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DVD Review: The Bowery Boys – Volume One

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In all the annals of classic comedy, there is perhaps no greater resonating sound to perk up the ears of a truly knowledgeable film aficionado than that of The Bowery Boys. Or The East Side Kids. Or the Little Tough Guys. Oh, and the Dead End Kids, too. You see, over the course of 21 years, this ever-altering-yet-constant group of youthful (later to become not-so-youthful-in-age, but in spirit) male actors managed to make a whopping 88 (officially) feature-length films as well as three Saturday Matinee Serials for a total of four different studios. Though several of the faces (and names) changed throughout that 21-year period (23 if you count their stage work), the true constants of the formula(s) usually relied on the talents of leads Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Bobby Jordan, and Gabriel Dell to deliver the goods.

But of course, in order to really get a grasp of it all for the uninitiated (and shame on you), it might be a good idea to go back to the beginning. Real quick-like, mind you.

OK, so in 1937, prolific producer Samuel Goldwyn brought the then-recent play Dead End to life on the big screen, bringing into his studios the popular Broadway play’s own cast of juvenile delinquents — a cast of genuine characters, who would go onto be known as the “Dead End Kids.” With their off-screen antics proving far wilder and destructive than their more-serious, fictional onscreen counterparts, Goldwyn shuffled his new stars over to Warner Brothers, where they dominated their big star lead actors (Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Ronald Reagan, John Garfield) for two more years in a series of somewhat-related follow-up features. At the same time, many of the same kids began appearing in a series of movies and serials for Universal as the Little Tough Guys.

A few years prior to the premiere of their last Universal-contracted title, the boys started showing up in a series of low-budget features for poverty row studio Monogram under the new name, The East Side Kids, which followed the 1940 movie East Side Kids, which starred none of the well-known troupe (which makes the grand total of feature films 89 — unofficially). Though marred by producer Sam Katzman’s notoriously cheap productions values and basic storylines, it was during this third of what would become four assemblage monikers that the Kids — as dominatingly led by now-twentysomethings Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall — would adopt their most famous trademarks: a general switch to the elements of comedy over drama, priceless (and often adlibbed) witty banter between our protagonists, a truly energetic enthusiasm to get the job done (whatever it may be), and — of course — Mr. Gorcey’s character’s famous employment of head-shaking, laughter-inducing malapropisms (which would give Pepé Le Pew’s impious vocabulary a run for his money any day).

These three positive traits (along with the former negative two) carried on to the final montage of merriment: The Bowery Boys, whose first feature, Live Wires hit theaters in 1946, and whose last hoorah, In the Money, trundled of projection equipment near and far in 1958 — forty-eight features later. If you learn nothing else from this, kids, it’s that The Bowery Boys is the longest feature film series in film history. Commit that to memory: it’ll come in handy during a pub quiz or AM radio program sometime down the line. Well, maybe. You see, despite being so vastly popular with past generations, most of The Bowery Boys movies have rarely seen the light of day on legitimate home video.

Sure, we had bootlegs up to our elbows — most of which were culled from fuzzy TV prints or tattered personal 16mm reels. And there were a total of I think six videocassette releases in the ’90s from Warner Bros. which obviously failed to generate any revenue or interest with many, or else there had been more titles on VHS issued. Finally, fans who have been jonesin’ for a Bowery Boys fix can at long last feed that restless simian-looking thing upon their backs with the Warner Archive Collection’s release of The Bowery Boys: Volume One — a long-overdue, highly-awaited four-disc collection that presents longtime fans and newbies alike with twelve movies ranging from the previously-mentioned Live Wires from 1946 to 1952’s No Holds Barred.

Now, anyone who has been keeping up with the various movie mathematics I have been dispelling within this article should have a red flag-a-raisin’ here. Yes, it’s true: this set does not present the series in a chronological manner. And, while that may disappoint some of the really, really diehard individuals out there, I can’t imagine there will be many folks who would boycott this release because of it (and if there are, they should seek help).

Disc One’s assortment begins with Live Wires (Bowery Boys feature #1), wherein we are introduced to a nearly-formulaic setting. Our regulars — Leo Gorcey as Terrence Aloysius “Slip” Mahoney, Huntz Hall as Horace Debussy “Sach” Jones, Bobby Jordan (who always reminded me of an early Keanu Reeves prototype, albeit one with talent) as Bobby, and Billy Benedict as Whitey — feel their way around here, making a transition from the previous Monogram series (this one has a heavy drama element to it, with Slip’s sister becoming endangered by the nefarious owner of the construction company she works for, with veteran heavy Mike Mazurki co-starring). Bernard Gorcey (Leo’s father), who would later play Louie Dumbrowski, the owner of Louie’s Sweet Shop — always tormented by the boys’s antics, but who always steps in to help them out in the end because he truly loves ‘em — is cast here in another role. Meanwhile, William Frambes — who only ever appeared in an East Side Kids vehicle, and was never seen in another after this — is cast as one of the other boys.

In Fast Company (#2, also from 1946) replaces Frambes’ with David Gorcey (Leo’s better-looking brother) as Chuck, who would stay throughout the series with Huntz Hall until the very last Bowery Boys film 12 years later. This one also casts Bernard Gorcey into his role as Louie, and the great Douglas Fowley — who once played Bobby Jordan’s brother in an East Side Kids flick, Mr. Wise Guy — reunites with his former co-stars in this tale of a crooked taxicab company owner who is determined to control all of the cabs in New York by eliminating the competition one way or the other. Bowery Bombshell (#3, from ’46 as well — these tales were cranked out en masse for the matinee crowds, folks!) finds Sach becoming a wanted man when his picture is accidentally taken holding a stolen bag of money (which a bank robber drops on his way out, and “Sach” is polite enough to hand it back to him).

