Describing their appeal and even their history is difficult because it's so uniquely convoluted. They weren't a comedy team in the traditional sense, and some of the movies they made weren't even comedies at all. Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall were the actors most associated with the various teamings though Gorcey is absent from the last four movies in this set, and neither of them is in some of the early films, predating those in this set.
The Bowery Boys series was the product of Monogram, a Poverty Row studio that later spruced up its image slightly when they renamed themselves Allied Artists. But the Bowery Boys series was always bottom-of-the-bill fodder. There are no masterpieces of screen comedy in the bunch but, as the saying goes, familiarity breeds affection, and the movies generally are likeable in the same way one becomes attached to a smelly old mutt.
The set packs so many movies into a standard-size DVD case that the credits summarizing the films on the back cover require a magnifying glass to read them, which is probably why the 12 titles are also listed in normal-size font on the front cover. They are: Angels' Alley, Jinx Money (both 1948), Angels in Disguise (1949), Feudin' Fools (1952), Jalopy (1953), Paris Playboys (1954), Dig That Uranium, Crashing Las Vegas, Hot Shots (1956), Spook Chasers, Looking for Danger, and Up in Smoke (1957). Movies from the Monogram/Allied Artists catalog of this time tend to be in pretty poor shape, but the transfers here, the later ones appropriately in enhanced wide screen, are reasonably serviceable. No extras.
The Bowery Boys' Byzantine back-story begins with Sidney Kingsley's 1935 Broadway play Dead End, about a group of juvenile delinquent types living at the height of the Great Depression at or near Dead End, specifically the corner of East 53rd Street and the East River in New York City. The play generally eschewed using polished teenage performers, instead casting real street toughs for many of the roles. The cast included Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Huntz Hull, Bernard Punsley, Gabriel Dell, David Gorcey and his older brother Leo. Originally Leo and David were only understudies, but by the time the show opened Leo especially had won a major supporting part.
The show was a hit, running 684 performances, and eventually turned into a 1937 film, also called Dead End, starring Humphrey Bogart though produced by Sam Goldwyn and released through United Artists. It was quite the prestigious production, featuring a screenplay adapted by Lillian Hellman and direction from William Wyler, and it featured the same "Dead End Kids" as the play.
The success of the film prompted Warner Bros. to attempt to brand the gang as the "Crime School Kids," which was fine with Goldwyn as the boys apparently wreaked havoc at the studio during production. (Even on the train to California they got into trouble, playing baseball in their car and at one point Leo nearly threw Bobby Jordan from the moving train.) Halop, Jordan, Hall, Punsley, Dell, and Leo Gorcey, again with Humphrey Bogart, began the unofficial series with Crime School (1938) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), later supporting John Garfield in They Made Me a Criminal (1939). By the time they made Hell's Kitchen and Angels Wash Their Faces (both 1939), co-starring Ronald Reagan, they were more or less the main attraction. The "Crime School Kids" moniker was quickly forgotten and they once again became the Dead End Kids.
After On Dress Parade (1939), Warners dropped the gang, again because of their antics and propensity for violence, and the band minus Leo Gorcey and Bobby Jordan moved to Universal. They had actually signed to make pictures there in 1938 immediately following Angels with Dirty Faces, and Warner Bros., realizing their mistake, also signed the boys to a multi-picture contract concurrent with the Universal films. The first Universal, Little Tough Guy featured all the Dead End Kids except for Leo Gorcey and Bobby Jordan, though the next three, probably owing to the Warner deal, featured different actors except for Leo's brother David, though they did introduce William "Billy" Benedict, later an important supporting player in the group.
