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.