The Bowery Boys: Anything But Routine

One of my treasured childhood television memories involved spending Saturday afternoons watching The Bowery Boys—moviedom’s oldest juvenile delinquents—cavort in their cinematic escapades over Chicago superstition WGN. Leo Gorcey (as Terence Aloysius “Slip” Mahoney) and his sidekick Huntz Hall (as Horace DeBussy “Sach” Jones) would find themselves in various slapstick adventures along the rest of their gang in a series of B-pictures cranked out by Poverty Row king Monogram Studios from 1946 to 1958.

The Bowery Boys’ world was filled with soda shops and get-rich-quick schemes; of fighters, crooked businessmen and gangsters (a Bowery Boys movie without racketeers was like a Tarzan film without the jungle); of ghosts, monsters and evil scientists (which they soundly defeated by telegraphing their choreographed fight maneuvers: “Routine Nine!”). The films reveled in low comedy and slapstick shenanigans, and today…well, I’d be hard pressed to think of any sort of redeeming social value present in the films. Yet they mesmerize me with a definite siren song of nostalgia whenever I come across them on Turner Classic Movies…or watch any entry from the two volumes now available from the Warner Archive.

In the beginning, the boys were known as “The Dead End Kids.” Six young juvenile actors—Gorcey, Hall, Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Gabriel Dell and Bernard Punsly—played the titular street urchins in the stage production of Dead End, a play written by Sydney Kingsley about the conflict between the have and have-nots in New York’s tenement slums. The success of the play, which opened on October 28, 1935 and ran for two years (a total of 684 performances), attracted the attention of director William Wyler and producer Samuel Goldwyn, who bought the rights to Kingsley’s creation for 65,000. The two men ended up hiring the six kids to reprise their stage roles in the film adaptation (scripted by Lillian Hellman) when a casting call yielded no suitable young actors to play the roles; subsequently the six boys were signed to two-year contracts…in anticipation of future films.

The film version of Dead End (1937) was every bit as successful as the play. With a cast that included Joel McCrea, Sylvia Sidney, Humphrey Bogart, Wendy Barrie and Claire Trevor, Dead End was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress (Trevor). As for the Dead End Kids…there would be no future for them with Sam Goldwyn. Their off-screen antics—which included swiping a truck that they wound up crashing into a soundstage—led to their contract being sold to Warner Brothers. Warners wanted to rename them “The Crime School Kids,” in anticipation of their upcoming roles in a 1937 film called Crime School (which actually was released in 1938, reteaming them with Dead End co-star Bogie) but everyone continued to call them The Dead End Kids, and the nickname stuck.

The kids’ second picture, Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), was a first-rate crime melodrama that starred James Cagney and Pat O’Brien as old friends who as kids were on the road to delinquency—Cagney’s Rocky Sullivan was captured by the cops and became a notorious racketeer; O’Brien escaped and as Father Jerry Connolly, reformed and became a priest. Sullivan returns to his old neighborhood and soon earns the admiration of respect of the street punks in the neighborhood (you know who) while tangling with a pair of gangsters played by Bogart and George Bancroft. When Bancroft and Bogie plan to snuff out Father Pat because of his anti-crime crusade, Cagney rubs both of them out first and upon being captured by the police is asked by Padre Pat to turn “yellow” as they make Jimmy walk the last mile. (For the kids, you see.) Angels with Dirty Faces also cleaned up at the box office and garnered three Academy Award nominations (including Best Actor [Cagney] and Best Director [Michael Curtiz]).

(The Dead End Kids)

Despite their success in Dead End and Angels, the Dead End Kids would soon be introduced to their future home in B-movies. As previously mentioned, they appeared with Bogart in Crime School, and would later work in programmers with John Garfield (They Made Me a Criminal) and Ronald Reagan (The Angels Wash Their Faces, Hell’s Kitchen). Their careers at Warner’s would be short-lived; the kids continued their familiar shenanigans, behaving like hellions on the lot when not expected to work, and the studio felt they just weren’t worth the trouble. In 1939 after their final WB film. On Dress Parade, they were released from their contracts.

Some members of The Dead End Kids—notably Halop, Hall, Dell and Punsly—wound up at Universal, where that studio tried to start their own juvenile delinquent movie series entitled “The Little Tough Guys.” Universal featured that group in vehicles like You’re Not So Tough (1940) and Hit the Road (1941), and also produced three cliffhanger serials centered on the kids, notably Junior G-Men (1940) and the 1942 sequel, Junior G-Men of the Air. The Little Tough Guys would be a mainstay at Universal until 1943, when their final film, Keep ‘Em Slugging, was released.

Over at Monogram, producer Sam Katzman created “The East Side Kids”—first introduced in a movie with that same title in 1940 (but not featuring any of the original six Dead Enders). Katzman was able to obtain the services of the Brothers Gorcey (Leo and his sibling David) and Bobby Jordan for his subsequent East Side Kids series, and they were joined by former Our Gang member Ernie “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison. Huntz Hall and Gabriel Dell started making appearances in these films even while they were still working for Universal, finally completing the transition when that studio folded up its Little Tough Guys tent.

The East Side Kids movies were mostly crime melodramas in the Warner Brothers mold, though the films occasionally contained moments of levity…and entries like Ghosts on the Loose (1943) and Clancy Street Boys (1943) went for all-out comedy. There was a great deal of turnover in the membership of the gang at this time; while Gorcey and Jordan were primarily the anchors of the East Side Kids, other important juvenile thespians to appear in the vehicles (since they later turned up in the Bowery Boys films) include Bennie Bartlett, Stanley Clements, William “Billy” Benedict and Buddy Gorman.