Further confusing things, "The Little Tough Guys" were soon joined by "The Dead End Kids" themselves, initially Huntz Hall and Billy Halop, and later on by Gabriel Dell and Bernard Punsley. These Universal titles collectively billed them as "Dead End Kids and Little Tough Guys." Eventually they made 12 movies and three serials at Universal.*
Meanwhile, over at Monogram, producer Sam Katzman, wanting to cash in on all this success, made East Side Kids (1940) which featured Hal E. "Halley" (or "Hally") Chester, one of the original kids from the play Dead End but who skipped the Warner Bros. movies though appeared in the Universal films. (Chester later produced films like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Curse of the Demon.) None of the other, more familiar actors were in that one, but gradually Katzman recruited Bobby Jordan, Leo Gorcey, David Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Billy Benedict and a few other stragglers when the Universal films ended.
The East Side Kids films were a Poverty Row hit, with 22 features produced over less than five years, despite being made on pitifully low budgets of around $35,000 apiece with 5-7-day shooting schedules. When Leo Gorcey demanded a raise in 1945, Katzman ended the series, but then Gorcey, working with producer Jan Grippo, reconfigured the series as, finally, The Bowery Boys the following year.
Forty-eight more features were produced over the next dozen years. Unlike the early, Depression-era dramas and straight gangster films of the earliest days and the genre-free form of the Little Tough Guys/East Side Kids movies, the Bowery Boys movies almost from the start consisted mainly of broad slapstick comedy. The dynamics of the group also changed, with Gorcey firmly in charge both on and off-camera. (Gorcey had been dominating onscreen since the East Side Kids days.) He and Hall dominated onscreen, and Gorcey received $52,000 per movie, more than the entire budget of most of the East Side Kids films, as well as 33% of the profits. Credits on most of the films billed "Leo Gorcey and The Bowery Boys," with Huntz Hall and the others receiving only supporting billing, though Hall's billing improved as the series progressed. Hall, Gabriel Dell, and to a lesser extent Billy Benedict were prominent in the ‘40s films but the rest, notably David Gorcey and Bobby Jordan, were pretty much reduced to spear-carriers. The later films typically featured two anonymous Boys who kept to the background.
Tough-talking Terrence Aloysius "Slip" Mahoney (Leo Gorcey), his dialogue tangled with awkward, often very forced malapropisms, was the leader of the perennially broke gang, with Horace Debussy "Sach" Jones (Huntz Hall) as the group's dim-witted patsy. Slip constantly beats Sach over the head with his pinned-back hat.
Huntz Hall's rise within the group was deserved, for he proved to be a good comedian, his lanky frame, bug eyes and long, pushed-in and crooked nose adapting well to the Bowery Boys' new, more clownish format. Equally important was the addition of another cast member, Bernard Gorcey, Leo and David's father, who played Louie Dumbrowski, the tiny (4'10"), long-suffering, excitable owner of Louie's Sweet Shop, the Boys' hangout. The elder Gorcey was a Vaudeville and Broadway veteran, Bernard being best-known for the incredibly long-running (2,327) Broadway production and silent film adaptation of Abie's Irish Rose (1922-27 for the play; the film came the following year). Most of the comedy revolves around Slip, Sach, and Louie.
In the early films Gabriel Dell, generally regarded as the best actor among the original Dead End Kids, played a "reformed" Bowery Boy working some job that always figured into the plot (a reporter, a policeman), while Billy Benedict, the most unpredictable of the Boys, was always good for an unexpected reaction shot or funny, off-kilter line of dialogue. They left the series in the early ‘50s.
The stories almost invariably fell into one of two basic plots. In the first (more prominent in the early films), the boys come up with a scheme to make a lot of money, often to help an old lady about to be evicted or some such thing, and they take over the back room of Louie's Sweet Shop as their headquarters. They're either surprisingly successful, attracting the attention of underworld types who want to cut in, or are mistaken for being successful, attracting underworld types who want to cut in. A variation of this plot has Sach accidentally coming up with some fantastic new invention or acquiring some incredible new power (often after getting bonked on the head) that could make the Boys millions, attracting underworld types who want to cut in.
The other basic plot has the Boys stumbling upon a spooky haunted house or den of (by this point) Commie spies, resulting in the Boys (and Louie) running around the soundstage sets for the last 30 minutes or so until enough film has been exposed.
