.M.) saw the movie. Actually all the kids saw almost all of the movies during that time. But the Monday after seeing the movie over the weekend, all of the girls gathered in the halls of the school building to "swoon" over those guys. They then began buying all of the fan mags to get photos of the KIDS. The girls all compared their notes and announced their favorite DEAD END KID.

It sounds exactly like the girls did in 1964 (when I was in Junior High school) when they all staked claim to their favorite BEATLE.

For the record, my Mother's favorite KID was Bobby Jordan.

1:18 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

Your Mom and her friends infatuation for the Dead End-kids is typical of the oddities that parents REALLY liked back in the day..I once found tons of Things my mom collected on very young Queen Elizabeth and sister Margaret!..While dad favored Doc Savage comics!(The Doc Savage movie had recently come out in the 70s and I didn't know it went back as far as my Dads day..a real revelation!)
I designed a Set for Sidney Kingsley's Play version of Dead End in the late 70s in college days ,that sadley never got off the ground, as everyone was so eager.The film was well remembered..but few knew it was a play first..

5:58 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Surprised to hear that girls had crushes on the Dead End Kids, but would Leo and Huntz have been as magnetic for mid-fifties teens going to see "Crashing Las Vegas"?

8:56 PM  
Anonymous Greg said...

I love the Bowery Boys because I loved them as a child. They were always on TV Saturday mornings in Chicago and although they might not be great films, I would still buy the collection if they come out on DVD. If only to see my old friends again!

11:48 PM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

Growing up near NYC, it seemed that there was always a Bowery Boys (I never heard them referred to another way until much later) movie on TV during Saturday and Sunday afternoons. I'm sure I logged hours watching them, but no particular titles or plots stuck in my brain--it was almost like watching one long, never-ending movie.

But they had their fans--certainly Steckler's "The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters" was made out of something like love.

Didn't Groucho marry Leo Gorcey's ex?

4:37 PM  
Blogger Neon Scribe said...

Believe it or not, Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar is available on DVD from Time Life Records. You can find it on Not for the plot or the acting, obviously, but due to that remarkable lineup of musicians.

5:09 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Eric: My first reaction was "You're kidding!" But by golly, you weren't. (Needless to say, I hadn't even bothered to check.) Thanks for the tip!

6:37 PM  
Blogger Adrian Browne said...

Dead End is on Hulu right now:

The sets and the photography are beautiful. The kids, as others here have pointed out, are great actors.

9:00 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

SECOND FIDDLE TO A STEEL GUITAR has a million dollars' worth of talent because it was produced by Hank Williams's widow, and the performers banded together on her behalf.

If you haven't seen it, it plays like a TV hour that has an extra half-hour tacked on. You get what LOOKS like the finale and the plot resolution, then a few more acts come on for a three more reels. Gorcey and Hall (in color, as "Leo and Huntz") improvise freely, and Hall must say "peasant" every four lines.

My wife and I asked star Arnold Stang how widely this circulated: Regionally? Nationally? "Where did it play?" Arnold said, in its inimitable voice: "Garage doors..."

12:16 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

Goldwyn was famous for the "look" and fastidiousness of his sets, which always had a sheen and polish to them. They say that every morning on the set of "Dead End" before they started shooting, he would quietly walk around, picking up the garbage the props dept had carefully-laid out and throw it away!

11:02 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...


Re: Today's banner of the remodeled theatre in the early Fifties.

Odd how many theatres were built in the mid-to-late Sixties looked just like that.

One of the theatres I managed certainly did.

9:29 AM  

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