Friday, December 13, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #69: "Clancy Street Boys" (1943)

Obviously, what the East Side Kids series needed was transvestism. Thanks, Clancy Street Boys.

The flick: Clancy Street Boys (Monogram Pictures, 1943) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 7.0

William "One Shot" Beaudine
Director: William Beaudine (super-prolific quickie filmmaker nicknamed "One-Shot"; helmed Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter; Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla; many episodes of TV's Lassie and Walt Disney; worked for decades in every conceivable genre)

Series regulars:
  • Huntz Hall (Zis Boom Bah; this is actually the first of his many ESK movies I've reviewed)
  • Billy Benedict (The Sting, Kubrick's The Killing; Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster; played various characters in the Bowery/ESK series, including Butch, Spider, Skinny, and Pinky)
  • Other one-and-done ESK alumni here include Eddie Mills, Dick Chandlee, and George DeNormand

Other actors of note:
  • Noah Beery, Sr. (She Done Him Wrong; The Mark of Zorro; father of Noah Beery, Jr. and brother of Wallace Beery, both well-known character actors)
  • Amelita Ward (The Best Years of Our Lives; The Dark Mirror; later married and divorced Leo Gorcey)
  • Rick Vallin (dependable B-movie star of the '40s and '50s; TV credits include Rin Tin Tin, Superman, Have Gun Will Travel, and much more)
  • J. Farrell MacDonald (best known as the guy whose tree George Bailey hits in It's a Wonderful Life; worked repeatedly for John Ford, Frank Capra, and Preston Sturges)
  • Martha Wentworth (voice in Disney's 101 Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone; appeared in Orson Welles' The Stranger,  plus The Blackboard Jungle, The Man with the Golden Arm, much more)

Ernie "Scruno" Morrison on Good Times.
The gist of it: He's finally turning 18, but Muggs McGinnis (Leo Gorcey, actually 26 at the time) is hiding out -- not just from his own gang, the East Side Kids, but also his rivals, the Cherry Street Gang (led by Benedict), and even the local beat cop (MacDonald) -- because he doesn't want to take his birthday spankings. But they all catch up to him and get their (ostensibly) good-natured licks in anyway.

When he gets home, his poor widowed mother Molly (Wentworth) is in a state. Her late husband, Muggs' father, bragged to one of his old bricklaying buddies that he had seven children rather than just one. That buddy, "Uncle" Pete Monahan (Beery), moved to Texas, became a wealthy rancher, and has been sending all seven McGinnis children checks on their birthdays for 15 years! Molly was too embarrassed to tell Pete the truth, and now he's coming to New York to meet the whole McGinnis brood.

But Muggs has a plan: he'll enlist his gang members to portray the other six McGinnis kids while Pete and his daughter Judy (Ward) are in town. Even Scruno (Morrison), who is black, will pretend to be Muggs' "redopted" brother. Pete believes that Molly has a daughter named Annabelle, so poor Glimpy (Hall) has to dress in drag and speak in a high voice. The ruse works for a while, and free-spending Pete takes the gang shopping and nightclubbing. But slimy crook George "The Gyp" Mooney (Vallin) is wise to Muggs, rats them out to Pete, then kidnaps the wealthy Texan. Danny (Jordan) follows the crooks and is also abducted. It's up to Muggs and the other East Side Kids, with some backup from the Cherry Street Gang, to rescue their benefactor and redeem themselves after taking advantage of his kindness.

Huntz Hall and Leo Gorcey: Yin and yang.
My take: Miracles never cease, brothers and sisters. At first, I thought the high IMDb rating for Clancy Street Boys was some kind of statistical fluke. But as it happens, this is a very funny and enjoyable little motion picture -- far and away the best of the East Side Kids movies I've reviewed and a notch above the usual output from Monogram Pictures, too.

On the surface, this film is not much different from the other entries in the series. Muggs is still mispronouncing and misusing words (he has a whole monologue about his "illuminations" and "inductions") and impatiently slapping people around like he's a combination of Jimmy Cagney and Moe Howard. There's yet another kindly neighborhood police officer (brandishing a baton and speaking with a heavy Irish brogue) to keep the boys in check and yet another slick, sharp-dressed gangster who wants to ruin the Kids' reputation for his own benefit. There are more grouchy business owners and worried parents on hand as well. And once again, the movie builds up to a frantic action scene in which the gang members save the day by teaming up.

So what's the difference? I'd have to say it's chemistry. The cast and crew happened to be firing on all cylinders when they made this one. As a director, William "One Shot" Beaudine keeps things rolling along, and the performances really click this time around. Clancy Street Boys is a vehicle for nervy little pipsqueak Leo Gorcey as Muggs, and he does quite a good job with both the verbal and physical comedy here, as in a scene which has him threatening and smart-mouthing a rather snooty desk clerk at a fancy hotel. ("Don't be adolescent," warns Muggs. "I'll report you to the janitor.")

