Sunday, November 10, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #64: "East Side Kids" (1940)

Some would-be wisenheimers get played for Grade A chumps and pass phony fins in East Side Kids (1940), see?

The flick: East Side Kids (Monogram release of a Four-Bell Pictures production, 1940) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.7

Director: Robert F. Hill (directed several of Buster Crabbe's Flash Gordon serials, plus Tarzan the Fearless, also starring Crabbe; as an actor, Hill appeared in The More the Merrier, Cover Girl and Son of Dracula)

Series regulars
  • Harris Berger (replaced Huntz Hall in the Broadway show Dead End and appeared in various Little Tough Guys, Dead End Kids, and East Side Kids movies from 1938-1940, including Angels with Dirty Faces)
  • Eddie Brian (Angels with Dirty Faces, Boys Town)

Other actors of note
  • Leon Ames (55-year career in film and TV includes Peggy Sue Got Married, They Were Expendable, The Absent Minded Professor, Tora! Tora! Tora! and much more; served as SAG president in 1957-1958)
  • Dennis Moore (not the character from the Monty Python sketch; cowboy actor who appeared in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Friendly Persuasion, etc.)
  • Joyce Bryant (Johnny Eager; also a singer with numerous appearances on talk and variety shows from the '50s to the '70s)
  • Sam Edwards (voice of adult Thumper in Bambi; appeared in Bullitt, Escape to Witch Mountain, The Absent Minded Professor, and more)
  • Ted Adams (Westward the Women, King of the Rocket Men)

Harris Berger wearing one of those stupid  newsboy hats.
The gist of it: Kind-hearted detective Pat O'Day (Ames) wants to set young Danny Doyle (Berger) and his friends, a gang of young hooligans (including Chester, Burke, and Brian), on the straight and narrow. But Danny's future is in jeopardy because his older brother, Knuckles Dolan (O'Brien) is in the death house awaiting electrocution for a murder he didn't commit -- a fact which could turn Danny permanently against the law. At present, Danny is living with his sister, Molly (Bryant), who is also Pat's girlfriend. The boy believes that Knuckles is "in South America" because Pat and Molly have hidden the truth from him. Pat sets up a gymnasium for the kids and deputizes them as junior police officers, but Danny learns the truth about his brother and is devastated.

Into this tense situation comes the smooth-talking Milton "Mileaway" Harris (Moore), a career crook who claims to be reformed but who is actually the head of a counterfeiting scheme. "Mileaway" is in cahoots with a mean German pawnbroker named Schmidt (Adams), who houses the operation in the basement of his shop. Schmidt and Harris conspire to have Danny and his pals unwittingly distribute phony $5 bills all over town as a distraction so no one will notice if some phony $20 bills go into circulation. They also cleverly arrange to frame Pat as the counterfeiter. Pat goes on the lam and recruits Danny and his friends to bring "Mileaway" (who actually committed the murder of which Knuckles has been accused) and his cronies to justice.

My take: This is the third early 1940s East Side Kids movie from Monogram Pictures that I've reviewed in this series, but it's markedly different from Flying Wild and Boys in the City. Those films were out-and-out comedies, complete with wordplay, slapstick, and impossible plot twists. In comparison, East Side Kids is pretty sober stuff. One of the Kids even dies after falling off a building in a fight with one of the crooks and is memorialized with a pitiful wooden plaque at the depressing warehouse-turned-gymnasium that the boys use as a hangout. (Was that a spoiler? Oops.) The wackier Kids, like Huntz Hall and Leo Gorcey, are off-duty.

At center stage is the over-emoting Harris Berger as at-risk Danny Doyle, a part which would go to Bobby Jordan in Boys in the City. The real question is, which do I prefer: serious East Side Kids or silly East Side Kids? I guess I reluctantly choose serious ESK, but they win by default. East Side Kids was the least painful of the films in the series I've seen so far. But it's not terrifically compelling either. The Kids are mainly just pawns in this game of cops and robbers, if you'll forgive the mixed metaphor. The adults are dullards, and the direction is mostly uninspired until the action-packed climax, which is actually kind of exciting. There's not really too much to distinguish the various gang members, other than their nicknames like "Dutch" and "Pee Wee."

I did find it noteworthy that one of the boys, a surprisingly-tough yet well-mannered nerd named Algernon, is nicknamed "Mouse" when he is initiated into the gang. This was almost twenty years before Daniel Keyes' famous story of another mouse named Algernon. Is this just a weird coincidence or am I missing something?

Five bucks? I'm RICH, beeyatch!
Is it funny: No, but this is a crime drama, not a comedy. Truthfully, it does not belong in this "Comedy Classics" boxed set. There are a few fleeting moments of levity here and there -- roughhousing and goat-getting among the boys -- but this is mostly a serious movie.

There is, however, one moment I found indisputably hilarious. It comes during a montage in which various New Yorkers discover that the advertising fliers on their doorsteps and in their mailboxes contain $5 bills. According to the trusty Inflation Calculator, five bucks in 1940 is the equivalent of $83.62 in today's money. Obviously, this is too much for one elderly woman, who goes into what can only be called a state of religious ecstasy at the mysterious gift. Granted, there was a Depression on, but I don't think a five spot was going to keep the wolves at bay for long, Grandma. Try to maintain just a little dignity, mmkay?

My grade: (overall) C+; (as a comedy) N/A

P.S. - The one negative stereotype in this movie is the German pawnbroker, Schmidt, but his homeland had just invaded Poland the year before.