(The Little Tough Guys)

Leo Gorcey, who starred in many of the East Side Kids films as gang leader Ethelbert “Muggs” McGinnis, got involved in a salary dispute with “Jungle Sam” Katzman in 1945—he asked for more money, and quit the series when his request was thumbed down. Leo then got together with Huntz Hall and Bobby Jordan’s agent, Jan Grippo, to form a company (Jan Grippo Productions) that revamped the East Side Kids format and rechristened the series “The Bowery Boys” (or “Leo Gorcey and the Bowery Boys,” as it was often credited in the titles of the early movies). As “Slip” Mahoney, Gorcey was the leader of a gang of delinquents rapidly approaching decrepitude (it would have been more accurate to call them “The Bowery Codgers”); Hall was his lieutenant, “Sach” Jones, and the other members of the gang included Jordan, David “Chuck” Gorcey and Billy “Whitey” Benedict. Gabriel Dell would appear in many of the Bowery Boys vehicles, but his role in the series fluctuated back-and-forth from being an actual member of the gang (as in Hard Boiled Mahoney) to an adult friend (usually named Gabe Moreno) who had a real job, depending on the plot of each film.

Leo Gorcey’s father, Bernard Gorcey, also started making regular appearances in the Bowery Boys films. He had appeared in some of the earlier East Side Kids entries, but his role in the Bowery Boys eventually featured him as scene-stealing Louie Dumbrowski—the proprietor of the soda shop in which the gang hung out. The films would often start with Slip, Sach and the others lollygagging around Louie’s until the plot unfolded: then they would be up to their necks in trouble with gangsters and other bad guys (Live Wires, Bowery Bombshell). Many of the Boys’ films would feature a plot point involving Sach obtaining some sort of otherworldly power (a terrific crooning voice in Blues Busters, phenomenal wrestling skills in No Holds Barred). The movies made a noticeable transition from the stark social drama of Dead End and Angels with Dirty Faces to out-and-out comedy with amusing entries like Hold That Baby! (1949) and Let’s Go Navy! (1951). There were also entries with a slight supernatural bent, notably Master Minds (1949—a scientist wants to put Huntz Hall’s brain in his creation) and Ghost Chasers (1951—a real ghost helps the boys round up phony spiritualists).

From the get-go, Leo Gorcey placed himself in the forefront of the movies as the gang’s malaprop-prone leader, with Huntz Hall as his dimwitted sidekick. (Gorcey owned forty percent of the company, so that’s to be expected.) This arrangement didn’t sit too well with Jordan, who left the group after Bowery Buckaroos (1947), and Gabriel Dell experience similar dissatisfaction, bailing out in 1950 after Blues Busters. (The dominance of Gorcey and Hall is the reason why Ernie Morrison declined to participate in the Bowery Boys despite his popularity in the preceding East Side Kids films.) Audiences rarely seemed to notice when supporting players would be replaced (most of the other actors like David Gorcey, Buddy Gorman and Bennie Bartlett seemed to just stand around in order to remind people that Leo had a gang) because Gorcey and Hall functioned essentially as a streetwise Abbott & Costello.

(The East Side Kids)

The homage to comedy teams would become more pronounced in the Bowery Boys features once director-writer Edward Bernds began work at Monogram (which would soon become Allied Artists). Bernds, who had made a name for himself at Columbia as the writer-director of two-reel comedies featuring that studio’s bread-and-butter The Three Stooges, left Columbia in 1952 out of loyalty to his boss Hugh McCollum (who had been ousted in an office politics coup). With fellow writer Elwood Ullman, Bernds started to refashion The Bowery Boys with a great deal of Three Stooges-like wordplay and slapstick, and the result was some of the funniest films in the series.

Entries like Clipped Wings (1953) and Private Eyes (1953) are larded with physical comedy and laughs, and The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters (1954), a horror comedy featuring character actors like John Dehner and Ellen Corby, would become the biggest box-office hit in the franchise. (Bernds and Ullman even received an Academy Award nomination for Best Story in 1955’s High Society—though the reason for this was that it was mistaken for the 1956 Bing Crosby-Frank Sinatra musical of the same name.)

The Bowery Boys series continued to sell movie tickets ten years after its debut on screens a decade earlier—but tragedy would strike in 1955 with the death of Bernard Gorcey, who was killed in a car accident in September of that year. His son Leo would make one more film—Crashing Las Vegas (1956)—before being fired from Allied Artists over the repeated issue of salary demands. (Gorcey did not take the death of his father at all well, and began to drink heavily—some of which is apparent in Las Vegas).

The studio replaced Leo with actor Stanley Clements, who as Stanislaus “Duke” Covelske assumed the role of the gang’s leader even though Huntz Hall now received top billing in the credits of each film. The eight films that followed had their moments, but Hall and Clements’ chemistry just couldn’t measure up to that of Huntz and Leo’s…and with their forty-eighth film, In the Money (1958), the Bowery Boys called it a day.

The Bowery Boys movie series stands as the longest feature-film franchise in movie history, and even though many of the entries are hardly Oscar contenders (well, with the exception of that High Society thing) they still have a dedicated fan base of admirers who, like me, grew up watching them on TV as youngsters. They’ve made the rounds on Turner Classic Movies in the past, but now thanks to the Warner Archive their films are available for home viewing, ready to hook a new generation. Can you pitcha dat?

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr is the associate editor at ClassicFlix…because he’s the only one who’ll associate with the editor. He blogs about classic film, vintage TV and old-time radio at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.