In the beginning, Billy Halop, Huntz Hall, Bobby Jordan, Leo Gorcey, Gabriel Dell and Bernard Punsly were collectively known as “The Dead End Kids,” due to their success in portraying streetwise juvenile delinquents in the 1937 film Dead End—adapted from the popular stage play by Sidney Kingsley. As the years progressed, the team would be referred to by many other monikers—The Little Tough Guys, The East Side Kids—until they finally reached their zenith at Monogram/Allied Artists from 1946-57, where they made numerous B-picture comedies as The Bowery Boys. The Bowery Boys film series has both its detractors and fans (that would be me), but everyone seems to be in general agreement that the years they spent at Warner Bros.—where they appeared alongside James Cagney and Pat O’Brien in the popular gangster melodrama Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and made five other films co-starring actors like Humphrey Bogart (Crime School ) and John Garfield (They Made Me a Criminal )—found them at the peak of their j.d. powers.
Ronald Reagan had the pleasure (or misfortune, depending on your opinion) of appearing in two of the Dead End Kids’ outings (both of which were shown as part of TCM’s Star of the Month festival this month) beginning with Hell’s Kitchen (1939), an entertaining B-mellerdrammer that is more of a showcase for the young actors than Ronnie—he plays the nephew (and mouthpiece) of racketeer Stanley Ridges, who’s decided to go “legit” and donate his ill-gotten gains to a shelter run by wicked administrator Grant Mitchell. Reagan’s only real purpose in the movie (he’s billed fourth) seems to be as love interest for Margaret Lindsay, a social worker who’s fired from the shelter by Mitchell but rehired by Ridges when she informs him of the heinous conditions under which the boys must endure. Mitchell (who reminds me of Dick Chaney in this film, for reasons I can’t quite pin down) plays the part of the villain with great relish; having the shelter guards regularly beat the kids and instituting methods of punishment like locking them up in “the cold room,” a quaint euphemism for the shelter’s meat freezer. Later in the film, he orders a sickly Bobby Jordan into the “cold room” for a nine-hour stretch—and Jordan emerges both a human Popsicle and dead as a doornail.
Ridges, who plays his role for mostly comedy relief (for some reason, he’s loaded down with malapropisms—something that would later become the bailiwick of Leo Gorcey), starts out using the shelter for his own purposes (namely, a quick ticket to rehabilitation since he’s on probation) but gradually warms up to the little bastards—even allowing them to form their own “government” (with Halop as the “Mayor” and Gorcey as “Chief of Police”) inside the shelter to insure things are running smoothly. He spends a generous portion of his own money in transforming the boys’ home, but is tricked by an old henchman (Fred Tozere) into an exhibition hockey game between the shelter boys and a group of professional “ringers”—who naturally, end up wiping the walls with the Dead Enders. Ridges then starts throwing punches at the former henchie—in front of the judge who sentenced him, clearly a smooth move—thereby setting himself up for a long stay at The Grey Bar Hotel.
Hell’s Kitchen is a fairly entertaining picture, even though I think Ridges’ character is a bit hard to take sometimes, and features an exciting climax in which the Kids decide to institute a little “frontier justice” by trying and convicting Mitchell for Jordan’s death (Mitchell ends up temporarily trapped in a burning barn, and there’s one scene where it’s clearly obvious they didn’t give him a stuntman). It’s a bit mawkish and sentimental at times, but the speechifying is kept to a bare minimum—something that cannot be said to the Reagan/Kids second go-round, Angels Wash Their Faces (1939). In this film (which the studio retitled to make moviegoers think it was a sequel to the Cagney/O’Brien flick), Reagan has a bit more substantial part and more prominently figures in the events that transpire (in Kitchen he appears to just be along for the ride); he plays Deputy D.A. Patrick “Pat” Remson, a lawyer who sympathizes with the plight of The Dead End Kids when they are hassled by Alfred Martino (Eduardo Ciannelli), a racketeer who successfully manages the conviction of a delinquent youth (Frankie Thomas) for arson and murder (Bobby Jordan gets a reprieve this time—it’s Bernard Punsly who snuffs it). Ann Sheridan is Thomas’ sister, who in between giving the bad guys plenty of sass and wringing her hands over her brother’s fate manages to find time to be Ronnie’s main squeeze.
I liked Faces much better than Kitchen, but the film has a tendency to veer off into a heavier bit of moralizing than most Warner social dramas of the time; Thomas’ buddies want to help their chum (they know it was Ciannelli who was responsible for framing him) out of The Big House and spend a lot of time whining about how the chips are stacked against them and no one will listen to them because they’re just kids, ad infinitum. Reagan convinces them to use their newly-acquired powers (the Dead End Kids have been appointed to certain offices as part of a “student government” deal) as city officials to lean on Ciannelli’s mob (Bernard Nedell, Dick Rich) and extract a confession. If you can overlook the didacticism, the film has some clever touches: my particular favorite is how the gang is able to bring down Ciannelli’s empire but the real mayor (Berton Churchill) manages to wriggle away scot-free (maybe you can beat City Hall…but there’s always that one rat in the building that proves impervious to capture), campaigning for governor to boot.
Frankie Thomas, a popular child actor who later achieved television immortality as the titular Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, is featured prominently in this film as a juvenile delinquent who’s just been released from reform school and dedicated to staying on the straight-and-narrow (he’s the dupe framed on the arson-murder charge). (He would later appear with the Dead Enders in their last Warner epic, On Dress Parade —the only one of the WB pictures I’ve yet to see.) Thomas was also working for the Warner Bros. B-picture unit in the Nancy Drew movie series alongside star Bonita Granville (as her boyfriend “Ted”), so it’s kind of amusing to see both of them play teenage lovers in this one as well—they’re sort of a wised-up version of Nancy and Ted, having taken a couple of walks around the block. Granville, who plays Leo Gorcey’s kid sister, has an amusing running gag in which she’s constantly being left behind by the other gang members, prompting her to bellow: “Hey! Wait for me!” It continues right down to the closing credits, which are whisked along behind her as she tries to chase down the car the kids are taking to Reagan and Sheridan’s wedding. Say it with me now: “Awwwww…”