Thursday, December 19, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #71: "Smart Alecks" (1942)

These ESK movies are going to land me in the hospital.

The flick: Smart Alecks (Banner Productions/Monogram Pictures, 1942) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.5

Director: Wallace Fox (The Corpse Vanishes; The Bowery at Midnight starring Bela Lugosi; episodes of TV's Ramar of the Jungle and The Gene Autry Show)

"Slapsie Maxie" Rosenbloom
Series regulars
  • Stanley Clements (this is the first of his ESK movies I've covered so far; he eventually replaced Leo Gorcey in the series; his non-Bowery/East Side Kids films include Going My Way and The More the Merrier)

Other actors of note
  • Joe Kirk (Lou Costello's brother-in-law; appeared in House of Frankenstein, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, etc.)
  • Marie Windsor (Kubrick's The Killing; TV's Salem's Lot; SAG director for 25 years)
  • Walter Woolf King (baritone singer in operettas; appeared in The Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera and Go West; lots of TV work, including The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, The Virginian, The Munsters, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, much more)
  • Roger Pryor ("the poor man's Clark Gable"; appeared in Belle of the Nineties, The Man They Could Not Hang, etc.)

Walter Woolf King, normally a villain, plays a surgeon here.

The gist of it: While the rest of the East Side Kids (including Morrison, Hall, Clements, et al.) try in vain to raise money for new baseball uniforms, Hank (Dell) is flush with cash and wearing fancy suits. That's because he's working for a crook named Butch Broccoli (Rosenbloom). The Kids' leader, Muggs (Gorcey) doesn't want any of Hank's "dirty" money and tosses him out of the group's basement headquarters. 

Later Hank is arrested by patrolman Joe (Pryor) while acting as a lookout during one of Broccoli's bank robberies. While the thief gets away, Hank is sent up for a three-year bid because he won't fink on his bosses. Nurse Ruth Stevens (Storm), Joe's girlfriend, reluctantly testifies against Hank in court, even though her own brother Danny (Jordan) is a member of the East Side Kids with Hank. Later, Danny manages to apprehend Broccoli and is awarded $200 by Police Captain Bronson (Rawlinson). The other Kids think they're entitled to equal shares of the dough, but Danny's secretly planning to spend it on those baseball uniforms.

Unaware of this, Muggs and the Kids enter Danny's place through an open window, take the money, and buy a jalopy with it. Ruth calls the cops on them, but Danny doesn't press charges. Muggs, still resentful, kicks Danny out of the gang. Then Hank breaks out of jail and informs Muggs that Broccoli has also broken loose and is after Danny. Danny is badly beaten to the point that only famed surgeon Dr. Ormsby (King) can save him. The Kids rally to Danny's bedside, and Joe tells them what Danny was really going to do with the $200. In the prerequisite big action climax, Broccoli takes Ruth hostage, and Hank, Joe, Muggs, and the others come to her rescue.

Good times: Muggs and the Kids visit Hank in the slammer.

My take: It's a weird world the East Side Kids inhabit. They're surrounded on all sides by poverty, crime, and violence, and yet their movies manage to work in slapstick (Muggs is always clobbering Huntz Hall's Glimpy), corny puns (Muggs lectures the gang about "optimists and pacifists"), and absurd cartoon-type gags (Muggs puts alum in Butch Broccoli's tea so that the crook's mouth will pucker uncontrollably). The characters, too, are often portrayed as wildly exaggerated stereotypes with silly voices and mannerisms, but they're occasionally supposed to be sympathetic and relatable human beings as well. In one scene, Huntz Hall accidentally swallows a harmonica and then emits musical tones every time he exhales. In another, a tearful Muggs prays -- maybe for the first time in his life -- so that God will spare poor Danny. You see what I mean? Reality is on a sliding scale here. These films are part comedy, part tragedy, and part crime flick. It's a delicate balance, and the makers of these movies don't always get it right.

Smart Alecks is by no means terrible. It's watchable and goes by pretty easily. But by the same token, there's nothing especially strong about this one to set it apart. I can't think of any scenes which are real clunkers, but nothing here feels terribly inspired either. The most entertaining sequence is the one in which Butch Broccoli, who is pretty good-natured and oafish for such a ruthless criminal, invites himself into Ruth's apartment and immediately takes a huge piece of the cake Ruth has specially prepared for the Kids in order to smooth things over after Hank's trial. But this scene puzzled me, too, since it comes not long after the fateful bank robbery. Broccoli should really get out of town or at least lay low for a while, but instead he struts around the neighborhood like a king, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he could be in any kind of trouble. Just about every East Side Kids movie has a sharp-dressed Fagin-type gangster, but none are as childishly naïve as Butch Broccoli (who doesn't even flinch when Muggs serves him a cake frosted with soap). It's therefore believable that he's caught so easily, but it's highly unlikely that he could have busted out of jail after only a short while.

And I wasn't cool with Muggs and the gang taking Danny's money as if they were entitled to it. For all his faults, Muggs seems to be a guy with some high ideals when it comes to stealing, so that plot point didn't seem at all believable for his character. At one point in the middle of the movie, understanding Nurse Ruth tells Joe the Cop that the Kids aren't nearly so bad as he thinks they are; they've just had to fight all their lives for everything they have. Okay, fair enough, but none of that excuses strong-arming poor Danny out of his rightfully-earned reward. Being tough is one thing; being a selfish bully is another.

Minor historical notes: this was made during WWII, so listen for fleeting references to Hitler and to the scarcity of nails. Also, the credits make a big point of introducing Stanley Clements to the ESK fold. He seems like a miniaturized Leo Gorcey wannabe -- the Scrappy-Doo to Leo's Scooby-Doo. And Clements' hatred and fear of women is creepy rather than endearing. (In an utterly bizarre moment, he tells Hank that the one advantage to being in prison is that at least there are no lousy dames around. Yikes.)

Is it funny: Oh, some of the jokes connect every once in a while, but I wouldn't call this a laugh riot. The darkest, funniest scene in the movie has kind of a sick twist to it. Butch Broccoli doesn't beat Danny up personally but has a thug do it for him. The beating occurs off-camera, and we hear Danny's moans and groans. Broccoli is mildly bothered by this and sticks tissue paper in his ears to muffle the sound. After that, he's back to being his old cheerful self. As I mentioned previously, I liked the whole sequence in which Broccoli shows up at Ruth's doorstep and basically invades her apartment while she stands by, too dumbfounded to even protest. But not all the humor worked for me this time. Huntz Hall, a delight in Clancy Street Boys, just got on my nerves here with his cowardice, greed, and stupidity. Muggs was right to smack him around.

My grade: B- (barely)

P.S. - Yes, Scruno is back, so there's some built-in racism to deal with here. The racial humor is kept to a merciful minimum, though. One of the Kids brags that he'll get a tan as dark as Scruno's. And Scruno himself informs us that his mother has just given birth to her twelfth child. (Maybe it was thirteen, counting Scruno, but I'm not going to go back and check.)  Also, one of the Kids' money-making schemes involves Scruno tap dancing in the street in order to solicit handouts from the nice white folks who walk by. Ernest Morrison is a hell of a good dancer, but it's difficult not to see this as a group of white kids (led by Leo Gorcey) exploiting their one black friend.