Monday, December 23, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #72: "Mr. Wise Guy" (1942)

Fun fact: Mr. Wise Guy is #398,346 of the 800,000 movies made by The East Side Kids.

The flick: Mr. Wise Guy (Monogram Pictures, 1942) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.8

Director: William Nigh (Zis Boom Bah, A Bride for Henry; sadly, not Bill Nye the Science Guy)

"Big Boy" Williams
Series regulars: Leo Gorcey, Bobby Jordan, Huntz Hall (all in Clancy Street Boys), David Gorcey, Gabriel Dell, Bobby Stone, Ernest Morrison (all in Smart Alecks)

Other actors of note: Billy Gilbert (Peck's Bad Boy with the Circus, The Villain Still Pursued Her), Douglas Fowley (Money Means Nothing), Joan Barclay (Flying Wild), Guinn "Big Boy" Williams (perennial sidekick in westerns; Errol Flynn's best friend; nicknamed "the Babe Ruth of polo"; appeared in The Alamo, The Comancheros, A Star is Born, etc.), Warren Hymer (Capra's Meet John Doe and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town), Ann Doran (Rebel Without a Cause, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, His Girl Friday; dozens of TV credits ranging from Bewitched to The A-Team ), Jack Mulhall (first actor to ever play a dual role in a talking picture; also appeared in Around the World in 80 Days, The Man with the Golden Arm, much more), Benny Rubin (Zis Boom Bah), Joe Kirk (Smart Alecks), Dick Ryan (ex-vaudevillian; appeared in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train; guested on The Andy Griffith Show, Ozzie & Harriet, Rawhide, and more)

Bad girl Ann Doran
The gist of it: Dock worker Bill Collins (Fowley) has been drafted into the Army, but he's worried that his younger brother, Danny (Jordan), might get into trouble and wind up in reform school without supervision. But Danny and the rest of the East Side Kids are then framed for a truck hijacking and wind up in the very same hellish reformatory where Bill had once served as a guard. Visiting the old place, Bill is happy to see that some improvements have been made under the new warden (Mulhall), and he begins a romance with one of the institution's kinder employees, Ann (Barclay).

But an abusive guard named Miller (Ryan) still works there and takes an immediate dislike to the boys, especially the nervy, confrontational Muggs (Gorcey), whom he calls "Mr. Wise Guy." Then Bill himself is framed for a murder actually committed by the same group of crooks responsible for the earlier hijacking: ringleader and escaped con Luke Manning (Williams), gun moll Dorothy (Doran), and fumbling sidekick Knobby (Gilbert). As Bill waits in the death house, Muggs and the gang cross paths with tough fellow inmate Chalky (Stone) and the sadistic Miller, who is eventually fired for his violent treatment of the kids. On the day of Bill's execution, Bobby miraculously spots a bit of evidence in a newsreel which exonerates both his brother and the East Side Kids, too. So the boys break out of the institution and confront Knobby and Dorothy, who had  been secretly conspiring against Manning and were planning to sneak off with his lottery winnings.

See that second headline? That hasn't happened in the movie yet.
My take: The justice system in the East Side Kids universe is an absolute disgrace. From the earliest moments of Mr. Wise Guy, the Kids are being hassled by the cops and accused of crimes they didn't commit. Whenever characters in these movies avoid arrest, it's by pure luck. And when they are arrested, their so-called trials by jury are mere formalities. The verdict is always guilty, though I can't imagine what evidence beyond that of the circumstantial variety is available. We never get to see the inside of a courtroom in an ESK movie, just the screaming headlines in the newspapers. Monogram is too cheap and lazy to even spin the papers (which might take an extra 20 seconds); they just zoom in on the articles.

Pretty early on in Mr. Wise Guy, you can see an obvious cost-cutting measure when the same prop newspaper is used to cover two different plot developments. That would be fine, if the second crucial headline didn't give away an upcoming plot point. Because of that phony paper, I knew the Kids were going to be sent up the river for hijacking a truck wayyyyy before that actually happens in the movie.

By the way, I must point out that this is the third "truck hijacking" movie I've reviewed in this series, and they've all been from Monogram Pictures. The others, in case you were interested, are Money Means Nothing (1934) and The Gang's All Here (1941). Must've been a specialty of the house. None of these flicks have been especially interesting or involving, and Money Means Nothing in particular was a chore to sit through.

Mr. Wise Guy is about average for an ESK flick. I can only assume it was made very quickly and very cheaply, rushed into theaters and then quickly forgotten. It moves along at a good clip and never gets too bogged down in any particular plot points to become boring. Yet again, the Kids spend only the first few minutes of the film on their home turf before the script transplants them to another surrounding.

Is it funny: I can't remember laughing too much during Mr. Wise Guy. I'm kind of back-and-forth on the humor of the East Side Kids, though. I guess if you're in the mood for them, Leo Gorcey's wisecracks and Huntz Hall's stupidity might really strike you as being hilarious. If you're not, watching them is like being cornered by clowns at a birthday party who caper and frolic for you whether you want them to or not. The weird thing about this movie is that the plot is actually kind of heavy and depressing, what with poor Danny worried sick that his brother's going to the electric chair. This material sits uneasily with the Bazooka Joe-esque shenanigans and puns of the East Side Kids. In culinary terms, this film is a peanut butter and tuna fish sandwich.

My grade: C

P.S. - Ernest "Scruno" Morrison is back and brings with him the usual assortment of racial/racist schtick. It starts early, too, with Muggs referring to Scruno as "our blackout warden" in the opening scene (a really weird, extended monologue in which Muggs flirts with a store mannequin). And there are chicken and watermelon jokes, too, plus a scene in which Morrison runs wide-eyed with fear at the very sight of a gun. Still not as bad as Boys of the City, though.

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