Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #74: "Bowery Blitzkrieg" (1941)

Don't these posters make Bowery Blitzkrieg look exciting?

"The noisier the better is the rule when ballyhooing any East Side Kid picture. For Bowery Blitzkrieg get a bunch of rascals dressed as carelessly as the East Siders themselves and send them parading through town with instructions to create as much noise as possible. Have them carry placards with slogans similar to the scorehead teasers suggested in another column of this exploitation section. Supply the youngsters with any noisemakers available -- tin pans, horns, drums . . . and if it's at all possible get them some firecrackers which will take the town by storm when set off out of season."
-excerpt from a vintage Bowery Blitzkrieg pressbook

Charlotte Henry

The flick: Bowery Blitzkrieg (Banner Productions/Monogram Pictures, 1941) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.9

Director: Wallace Fox (Million Dollar Kid)

Series regulars: Leo Gorcey, Bobby Jordan, Huntz Hall, Ernest Morrison, Bobby Stone, David Gorcey (all in Mr. Wise Guy), Donald Haines (Pride of the Bowery)

Other actors of note: Keye Luke (The Gang's All Here), Warren Hull (A Bride for Henry), Charlotte Henry (Murders in the Rue Morgue, Laurel & Hardy's Babes in Toyland), Martha Wentworth (Clancy Street Boys), Jack Mulhall (Mr. Wise Guy), Eddie Foster (Buster Keaton's The General, Hitchcock's Saboteur), Dennis Moore (East Side Kids), Pat Costello (Lou Costello's brother; worked as an actor, stuntman, and producer on many Abbott & Costello movies as well as their TV show), Dick Ryan (Mr. Wise Guy), Minerva Urecal (Boys of the City), Tony Carson (John Ford's They Were Expendable)

The gist of it: Danny (Jordan) has split with the East Side Kids due to personal differences with his ex-best-friend Muggs (Gorcey). Danny's now palling around with local hoodlum Monk (Stone), who dupes naive Danny into helping him commit robberies and sets up Muggs to be arrested and thrown into reform school. Fortunately, local beat cop Tom Brady (Hull), who is also dating Danny's sister Mary (Henry), sees potential in Muggs as a boxer and takes him into his own apartment. The former juvenile delinquent proves him right and is a success in the ring. But Mary mistakenly thinks of Muggs as a bad influence on Danny, which throws a monkey wrench into her relationship with Tom. Things get worse when gangster Slats Morrison (Foster) tries to bribe Muggs to take a dive in a Golden Gloves title bout. Muggs turns it down, but Slats plants the money on him anyway to make him look like he's cooperating.

Everyone is suspicious of Muggs, even true believer Tom, who tells Muggs that he'd better put up a good fight to prove he's on the level. But there's a twist, you see! During a post-robbery shootout, Monk is fatally wounded and Danny badly injured. Danny's only hope is a blood transfusion, which he gets from Muggs just hours before the fight. Danny recovers, but Muggs is in no condition to box. And yet, for obvious reasons, he cannot afford to lose this match.

In training... again: Huntz Hall with Pat Costello.
My take: To the best of my knowledge, Bowery Blitzkrieg is the second-to-last East Side Kids movie in this collection. The last one, Spooks Run Wild, doesn't show up until almost the very end of this set (#98 of 100) and it features Bela Lugosi, so I'm actually kind of looking forward to it. I can't say I'm exactly sorry to see the East Siders go. Their movies are formulaic as hell, indifferently made, and generally not that funny. Plus their annoyance factor is pretty darned high, with the Kids talking in those exaggerated Noo Yawk accents and loading nearly every sentence with "dem," "dese," and "dose," plus all that obscure 1940s street slang that I'm not sure anyone ever really used.

But I must have developed some kind of Stockholm syndrome with this series, because I actually started to care what happened in Bowery Blitzkrieg by the time it reached its dramatic apex with poor, depleted Muggs fighting for his life and his reputation in the boxing ring. Blitzkrieg isn't especially good in any noticeable way, though, and it contains many of the elements I've seen in previous ESK comedies. Muggs is trying to make it as a boxer again, so there are plenty of scenes set in a gymnasium. But the East Siders spend their time in gyms in every movie no matter what the plot is about. Hell, even the vaguely pedophilic philanthropist in Million Dollar Kid had a suspiciously-elaborate workout room in his house!

Come to think of it, none of these young men ever display more than a fleeting interest in the opposite sex, and they spend almost all their time cloistered together (often with their shirts off) in basements and back rooms. I think I've spotted them hanging out by the docks a lot, too, and they're forever being hauled off to jail or reform school. Maybe this series is the softest gay porn ever. But how, then, to explain the Kids' atrocious clothing and sloppy hairdos? (Leo Gorcey's hair, in particular, is an absolute disgrace throughout Bowery Blitzkrieg.) Well, maybe they're going for a punky "anti-fashion" thing. Modern day bohemians could learn a few things from these palookas.

