Leo Gorcey was once a plumber. He was in his last year of high school and worked for his Uncle’s plumbing business earning six dollars a week. He didn’t like that kind of money. It was 1935 and though, not dirt poor, times were tight for the divorced family living in New York City. His dad (Bernard Gorcey) was a respected stage actor who, according to Richard Roat’s “Hollywood’s Made to Order Punks,” used a bit of reverse psychology, telling his son he couldn’t act, luring the pugnacious kid to audition for the play Dead End. He came in his plumber’s clothes. In an interview with Richard Lamparski shortly before his death, Gorcey claimed his dad knew someone involved in Dead End. He said his dad could have used connections early on to help the kid along with acting but Gorcey wasn’t interested in that. Still, he wasn’t interested in being a plumber either. The money was negligible and he complained that he couldn’t “buy a pair of slacks or a pair of shoes in a month.” (Hearing him utter this with distinct Brooklyn Gorcey-speak, I thought of all those depression-era youngsters, wanting more out of life and being proud of it when they got it – Paul Muni showing off his shirts in Howard Hawks’ Scarface. Gorcey didn’t find the work (to use one of his favorite words) remunerative. He got the part, wound up lucky to take over for the bigger role of Spit. Gorcey was now earning 35 dollars a week. 35 dollars a week? “Big deal,” he said in the interview, “I want 50.” The producers told him, Nope. They could locate any damn kid in New York City to play that part. “Find one,” Gorcey challenged. They gave him 50 dollars a week.
He moved up in the world, taking Spit to screen in various incarnations, names and studios (including, and most famously, Spit, Slip, Muggs) in The Dead End Kids, The East Side Kids and The Bowery Boys from 1937-1956 (he was never in The Little Tough Guys, which also slide into this original punk history). Some of the early pictures were beautifully directed social commentaries – William Wyler’s Dead End (with Humphrey Bogart), Michael Curtiz’s Angels With Dirty Faces (with James Cagney) and Busby Berkeley’s They Made Me a Criminal (with John Garfield) with a cast including Huntz Hall, Bobby Jordan, Gabriel Dell, Billy Halop and Bernard Punsly. Through time the kids became more comedy than commentary (which was fine, Gorcey and Hall are a terrific comic duo) and the pictures became weirder, they were often still assuredly shot by some interesting filmmakers (notably The Big Combo, Gun Crazy director Joseph H. Lewis). Not bad, as some might say, but as time went on, wonderfully fucking weird with, perhaps, accidental commentary (who wants to grow up?) and definite surrealism holding the plots together. To use a word Gorcey would probably like as a malapropism and mispronounce (I can’t even pronounce it) they feel hypnagogic. A movie like Hold That Baby! (one of my favorites, starring Gorcey, Hall, William Benedict, David Gorcey and Bennie Bartlett) is magnificently bizarre. The fellows looking more boozed-up than boyish, all world-weary while running around like maniacs, helping a baby abandoned in a Laundromat (they own the place!), while gangsters and a mental institution fall into the scenario (naturally) – it’s the cinematic equivalent of something you’d dream up after ingesting too much narcotic cough syrup one night. These little comedies starring multiple-divorced men still burlesquing as tough guys when some of them actually are tough guys, or at least, little shits, now with arrest records, are marked with a peculiar darkness, as if Diane Arbus somehow took over direction. Gorcey once shot a gun in a toilet, got the boys to glue it back together, which then caused Martha Raye to fall in and injure her nether-regions. That’s a true story, according to Gorcey. Why not just put that in one of the movies?
From 1940-1945 the series cranked out pictures through Monogram (which introduced Our Gang veteran, the great ‘Sunshine’ Sammy Morrison into the club, the only African-American in the group). Gorcey left the studio, quarreling over more money, formed The Bowery Boys with Huntz Hall and Bobby Jordan and owned 40 percent of the company. That was smart. He wouldn’t die broke (though this pissed off some cast members, including Morrison who declined to join, reportedly due to Gorcey’s more remunerative control). Gorcey was a “kid” deep in his 30s when making his last picture, Crashing Las Vegas, remnants of the original boys hanging on – Hall and his younger brother, David. Pops, who, without much hullabaloo, had been playing Louie Dumbrowski, the guy who ran the ice cream parlor and co-starred with his son in 44 pictures, died in 1955. He crashed into a bus. Leo drank more, became problematic and was replaced by Stanley Clements. He lived a hell-raising, hard-drinking, multi-married life, writing an entertaining, damn near poetic memoir about it with a tongue twisting title: “An Original Dead End Kid Presents: Dead End Yells, Wedding Bells, Cockle Shells and Dizzy Spells.” He died the day before his 52nd birthday – liver failure.
