The Bowery Boys: Lower East Side Dramatics
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because if you don’t, someone’s liable to get hurt.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Today’s movie kids come from the only place the kids in today’s movies could come from: Hollywood.
Entirely well-mannered, cloyingly precocious and disembodied from place and time, the fictional kids of contemporary movies seem to be the products of people whose sense of what kids are and do comes only from other Hollywood movies. But there was a time when kids on the silver screen rang as true and hard as the streets that they came from.
In 1934 playwright Sidney Kingsley wrote about the street kids of immigrants living on New York’s Lower East Side, and he named his play after their life prospects: Dead End.
… names that would rule the tough-guy roost from their short pants right up into their dotage.
The play opened in 1935 and ran for over 600 shows. It featured 14 child actors who were actually kids from the Lower East Side and New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. Studio head Samuel Goldwyn and director William Wyler launched a film loosely based on the play, but in the early days of production something funny happened. After a passel of auditions, it became clear that no Hollywood kids were going to be able to bring the same brio to the roles as the original play’s cast had.
And so? History was made. The studio hired six of the New York kids, and in so doing it brought out names like Huntz Hall and Leo Gorcey that would rule the tough-guy roost from their short pants right up into their dotage. You can watch the Dead End Kids caught on films from the tough-guy canon starring Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield, Pat O’Brien, Ronald Reagan and even former amateur boxer Jimmy Cagney, who, after multiple takes of a scene ruined by the Dead End Kids’ total inability to play nice, laid a few of them out on the set of Angels With Dirty Faces. Which got their attention for the rest of the film. But just for that film.
The tough kids were no longer kids, even if they were still plenty tough.
Transported from their neighborhoods to the studio lots, the Dead End Kids let their share of hell break loose. After a truck crash “prank” and thousands of 1930s dollars spent cleaning up after them, Goldwyn sold the Kids’ contracts to Warner Brothers, where the “high jinks” continued, but so did the movies — with a succession of studios, including Universal and Monogram. Eventually the group settled into a much more formulaic series and was rechristened the Bowery Boys for these film noir light comedies. The tough kids were no longer kids, even if they were still plenty tough.
Beyond the on- and off-camera high jinks, the “kids” offered documentary proof of what no one had bothered to catalog before: the hardscrabble lives of kids on the down and out, and that particularly American city amalgam of personality types and ethnicities that has been all but washed away in the gentrified, genteel cities of today. Cities in which poor people still live and have probably fewer chances than back in the 1930s.
A development that Gorcey, or “Slip” in the movies, would have found absolutely “disgustimating.”
But what’s not disgustimating? The Bowery Boys in fine fettle. And “caught in the undertow of slum life,” here in the opening of their 1938 drama, Crime School.