Saturday, June 22, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #17: "Boys of the City" (1940)

The East Side Kids come to the aid of Inna Gest in Boys of the City. And it's Jordan, not "Jordon."

The flick: Boys of the City (Monogram Pictures, 1940) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.2

Director: Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy, The Big Combo)

Actors of note: Bobby Jordan (Angels with Dirty Faces, Dead End), Leo Gorcey (They Made Me a Criminal, Spooks Run Wild), Hal E. Chester (School for Scoundrels, Curse of the Demon), Frankie Burke (Shadow of the Thin Man, Nancy Drew... Reporter), Dave O'Brien (Reefer Madness, 42nd Street), Minerva Urecal (Harvey, Marty, Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt), Inna Gest (Hangmen Also Die!, Babes in Arms), Forrest Taylor (Reefer Madness, Winchester '73)

The gist of it: In order to avoid jail after playfully assaulting a street vendor, the East Side Kids -- a gang of New York street toughs led by Danny (Jordan) and Muggs (Gorcey) -- are sent to a farm upstate for the summer, under the supervision of Danny's older brother, exonerated murder suspect Knuckles Dolan (O'Brien). Along the way, though, they have some car trouble and end up staying at a spooky, secret-passageway-riddled estate with mean, crooked Judge Parker (Taylor) and a bunch of other fast talking guys in suits who, for reasons I couldn't quite suss out, are all trying to kill each other. Oh, and there's an innocent dame, Louise (Gest), and a creepy maid, Agnes (Urecal), who figure into the plot as well somehow. Eventually, all the right people are murdered, and the Kids can eat their cake and go home to commit more mayhem.

Alex and his droogs: Latter-day East Side Kids?
My take: It would take a genealogist to sort out the evolution of the East Side Kids, a.k.a. The Bowery Boys, a.k.a. The Dead End Kids. They started out as supporting players in gritty dramas like Dead End (1937) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) but then got their own series of low-budget comedies that grew sillier and less realistic over time. The Kids (or Boys) bounced around from studio to studio, generally moving down the food chain in terms of budget and production value and occasionally changing names for copyright reasons.

The lineup changed over the years, but Leo Gorcey (whose character, Muggs McGinnis, was rechristened Slip Mahoney when the team became known as the Bowery Boys) stayed with the series until 1956, when he was pushing 40. The series went on two more years without him.

Frankly, I'm baffled as to why America kept these guys on the payroll for 20 years. Watching Boys of the City (which takes place almost entirely in the country), I got sick of them after 20 seconds. They all have nasal, heavily-accented Bugs Bunny voices, wear those stupid newsboy caps everywhere, and speak almost entirely in obscure slang expressions. Since they converse in a very eccentric sort of lingo and gleefully gang up on an older man at the beginning of the movie, the East Side Kids reminded me a bit of Alex and his droogs from Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1972), only here they're supposed to be the good guys.

In retrospect, the Kids were among the first rebellious teens ever seen in the movies, certainly the first to be the heroes of a whole series. In a way, that does make them ancestors of the droogs and may also explain why the Beatles were so fond of them. In 1967, the Fab Four wanted Leo Gorcey to be among the spectators on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, but he wanted $400 for the use of his image. The Beatles balked and used his Bowery cohort, Huntz Hall (who wasn't in Boys of the City), instead. Gorcey died two years later of liver failure at the age of 51. He was on his fifth marriage at the time.

Menacing Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca.
Is it funny: Oh, no. No, no, no, no. I found the Kids, especially Gorcey, to be extremely irritating and not funny in the least in this film. Their constant complaining about everything gave me a headache.

Much more troubling to modern audiences, however, is Scruno (Ernest Morrison, dubiously billed as "Sunshine Sammy"), the one African-American in the group. First seen obediently fanning Muggs, who calls him "boy," Scruno embodies every possible negative black stereotype. His fear of "g-g-g-ghosts" is a relentless running gag throughout the film, and he is given to pronouncements like "I sure loves catfish!" and "I sure do miss that old plantation!" Most humiliating of all is a dinner scene in which Agnes, having served what seems to be soup to the other Kids, places a huge slice of watermelon in front of Scruno, who proceeds to bury his head in it like an animal eating out of a trough. Ugh.

Agnes, however, is mostly an asset to the film. Minerva Urecal gives a totally unhinged performance, very similar to Cloris Leachman's Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein (1974). A scene in which she menaces young Louise has very strong lesbian undertones, echoing Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940) and the corresponding character of Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). I'm guessing that Agnes' obsession with her late mistress, Judge Parker's deceased wife, was imported directly from Rebecca, which had been a successful novel two years earlier.

Honestly, I was grateful for the mystery and suspense elements in this film because they offered some respite from the awful "comedy" of Gorcey and company. To be fair, there is one joke in this film that did make me laugh. One of the Kids, Skinny (Burke), compares Agnes to the Witch from Snow White and advises Danny, "If she gives ya an apple, don't eat it." And even though he gives a lousy performance, I did smile broadly when I recognized Dave O'Brien, the psychotic dope smoker Ralph from Reefer Madness (1936).

My grade: D

P.S. - This film is by far the worst example of racist stereotyping I've seen in the set so far. Scruno is so embarrassing that he makes Mantan Moreland look like Martin Luther King, Jr. in comparison.


  1. Ah, the East Side Kids. Sad as it is that they kept up their schtick for so long, it's even sadder to think that by the '40s Bela Lugosi was so hard up that he appeared alongside them twice. (I've seen their second team-up, 1943's Ghosts on the Loose, the spiritual successor to Spooks Run Wild, and it is not good. Not good at all.)

    1. And it is not good schtick, either! Wow, are these guys unfunny. Spooks Run Wild is coming up in this project... along with about 7 or 8 more ESK films. They made soooooooooooooo many. I've not seen the Lugosi films, but I can already imagine the dialogue: "Dat Count Drackulus gives me da heebie jeebies somethin' awful, I tells ya. Why, I oughtta moiderize dat crumbum!"