This is a long walk down Gorcey lane before discussing Wallace Fox’s Kid Dynamite, the 1943 East Side Kids picture when they’re still young and fresh, but pertinent since the talented, tragic Bobby Jordan (playing Danny) is Gorcey’s lead co-star. He is also a reluctant rival to Gorcey’s Muggs who is, for lack of a better word, an asshole. As the picture moves along briskly with a nicely shot boxing match and an entertaining, gleefully odd jitterbug contest within, we come to feel for shitheel Muggs – the world’s not nice to him. Gorcey always played it more acerbic, nastier and Stooges-like slap happy, but there’s an extra edge here. He’s so mean to moist-eyed, tall and gracious Danny that he becomes less funny and more aggressively unpleasant. And he’s jealous. This is not a criticism; it makes the movie deeper and more poignant as we root for both guys. We want them to figure out their issues; we know it’s based on power and acceptance and looks and everything society throws at kids growing up, and we know it’s probably not going to be solved by the film’s conclusion – joining the service. But the surge of patriotism at the end of the movie makes you question if the picture even believes its own message. Even Muggs’ mother cautions her son to join (and won’t let him at first, he’s too young) if he’s doing so for the wrong reasons.
The whole misunderstanding begins when teenage boxer Muggs believes Danny set him up. Gangsters kidnap Muggs when he won’t throw a fight (such is the life of an East Side Kid) and he misses the match, stuck in a scary car, fast-talking guttersnipe sass. Out of shape Danny (who does not appear to be out of shape) has to fill in for Muggs and in a sweet surprise, wins the fight. Danny is innocent, a nice guy (he is also dating Muggs’ sister), but never mind that – Muggs is so pissed off and distrustful, he can’t accept his friend wasn’t in on it, and he kicks him out of the gang: “Danny’s name is gonna stricken from the record. He’s outta the club intimately, ultimately and forever.” Other members, notably Huntz Hall as Glimpy (“Why don’t you play ping pong with a time bomb?”) and “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison as Scruno are nicely featured and likable (also Benny Bartlett as Benny ‘Beanie’) but they too are following along with the bullying Muggs. Tensions increase – Danny gets the job Muggs wants (for being a “gentleman”) and in a scene that opens with Mike Riley’s Orchestra and Marion Miller doing the most intriguing, craziest and even creepiest rendition of “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” (did J.D. Salinger see this picture? Did Davd Lynch?) wins the jitterbug contest after Muggs is disqualified for bringing a professional dancer (Kay Marvis, Gorcey’s first wife, who later married Groucho Marx). Well, that’s it.
It will get all resolved – Muggs finally believes Danny, but anger enflames yet again, and he continues being a jerk. There’s a lot of desperation to Jordan here that feels utterly believable – we might want to join with Muggs deeming him a fake goody-goody but Danny is too sincere. At the same time, Muggs is such a sore loser and so obviously insecure, that we can’t stay mad at him, especially when he starts looking inward, thinking of the War, understanding he’s being a heel, maybe even a coward, and his jealousy is more at play than truly believing Danny’s a bad person. But, again, the patriotic WW2 closer where the boys are sauntering through town in uniform is strangely sad. And thinking of Bobby Jordan is sad too. He was drafted.
Jordan wasn’t happy with the last incarnation of The Bowery Boys whom he helped form with Gorcey and Hall. He was becoming less prominent on screen, making less money and angry with Gorcey and Hall for pushing him out of any kind of light. He left after eight pictures. He still worked, did some movies and television, but supplemented his income as an oil driller; photograph salesman, nightclub act and bartender – not a good profession for an alcoholic. According to various sources, in 1958 he was briefly jailed for not making child support payments. Before that, in 1945 the poor guy was in an elevator accident, forcing removal of his right kneecap (really?). The talented young kid who went to the Professional Children’s School and started out in Dead End with the name Angel, who served in the Army during WWII (drafted in 1943, the 97th Infantry) – he died at age 42 in 1965 in a Veteran’s hospital in Los Angeles – cirrhosis of the liver. Nearly four years before Gorcey and six years younger. Gorcey says of Jordan in Kid Dynamite, “He’s presently out, henceforth, etc.” Reportedly, in real life, Gorcey mused, “Bobby Jordan did not have had a guardian angel.” Jordan might have “depreciated” that sentiment.