Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #70: "Pride of the Bowery" (1940)

Leo Gorcey, unusually pensive and pink, on the VHS cover for Pride of the Bowery. Huntz Hall actually isn't in this one.


Carleton Young
The flick: Pride of the Bowery (Monogram Pictures, 1940) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.4

Director: Joseph H. Lewis (Boys of the City)

Series regulars: Leo Gorcey (Boys of the City), Bobby Jordan (Boys of the City), Ernest "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison (Boys of the City), Donald Haines (Boys of the City), David Gorcey (Flying Wild), Bobby Stone (Flying Wild)

Other actors of note: Kenneth Howell (played "Jack Jones" in a series of films from 1936-1940; his homosexuality ended his marriage in '45; died by his own hand in 1966), Mary Ainslee (appeared in several Three Stooges shorts, including He Cooked His Goose), Kenneth Harlan (Meet John Doe, Topper), Carleton Young (A Bride for Henry)

Kenneth Howell
The gist of it: Muggs (Gorcey) is practicing to be a boxer, but he doesn't want to sweat it out in some crummy gym all summer. Danny (Jordan) fixes it so the whole gang can go to what he promises is a training camp. Actually, Danny has volunteered them all for the Civilian Conservation Corp, where they will work and live in military-type conditions for half a year, earning $20 a month for their families. Muggs is the last to learn about this, and he immediately starts breaking rules and challenging authority.

For some reason, he picks a fight with the very bland and innocuous Allen (Howell), and the two become rivals. Once he understands his situation, Muggs calms down somewhat and even saves Allen's life. Captain Jim White (Harlan) is so impressed with this that he grants Muggs a special request. And what does Muggs want? A boxing match with Allen! The fight goes off well, even catching the eye of local boxing promoter Mr. Norton (Young), but Muggs is incensed when Capt. White stops the match before it's finished. He refuses to shake Allen's hand and becomes a pariah in the camp for his poor sportsmanship. He also becomes enamored of blonde Elaine (Ainslee) before realizing she's the Captain's wife.

Trouble arises when Willie (Stone) steals $100 from White's office, then tells Muggs he needed the money to send to his aunt and brother. Muggs goes to Norton and agrees to fight for six rounds to earn back the hundred bucks for Willie. He takes a beating in the ring but manages to go the distance. While replacing the money, Muggs is caught by Captain White, who threatens him with a dishonorable discharge. But Muggs isn't about to fink on Willie. Luckily, Danny figures out who the real thief is and begins to set things right.

This movie is Leo Gorcey's Raging Bull, more or less.
My take: As I've now learned, early 1940s East Side Kids movies are like those mystery bags you sometimes find at gift shops. Before you pop one into the DVD player, you never quite know who's going to be in the lineup this time or how serious the movie will be. In this flick, the cast is basically the same as that of Boys of the City (1940), but the tone is more serious, like that of East Side Kids (1940).

I hated Boys of the City and was lukewarm on East Side Kids, but Pride of the Bowery is not half bad. It's part-boxing movie, part-military movie, and the focus is clearly on Leo Gorcey as Muggs. He's as ornery as ever and still an incurable smart-aleck, but he doesn't do any of his trademark malapropisms, mispronunciations, or Moe Howard-esque slaps in this one. I didn't really miss those traits, and I didn't miss the Kids' crowded, noisy, poverty-stricken neighborhood either.

Just as Boys of the City took place almost entirely in the country, Pride of the Bowery strays far away from the Bowery. It's possible that the creative minds behind the ESK series got bored with the urban setting and decided to transplant the main characters to a more pastoral locale just for the sake of variety. So in this movie, we get to see Bobby Jordan and Leo Gorcey in an area where there are lakes and trees and fresh air.

The story is very simple and corny, but I still got surprisingly involved in what was happening -- the stolen money, the pivotal boxing matches, etc. A lot of that is due to Gorcey, whom I'd underestimated as an actor. He even shows some dramatic chops, as when Muggs gets dressed up, buys a bouquet from Scruno (Morrison), and visits Elaine (who has flirted with him), only to be crestfallen when she emerges from her house with Captain White. It's a melancholy, wordless moment as Muggs registers what has happened and reacts to it. You really get a sense of the sad little man behind the gruff exterior. Of course, this being a comedy, there's a funny little tag to the scene in which Muggs tries to get a refund on the flowers.

I was glad that the boxing scenes were played fairly seriously, too, and not for slapstick as they easily could have been. Considering that this is an East Side Kids movie, I thought for sure that Norton was going to turn out to be a crook trying to lead Muggs astray, but he's on the level. I'm always grateful when an ESK movie deviates from the series' rigid formula.

Is it funny: Eh, only somewhat, but this is a movie in which the comedy exists to ease the tension. Clancy Street Boys was an out-and-out farce, and a fairly decent one at that, but Pride of the Bowery is a drama with comic relief.

Of course, Muggs has to be the consummate wisenheimer and make with the zingers wherever he goes. But he also has to be believable as a guy who would risk his life and his reputation to save others, so his wilder comedic traits are dialed back in this film. His silliest moments are near the beginning, when he walks around the camp like a king, bossing everyone around (especially his superiors), not realizing that he's signed on to be a lowly laborer. When he's shown his bunk in the barracks, for instance, he says he was promised a private room with a bath. Danny, Muggs' dim but loyal sidekick, is allowed to be a little goofier, and of course Scruno is a completely comedic character. Generally, though, this movie is pretty straight-laced for an ESK flick.

My grade: B

P.S. - Weirdly, in this movie, Scruno is not one of the usual gang. He's just one of the kids at the CCC camp.  His portrayal is mildly racist, I'd say, but nowhere near as bad as Boys in the City. For some reason, when Muggs and his pals arrive, Scruno is the one tasked with carrying their luggage and delivering it to the barracks like a clumsy bellhop. Later, when he's selling flowers on the street, Scruno tells Muggs that he stole his merchandise from a neighbor's yard and says that he'll be selling watermelons tomorrow. And in another scene, he complains that he worked until he was "black in the face." So, yeah, not one for the Wall of Fame. But overall, Scruno is not ill-treated in this film.

2 comments:

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    1. At last, the long-suppressed Leo Gorcey/Huntz Hall sex tape has been made available to the public. Watch at your own peril.

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