These pictures, especially the ‘50s ones, were heavily influenced by the phenomenal popularity at the time of (Dean) Martin & (Jerry) Lewis, and the lasting popularity of Abbott & Costello, as well as the Three Stooges' two-reel shorts (more about which in a moment). The Bowery Boys movies, however, were hindered by their cheap budgets and short shooting schedules. In many of the films the "Boys" (by this point in their mid-30s) barely leave the malt shop and its back room. Later films like Paris Playboys and Crashing Las Vegas took them to other locales but rarely off Allied Artists' meager backlot. (In Paris Playboys there's not even a stock footage establishing shot of Paris. In straight cuts they're in the sweet shop, on a plane, and inside a Parisian mansion.)
There is, surprisingly, a perceptible difference between the better and lesser Bowery Boys movies. Where the Three Stooges and Abbott & Costello had honed their comedy in Vaudeville and Burlesque, with their films written and directed by people like Jules White, Charles Lamont, and Clyde Bruckman, veterans of silent film comedy, The Bowery Boys weren't so lucky. They were saddled with hacks like William Beaudine and Jean Yarbrough. (Both had made comedies before this, but were hardly masters of that craft.) In Volume Three it's interesting to notice the difference between, say, the lifeless Jalopy, directed by Beaudine, and the pretty funny Dig That Uranium, which was co-written by Elwood Ulman and directed by Edward Bernds, both late of the Three Stooges films.
Bernds was no great auteur, but he knew his way around broad slapstick better than Beaudine or Yarbrough, and he and frequent partner Ulman incorporate some of the same Three Stooges gags and comedy situations into that film well. He also took the Boys out of doors to a nearby Western location, Big Sky or Iverson Ranch by the look of it, for some much-needed fresh air. By contrast, Jalopy stretches its milder comic situations way past the breaking point, shooting minimal location footage from a handful of angles with most of the exteriors actually shot on soundstage sets aided by back-projection. Though most of the Bowery Boys movies run little over 60 minutes, in that film it feels like Sach chases his wayward hat around a demolition derby racetrack for the better part of an hour. (However, my six-year-old, wandering into the film as I was watching it, found Hall's clowning utterly sidesplitting, never tiring of this protracted gag.)
The series went into free-fall in the second-half of 1955. On 31 August, a car Bernard was driving collided with a bus at the corner of 4th and La Brea, in Los Angeles, and he died from his injuries 12 days later. Leo, a troubled, mean drunk off-screen to begin with and very close to his formerly estranged father, was devastated. He did one more film, Crashing Las Vegas, on autopilot, drinking heavily all the while, so much so that he had to be driven home each night. (This isn't as perceptible onscreen as many imagine, however.) He divorced his third wife the following February, and left the series, though kid brother David, himself a closet drinker, remained. David later became sober but Leo became a wreck. He did one final film with his old pal Huntz, Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar (1966). Gorcey was only in his late forties but looks at least ten years older in that film, and is obviously soaked. Huntz Hall become the only reason to see the last batch of Bowery Boys movies, which had Stanley Clements, briefly an East Side Kid, replacing Leo as Stanislaus "Duke" Covelske.
Video & Audio
The transfers on The Bowery Boys, Volume Three all utilize less than pristine film elements of slightly varying quality. Some or parts of some might even source 16mm TV prints. But they all look halfway decent, better certainly than the usually awful transfers used by the PD labels on their East Side Kids releases. From Paris Playboys onwards the films are in their correct 1.85:1 enhanced widescreen, which is a plus. The Dolby Digital mono audio is adequate. No Extra Feature, but the discs are region-free.
Non-fans not only will want to skip this, it's very unlikely they've even bothered to read this review. However, for fans "Hollywood's Made-to-Order Punks" (as biographer Richard Roat describes them), their pictures are still amusing in their own unambitious way, and still entertain all these decades later. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.