Laconic, passive Huntz Hall is a good balance to edgy, aggressive Gorcey. They definitely have a "yin and yang" (or at least Larry and Moe) dynamic going. Hall spends most of the movie in drag as "Annabelle" and does not overplay the role as much as you might guess. As a shy, soft-spoken woman, he's roughly as convincing as, say, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie (1982) or Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like it Hot (1959).

Rick Vallin is a pretty standard baddie, but the real wild card in this movie is Noah Beery, Sr., who literally rides into this movie on a white horse while wearing full cowboy regalia. This is a big part, and Beery really goes to town with it, hollering and guffawing and just generally acting like a rich Texan on a spree in New York.

I should really mention what a swell time capsule this film is. It was made in 1943, smack dab in the middle of America's involvement in WWII, so there are references to war bonds, Nazis, the draft, and rationing. On the last count, Muggs makes a joke about having to eat horse meat due to the scarcity of other, more desirable foods. He also name checks a then semi-recent Jack Benny film called Charley's Aunt (1941). Besides that, the actors use some of the vintage mid-century slang not normally heard outside of a Coen Brothers movie. Some examples, all spoken by Gorcey:
  • "That's the corniest gag in the world. It had whiskers on it when I was going to kindergarten." 
  • "Don't let that slug know that you're wise to him."
  • "You jivin', man?"
  • "Well, wind me up and set the alarm!"
  • (my favorite)  "Let's lam."
Muggs even calls someone "a wrong gee" at one point. Back then, furthermore, there was apparently an inconvenient law which prevented adults from ordering alcohol at a restaurant if they were sharing a table with minors. Imagine the trouble that would cause at Applebee's today! You also get some sense of what New York's immigrant neighborhoods were like in the 1940s. The opening credits are actually printed on the laundry hanging from a clothesline between two tenements, which is a neat touch.

Since this was 1943, Clancy Street Boys could proudly include a chase scene in which a vendor's fruit cart is overturned without it seeming like too much of a cliche. Perhaps the most interesting historical tidbit is the opportunity to see Leo Gorcey interact with his future wife (and future ex-wife) Amelita Ward. There's no romance between Muggs and Judy, but the two performers definitely flirt during their first scene together. If they only knew what was coming!

Huntz Hall as "Annabelle."
Is it funny: Yes! Clancy Street Boys is not a subtle or cerebral film in any way, but it made me laugh pretty consistently from beginning to end. In my favorite scene, Uncle Pete takes Muggs and the boys to a fancy supper club and then pays the owner to keep the place open long after closing time while an increasingly-weary violinist is forced to play "Home on the Range" over and over again. But the movie is full of odd and amusing little moments, as when a man (whom I think is Muggs) pretends to be a mannequin so he can surreptitiously kick passersby without getting in trouble.

Hall has some good moments, too, as he awkwardly accompanies Judy to her bedroom and to a high-end dress shop. He's in drag through all this, of course, and she thinks he's really a woman. He just wants to get the hell away as soon as possible. He's especially uncomfortable when she's "freshening up" in the bathroom while he waits in the adjoining bedroom. She inadvertently shocks him by asking, "Would you like to play with my lariat?" I think this is an example of a slightly naughty joke smuggled into the film by screenwriter Harvey Gates (a prolific but undistinguished scribe who also wrote The Corpse Vanishes). In another scene, Muggs cuts short a rendition of "Happy Birthday to You" after about two seconds, presumably because he knows full well the song is under copyright. How nice of him to save Monogram Pictures a few bucks that way.

And I will admit to getting some chuckles out of a dumb running gag in which the Kids are completely bewildered by Uncle Pete's use of Spanish phrases. To his jovial hasta la vista, Muggs replies, "Same to you... and many of 'em."

My grade: B+

P.S. This film has some racial and ethnic humor in it, but I didn't find it insulting or offensive in the manner of previous ESK films. Scruno's race is an issue, sure, but he's trying to pass himself off as Muggs' brother. Obviously, the fact that Muggs is white and Scruno is black is going to come up. The movie handles it in what I thought was a funny, charming way. No one in the movie seems the least bit prejudiced. If any character is portrayed as a coward, it's Glimpy rather than Scruno.

The Kids' neighborhood is peopled with ethnic stereotypes, but these characters are portrayed with affection rather than ridicule as when an elderly Jewish lady with a very thick Yiddish accent criticizes Pete's mangling of the English language while ignoring her own. Muggs makes a joke about Indians, but it's just a harmless pun on the word "reservation." (Maitre'd: "Have you a reservation?" Muggs: "Whaddya think I am, an Indian?") And Judy has this similar reaction when a saleslady tries to interest her in some sandals: "What do you reckon I am, a A-rab?" Here, the joke is not at the expense of Arabs but at the expense of Texans. I can live with that.