A complex guy: Muggs with "Ma" Brady
Anyway, like I was saying, this movie has a lot of stuff I've already seen in other ESK flicks. These boys are always landing in the hospital, for instance, waiting for last-second miracles as their very lives hang in the balance. How often was Monogram planning to play that particular card, I wonder? And why don't these kids ever wise up and steer clear of the unctuous sharpies who are always trying to steer them down the wrong path? I swear, these morons fall for every smooth-talking con artist with a pencil mustache, a cool nickname and a pinstriped suit.

Maybe they're so easily led astray because the good-guy cops in these flicks are total weenies. Warren Hull's Tom Brady might just be the weeniest of them all. He lives with his doting mother (Wentworth) in a very old-lady-ish apartment and has a passionless, sexless relationship with Charlotte Henry's pure, virginal character, who is (not coincidentally) named Mary. The other major cop character, a police lieutenant who spends all his time behind a desk, is played by the cadaverous Dick Ryan, who was much more believable as the sadistic guard in Mr.Wise Guy but is supposed to be one of the heroes here.

Speaking of casting choices, this was apparently the first East Side Kids movie to feature Huntz Hall. (He gets an "introducing" before his name in the credits.) He wasn't exactly a newcomer. He'd been a part of the franchise since at least 1937's Dead End, in which he appeared alongside Leo Gorcey and Bobby Jordan. But this was technically the first of Monogram's East Side Kids films to feature Hall. (If you'll think back, he was absent from Boys of the City and Flying Wild.) He does the same "slow-witted sidekick" routine I've already witnessed several times before, so his supposed debut did not make much of an impact on me.

If there's a reason to watch Bowery Blitzkrieg, it's Gorcey. When I first started watching these movies, I found him extremely irritating, and I'm still not ready to call myself a "fan," exactly. But he brings a real intensity to his role and gives this movie a much-needed shot of adrenaline, even though Muggs McGinnis would never be able to correctly pronounce either "intensity" or "adrenaline." Gorcey's the most complex of the Kids: essentially decent and principled but also deeply insecure and vulnerable. He puts up a tough front, defending himself with sarcastic wisecracks and his fists if necessary. But there's a sad little man behind the bluster and bravado, and that comes through in Gorcey's performance in Bowery Blitzkrieg.

Is it funny: It's not totally unfunny. I'll go that far, but no further. I've run hot and cold on Leo Gorcey's confrontational, aggressive brand of humor. Sometimes I find it winning, other times just irksome. This time around, though I would have advised him to rein it in a little, Muggs is easily the movie's funniest character, especially when he refuses to take life seriously or show the tiniest bit of respect to those in power. One good though underused foil for Muggs is Minerva Urecal's dour reform school matron, whom he playfully nicknames "Picklepuss." The best comedic moment in the movie is the one in which Muggs (newly arrived at the reformatory) pretends to flirt with this humorless woman, to her utter horror: "Oh, Picklepuss, you an' me wuz made fer each udda! We c'd do t'ings! We c'd go places!" It's made all the funnier by the fact that uniformed cop Tom Brady is standing about a foot away from them, watching in total non-comprehension.

Like some other early ESK movies, Bowery Blitzkrieg takes its story pretty seriously but pauses occasionally for moments of levity, as in a self-contained vaudeville-type skit in which Pat Costello and Huntz Hall (both playing dum-dums) discuss how to tend to a boxer's injuries properly during a fight. It's very obvious from this scene that Pat was aping the mannerisms of his younger brother, Lou, but without much success.

My grade: C+

Clancy's shirt
P.S. - Scruno is in this one, so there's the expected racial humor at his expense. Same old, same old. He's a shoeshine boy and as lazy, larcenous, and cowardly as ever, liable to bolt from a room at the mere sight of a cop. There's nothing particularly vicious about the portrayal of his character, but he's still a poor role model.

More interesting is the treatment of Clancy, an Asian-American man who runs the pool hall where the East Side Kids hang out. Just like in The Gang's All Here, Keye Luke gives a dignified, positive, non-stereotyped portrayal. His ethnicity, for most of the film, is not an issue. But there's one weird scene in which Clancy shows up with a t-shirt with Muggs' name on the back and Chinese characters on the front. Muggs thinks the writing must be "propaganda," but Clancy claims he doesn't know what the characters mean. ("I got it off a Chinese calendar.") Muggs demands that he read it anyway, and... well, not speaking the language myself, I can't be sure if what Keye Luke says is real or not. But it's an off-putting, gratuitous moment either way.