More Buried Treasure from the Mercer County Library Collections
The Mercer County Library has recently added two collections of Bowery Boys films; Bowery Boys Volume One (broken up into 4 separate discs) and Bowery Boys Volume Two (also broken up into 4 separate discs). They brought back some fond memories. Now I might be dating myself, but the Bowery Boys were a staple of my Saturday afternoon youth. Before the advent of cable, the most important decision of my youthful self was whether to watch the Bowery Boys on channel 5 or the Three Stooges on channel 11. You only got to pick one because they were on at the same time and there was no DVR back then; why shoot, you even had to get up from your chair walk across the room and change channels using a dial on the TV! Yes, those were prehistoric times. Most days I picked the Bowery Boys and settled into an hour of malapropisms and just plain silliness. The Bowery Boys films were not critical favorites or destined for preservation from the American Film Institute, but if you wanted a laugh you could do worse than the Bowery Boys.
The Bowery Boys films were created in the 1940’s to act as “support” features for the major films Hollywood produced in those years. In the 1920’s through 1940’s, spending the day at the movie theater was truly spending the whole day (or really afternoon into evening) as, for the price of one ticket, the movie-goer was treated to a couple of newsreels, a couple of cartoons, a shorter support feature, than the major feature. The support features were shorter in length than the major films, normally clocking in a couple minutes north of one hour. And do not hold your nose up at support features, just remember Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, and Buster Keaton all “graduated” from support or short films. These short films usually were serial films starring stars like Roy Rogers, Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), or Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan). Especially popular with movie audiences were the short comedies of Our Gang (later The Little Rascals), Abbot and Costello, the Three Stooges, and the Bowery Boys.
The history of the Bowery Boys reaches back into 1930’s Broadway where the 1935 Broadway play Dead End featured a gang of lower Manhattan hooligans that were the genesis of the Bowery Boys. When Samuel Goldwyn bought the rights, he brought along the Broadway cast of kids to be featured in the movie, among them Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Gabriel Dell, and Bobby Jordan (all starring in the various later incarnations of the group). The actors were referred to as the “Dead End Kids” and starred in more films billed as that after their contract was sold to Warner Brothers. Goldwyn “sold” them to Warner Brothers because of the havoc they caused off-camera on the set. They made 6 films for Warner Brothers, the most prominent being Angels with Dirty Faces starring James Cagney. After the six films, Warner Brothers dropped them as they proved just as unruly at Warner Brothers as they did at MGM.
Universal picked up some of their contracts next and the crew were renamed “The Little Tough Guys.” They made twelve feature films and three 12-chapter serials with the gang. Meanwhile, Warner Brothers re-signed most of the gang and starred them in short films as “The East Side Kids.” A total of 21 films were made under this moniker.
In 1945, the major players from the East Side Kids (Bobby Jordan, Leo Gorcey, and Huntz Hall) met with their agent and created their own production company, re-vamping the series and re-christening themselves “The Bowery Boys.” The original Bowery Boys were Terrence Aloysius "Slip" Mahoney (Leo Gorcey), Horace Debussy "Sach" Jones (Huntz Hall), Bobby (Bobby Jordan), Whitey (Billy Benedict), and Chuck (David Gorcey and brother of Leo). Another major character was the owner of the “Sweet Shop” that the boys hang out in, Louie Dumbrowski, who was played by Bernard Gorcey, Leo and David’s father. Leo Gorcey became the main force of the troupe; he owned 40% of the company, starred, produced, and contributed to the scripts. The comedic talent of Hall elevated him to co-star status with Leo Gorcey and the other three “boys” were relegated to diminished roles that lead to Bobby Jordan leaving and being replaced by a string of different actors. The series focused on the interplay between Slip and Sach and became a vehicle for the talents (and wallets) of Leo Gorcey and Hall. Slip was famous for his frequent malapropisms, such as “a clever seduction” for “a clever deduction” and “I regurgitate” for “I reiterate.” There were 48 films in the Bowery Boys series, the longest feature film series in Hollywood history.
When the series finally ended, Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall never climbed the heights of Hollywood success again. They would make occasional appearances in guest spots on TV shows or low budget films. The biggest thing Gorcey did was a small part as a taxi driver in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Gorcey would die at the age of 52 in 1969 from liver failure brought on by his heavy drinking. Hall would find financial success after the Bowery Boys as a result of his off-shore oil well investments and would live until he was 78, dying in January 1999.
The Bowery Boys were a popular success and had an influence apparently that stretched across the ocean to England. When the Beatles were contemplating who to put on the famous cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album they wanted to include people that influenced society and to show the increasing democratization of society whereby traditional barriers between 'high' and 'low' culture were being eroded. Two people that were to be included were Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall. Gorcey’s image however was removed as, when he was informed he would be appearing on the cover, asked for $500. Hall was pleased to be included on the cover, asked for no money, and his image remained.
Acqcat – The collection development cat
Photo courtesy of CliqueClack