Disc Two starts up by skipping the next three films in The Bowery Boys legacy (Spook Busters, Mr. Hex, and Hard Boiled Mahoney) and takes us to 1947’s News Hounds (#7) — where Slip and Sach work as copyboy and photographer (respectively) at a busy newspaper, who get mixed up with some gangsters. This is the first feature in this DVD set to include Gabriel Dell, who — as he usually did — is cast as Gabe (and who started out as a Dead End Kid). In this case, Gabe is working for the bad guys (something he did quite invariantly during The East Side Kids days; a trait he would carry unto his final films in the ’70s, such as Earthquake and Framed with Joe Don Baker).

Jumping ahead once more — this time past five feature films — we land at Fighting Fools (#13, 1949), an East Side Kids-esque yarn centering on the actions of a crooked boxing promoter (you notice a trend yet in these stories?) whose greed results in a dead athlete, and Frankie Darro (who had also appeared with one incarnation of the band at one point or another) as the disgraced fighter who gets a chance to avenge his brother’s death. By this time, Bobby Jordan had left the series, unhappy that his longtime colleagues Leo and Huntz were basically the stars of the show. Replacing him is Bennie Bartlett, who joins us again in 1949’s Hold That Baby! (#14), where the Boys accidentally wind up with a missing infant on their hands — a hot tot who just happens to be in line for a fortune!

Moving onto Disc Three (and ahead one more entry), we have a personal favorite: 1949’s Master Minds (#16) — wherein Sach’s toothache gives him the ability to predict the future, which lands the distorted eyes of the mad Dr. Druzik (Alan Napier, Alfred from TV’s Batman). Wrongly sensing Sach is a genius (!), Druzik plans to transfer his mental prowess into the body of his wooly man-monster, Atlas (Glenn Strange, with some impressive-by-Monogram-standards make-up by none other than Universal monster maker Jake Pierce) via some wacky electrical appliance. Seeing Glenn Strange in full monster makeup imitating Hall’s character is pure gold, while Hall’s “bestial” side is eerily reminiscent of a cross between Quentin Tarantino and the monster from Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse!

Blonde Dynamite (#17, the first Bowery Boys flick from the 1950, and which replaces Bennie Bartlett with Buddy Gorman) centers on Slip convincing Louie to take his wife on a vacation (wait, Louie has a wife?) — and he and the rest of the lads convert the Sweet Shop into a high-priced escort service while he’s away. Things go wrong of course, especially once Gabe — who’s working at a bank now — gets into a heap of trouble when $5,000 is stolen from him, and a group of gangsters threaten to frame him unless he gets them into the bank safe. The next title in the series (chronologically, as well as in this set) is Lucky Losers (#18, 1950), wherein high-stakes gambling comes into play as Slip tries to solve the mysterious suicide of his employer.

Disc Four opens with Blues Busters (#20, 1950), where Sach is endowed with a remarkable singing voice after his tonsils are removed. Slip quickly exploits this talent, naturally, opening up a nightclub for his new star. Apart from a hilarious scene were Slip tries to cover for Sach on stage by singing (and Louie’s reaction to the aural atrocity that ensues), this film is also notable for being Gabriel Dell’s last stand with his longtime co-stars (he, too, was tired of playing second banana to Leo and Huntz). 1951’s Crazy Over Horses (#24) lands our heroes with a horse — an unlikely payment for a racing debt owed to Louie by a stable-owner. Chaos ensues as a group of gangsters attempt to switch the pony with one of their own. Bennie Bartlett returns here, replacing Buddy Gorman, while Billy Benedict bows out here (who, ironically enough, did not opt out because of the Gorcey/Hall duo overshadowing the others, but because of the fighting that often erupted because of it). Interestingly, David Gorcey started going by his mother’s maiden name here, being billed as David Condon until 1957’s Spook Chasers.

Lastly on Disc Four (and in the entire DVD set in-general), we have 1952’s No Holds Barred (#28). This time, a magic spell enables the rocks that have always inhabited Sach’s head to finally solidify to the point where he can’t feel a thing (or maybe all those clonks he took to the noggin from Slip’s hat finally took their toll?). Needless to say, he is now the ideal individual to step into the wrestling ring — in Slip’s eyes, that is. Sach, of course, has his doubts — especially once his enchanted ability starts transgressing and moving to his fingers and toes! The legendary William “One-Shot” Beaudine (who directed well over 350 films in his prolific b-movie career) helms this final entry in The Bowery Boys: Volume One.

Each title in The Bowery Boys: Volume One is presented in its original Academy aspect ratio of 1.37:1 (or at least 1.33:1, if you want to get real technical). While little restoration has been done for any of these titles, they look quite beautiful given their age and the apparent lack of interest its various copyright owners had for them over the years. The often-crinkly mono English soundtrack accompanying each movie is about what you can expect it to be, but gets the job done. There are no alternate language sound options or subtitles to be found with this release, nor are there any bonus materials. But then, the very fact that we finally have Bowery Boys movies on DVD is a grand reason to buy this dynamic Manufactured-on-Demand set, and the purchase of this beauty is — as one Terrence Aloysius “Slip” Mahoney would so aptly put it — “a logical seclusion.”

Highly recommended.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.
  • Tom LaCamera

    I think the simple reason they didn’t do these in chronological order is that most people wouldn’t buy Volume 2 if they did. Those last episodes (actually starting with after Whitey left) were not very good…with the last few in the series quite awful.