As a comedy franchise, the Bowery Boys (a.k.a. the Dead End Kids a.k.a. the East Side Kids) haven't received much respect over the years. From the group's debut in the 1937 Academy Award-nominated social drama Dead End to their years working for poverty row producer "Jungle" Sam Katzman is, admittedly, one heck of a career descent. Back in the sixties, though, I remember spending much of my pre-teens watching East Side Kids/Bowery Boys features on Chicago afternoon television: like many '40s movie series to come out of Monogram Pictures (e.g., the Charlie Chans), they were an inexpensive way for local stations to fill in slow time. Caught a lotta these cheapies – and if they weren't exactly classic comedies, they were certainly more watchable than much of what passed for sitcoms back in those days, if only because they had the air of coming from a different time and place.
Nowadays, the best place to view one of these low-rent features is in the cheapie DVD bins: fortunately, with Halloween around the corner, the number of bargain discs featuring public domain fright flicks is on the rise. I recently picked up a three-movie set called Ghostly Grins that included one of two movies the lads made with a down-on-his-luck Bela Lugosi. (As an added bonus: Angela Rossito, the dwarf from both Freaks and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome!) Short and slapdash, the 71-minute Spooks Run Wild (1941) is an Old Dark House "comedy" that plays like it has maybe a half-hour of script – and forty minutes of ad libs.
Though opening with stock footage of '40s NYC, the flick takes place in rural upstate New York, where the aging East Siders have purportedly been bussed to spend the summer. We're not particularly sure what our gang of uncouth city hooligans has done to get sent on this early Brat Camp experience — the movie doesn't really bother to tell us — but the camp is run by B-Western movie actor Dave "Tex" O'Brien, unconvincingly playing a law student this time, and his nurse girlfriend Linda (Dorothy Short). The main quartet of Kids in this outing are bossy Muggsy (Leo Gorcey), dopey Glimpy (Huntz Hall), boring Danny (Bobby Jordan), and lone black Kid Scruno ("Sunshine Sammy" Morrison), who gets to do all the expected patented big-eyed fright moves, though not as broadly as, oh, Mantan Moreland might've done 'em.
The Kids sneak out of camp and find themselves stranded in a nearby dark mansion after one of the more expendable cast members, Peewee (David Gorcey, Leo's less interesting younger brother), gets shot by a skittish cemetery caretaker. Lugosi is the current keeper of the spooky estate – and the crew is quickly convinced that he's a murdering maniac who's reportedly roaming the area. Dressed in his trademark Dracula tux and accompanied by the mute dwarf Luigi (Rossito), Lugosi doesn't do much beside smirk menacingly throughout the picture, but he's still fun to watch. Unlike the sad final films of his Ed Wood years, it's clear he still gets a charge out of being in front of the camera. His appearance in Spooks is largely a red herring, of course, since the actual homicidal maniac proves to be a character we only see once before he's later revealed as the killer.
Per the Monogram modus operandi, much of Spooks looks like it was shot by busybusybusy director Phil Rosen in one take: deadly in the few brief punch-'em-up or nurse-in-peril scenes but passable in the many moments featuring two Kids (or Morrison on his lonesome) stumbling around the cobwebby mansion set with its obligatory hidden passages and objects that move about for no reason. Neither Gorcey nor Hall is given much to do (unlike many of the later Bowery Boys extravaganzas) except deliver an occasional weak wisecrack — a bit featuring the two in armor proves particularly unfulfilling — but Morrison holds every scene he's given, an enduring testament to the criminal misuse of talented black comic actors in that era.
Still, I would've liked to've seen more of Gorcey's trademark malapropisms or Hall's slack-jawed gooniness.
Though it may not make the case for a reconsideration of the East End/Bowery Kids/Boys oeuvre, I found Spooks to be a viewable time-waster, though it'll probably be some time before I actively seek out another of these Monogram comedy B-pics. For me, the moment that best captures my experience came near the movie's end when Gorcey cracked, upon discovering a mysterious hidden passage, "This looks like the place where the plot begins to thicken!"
"Plot?" I found myself nearly hollering at the teevee, "What plot?"