Friday, December 27, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #73: "Million Dollar Kid" (1944)

Adjusting for inflation, this would be The $13.2 Million Kid today.

The flick: Million Dollar Kid (Monogram Pictures, 1944) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 7.1

Director: Wallace Fox (Smart Alecks)

Character man Robert Grieg
Series regulars:
  • Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Gabriel Dell, Bobby Stone (all in Smart Alecks)
  • Jimmy Strand (cameoed in Clancy Street Boys and stayed with the series from 1943-1944; non-ESK films include Faces in the Fog and Are These Our Parents?)
  • Buddy Gorman (this is the first of his ESK films I've reviewed; he was with the series from 1943-1951; he also appeared in White Heat and Meet Me In St. Louis)
  • David Durand (did three ESK films at the end of his career; had previously appeared in Angels with Dirty Faces and Bob Hope's The Ghostbreakers, plus a series of "Terry Kelly" short films at Columbia)
  • Bernard Gorcey (Leo's dad; appeared in quite a few ESK/Bowery Boys movies, including Clancy Street Boys; other films include The Picture of Dorian Gray and Chaplin's The Great Dictator)

Other actors of note:
  • Herbert Heyes (Miracle on 34th Street, The Ten Commandments)
  • Robert Grieg (Hollywood and Vine; the Marx Brothers' Horse Feathers and Animal Crackers; Preston Sturges' The Palm Beach Story, Unfaithfully Yours, Sullivan's Travels, and The Lady Eve)
  • Mary Gordon (James Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man)
  • Patsy Moran (a Monogram stock player; worked on TV and in films with Lucille Ball, Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, Bob Hope, and more)
  • Stan Brown (Only Angels Have Wings, You Can't Take It With You)
  • Al Stone (nothing else; this was his first and last movie)
  • Louise Curry (Citizen Kane, The Reluctant Dragon)

Funny lady Iris Adrian
The gist of it: Muggs (Gorcey) is upset about a string of muggings that have been giving the East Side a bad rep and nearly as upset that dimwitted Glimpy (Hall) has invited his even-more-dimwitted cousin Herbie (Stone) to join the East Side Kids. One night, the Kids save wealthy Mr. Courtland (Heyes) from being mugged by some tough gangsters. Courtland is grateful and gives the Kids his card. Later, Glimpy and Herbie find Courtland's wallet and the money inside it, leading Police Captain Matthews (Beery) to believe that the East Side Kids themselves are the muggers.

At the police station, Courtland exonerates the Kids and invites them to his home to use his elaborate gymnasium. The Kids get along surprisingly well with Courtland, but they soon notice that not all is well with the rich man's children. His older son is away, flying for Uncle Sam in WWII. His lovely daughter Louise (Curry) is engaged to charming conman Andre (Brown) who claims to be a French military officer but is actually an American phony whose "uniform" came from a costume shop. After tailing him, Muggs and Glimpy discover that Andre is two-timing Louise with a floozy nightclub singer named Mazie Dunbar (Adrian).

This little conundrum is pretty easily (and cleverly) solved when Muggs brings the outraged Mazie to Andre and Louise's engagement party, but there's a more serious issue with Courtland's younger son, Roy (Duncan). You see, Roy is part of the gang of muggers that's been terrorizing the neighborhood -- not because he needs money, but just because he's bored and looking for kicks. When the Kids learn that Courtland's older son has been tragically shot down in combat overseas, they do everything they can to bring the real muggers to justice without incriminating Roy so that nice Mr. Courtland won't lose both of his sons. Things get complicated, though, when the crooks kidnap one of the Kids, Skinny (Benedict).

Perry juxtaposes silly and serious.
My take: Since the unexpected success of Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005), critics have complained about writer-director-star Tyler Perry combining deadly serious issues with broad, silly comedy in a clumsy and artless fashion, i.e. juxtaposing domestic violence with the sketch-comedy buffoonery of "Madea." But Million Dollar Kid proves that this is nothing new. Yet again, an East Side Kids movie takes an entirely unwanted detour into heavy melodrama, then still tries to keep the Three Stooges-type wackiness going. I get emotional whiplash from these movies.

As Danny Peary points out in his book Cult Movie Stars, the Dead End/East Side movies are liberal sermons at heart. The point is that uneducated, lower-class youths are not inherently bad; they just need kindly benefactors, including policemen and wealthy philanthropists, to set them on the right path. His level of moral turpitude varies from film to film, but Leo Gorcey is usually a goody-two-shoes in these movies, despite his tough talk. Huntz Hall is weak-willed and therefore more fallible. He always ends up doing the right thing, but it's because Gorcey slaps him around if he doesn't.

The writers and directors at Monogram had apparently stopped trying to give any of the other Kids individual personalities by 1944. Other than Muggs and Glimpy, the other gang members are interchangeable. Obviously, Monogram was trying to switch things up a little by bringing in the new character Herbie, who manages to be even dumber than Glimpy. But just as obviously, that little experiment didn't work and the character (and the actor) disappeared forever. Frankly, though, all this is moot.

When Mr. Courtland gets that most-dreaded telegram from the War Department, Million Dollar Kid stops being a goofball comedy, and no amount of pratfalls or malapropisms can bring it back. Oh, and I couldn't help but notice that this movie yet again took the East Side Kids out of their natural environment. In this case, Muggs and the boys spend virtually all their time at the ritzy home of the Courtlands. I felt really badly for the butler (Grieg) who gets fired for being slightly snooty to the rude, destructive Kids. The movie forgets about this character, and I shudder to think what must have happened to him after losing his job. Damn those East Side Kids!

Leo and Bernard Gorcey
Is it funny: Nah, not really. If there's humor here, it's in the subplot about the fake Frenchie and his bottle-blonde bimbo girlfriend. I would have made this the main focus of the movie and completely left out the "prodigal son" story, which only serves to drag the movie down.

For me, the funniest moment of the movie is when Stan Brown tries to keep his pathetic charade going after the jig is clearly up. There was some real potential with these characters, but they don't get enough screen time. "New guy" Herbie, on the other hand, gets way too much screen time. While all of the East Side Kids are overaged to one degree or another, Al Stone looks like a middle-aged man. Muggs cracks wise about this very topic, but that only makes the situation worse by calling attention to it.

For these reasons and more, Million Dollar Kid just didn't do it for me. Leo Gorcey does have a funny little scene with his dad, Bernard, who looks like a shrunken, older version of his son. However, Bernard plays a delivery man who arrives at the Courtland house to bring the fateful telegram. Therefore, it's monstrously inappropriate to have these two engage in vaudeville-type banter at this point in the movie. What could the makers of this film have been thinking?

My grade: C

P.S. - Scruno had dropped out of the East Side Kids by this point -- Ernest Morrison fought for real in WWII, then got out of acting altogether -- but Million Dollar Kid still manages to sneak in a little bit of old-timey racism when Muggs makes a crack about "Ubangis" and Glimpy responds by grabbing his lips and stretching them out. This is a reference to a cultural misnomer about Ubangi tribeswomen wearing lip plates. Hey, folks, don't blame me. I didn't write these movies.