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Boys of the City

Boys of the City(1940)

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teaser Boys of the City (1940)

On a sweltering summer day, the bored East Side Kids decide to beat the heat by bursting open a fire hydrant right in the middle of a crowded city street. A juvenilecourt judge convinces the delinquents they'd be better off in the countryside, "wherethere aren't any cops," and sends them packing in a station wagon with good-naturedguardian Knuckles Dolan (Dave O'Brien). On the way to a mountain retreat, their car breaks down, forcing them to stop off for the night at a spooky mansion inhabitedby a young woman, Louise (Inna Gest), whose ill-tempered uncle, Judge Parker (ForrestTaylor), happens to be the same magistrate who wrongly sent Knuckles up the riveron murder charges in the previous film, 1940's East Side Kids.The dark, spooky mansion also comes complete with an intimidating housekeeper, Agnes(screen vet Minerva Urecal), plenty of hidden passageways, a suspicious detective(Alden Chase), and the ghost of the murdered lady of the house, Leonora, now wanderingin the cemetery outside. Soon the East Side Kids suspect that there's a plot afootto murder the judge and pin the blame on Knuckles; when a body does indeed turn up and Louise is snatched away in the night, the Kids must race against the clockto expose the murderer or something more supernatural.

Boys of the City (1940) is a highly atmospheric horror comedy in thetradition of such chestnuts as The Cat and the Canary (1939) and TheGhost Breakers (1940). Produced by famous poverty row celluloid mill MonogramPictures, the film suffers from the usual bottom-scraping production values and often amateurish performances from the young male stars (a fusion of the earlierDead End Kids and Little Tough Guys). Despite the admirable ethnic and cultural diversity of the group (Italian, Polish, African American), modern viewers cringeat the dubious treatment of long-running character Scruno, played by "SunshineSammy" Morrison. Though his character was far more dignified in later entries,here he fills the requisite "scaredy cat" role complete with sniggeringracial jokes that were sadly a by-product of the times ("I sure do miss bein'on that plantation" being an obvious example).

If one can overcome this hurdle, Boys of the City has plenty to offer. Two of the other regulars shine here; Danny (Bobby Jordan, offering thebest juvenile performance in the film) and the ingratiating Mugs (Leo Gorcey) getto deliver some surprisingly snappy rat-a-tat dialogue for the period thanks to a William Lively script filled with winking references to The Cat and theCanary, Rebecca (1940), and The Thin Man (1934).

However, one of the film's strongest assets is its director, a name familiar to cult movie fanatics: Joseph H. Lewis. Best known for his seminal noirclassic, Gun Crazy (1949), he also helmed a number of powerful B-moviethrillers including My Name Is Julia Ross (1945), TheBig Combo (1955), and So Dark the Night (1946) as wellas a stream of Westerns on the big screen and television. Boys of the Citywas the first and most stylish of his East Side Kids tenure, which also included That Gang of Mine (1940) and Pride of the Bowery(1941). Later to become a favorite of the auteur movement in the 1960s, Lewis began in the editing departments at MGM and Republic before takingthe helm at Universal, where he was known (sometimes to the great frustration ofeditors) for his long takes and unorthodox framing. Sharp-eared viewers will noticea preponderance of studio looping in the early outdoor scenes in Boys ofthe City due to Lewis' technical aspirations for time-consuming set-upsand costly dolly equipment, all of which were denied by Monogram. As the directorhimself explains in Peter Bogdanovich's Who the Devil Made It,"I became so incensed that I made up my mind we were going to have a dolly shot: I had the camera taken off the tripod and mounted on the back of a grip truckand we drove the truck and recorded with the motor going and everything; they hadto dub later on. I said, 'Don't ever refuse me a dolly again.' And I wasn't. Youknow, those pictures were meant for an automaton. They wanted to stamp 'em out inso many days, at so much cost, with so much film and forget about it."

With a collaboration spanning nineteen subsequent films, the East Side Kids provedto be a formidable rival to the popular Bowery Boys, another gang of lovable streetyouths. Twenty boys carried the name of East Side Kid during the hurried productions,which lasted a hectic six to seven days thanks to Monogram's rushed schedules andtemporary use of sets from other studios like Warner Brothers and Republic. The film's producer, Sam Katzman (nicknamed "Jungle Sam" thanks to his successfulJungle Jim series), began the East End Kids series as a direct offshoot of the DeadEnd Kids cycle (itself derived from a 1937 play, Dead End) andmoved on to produce several of Monogram's more fondly remembered Bela Lugosi horrortitles including Bowery at Midnight (1942) and two pairings withthe Bowery Boys, Spooks Run Wild (1941) (a virtual remake of Boys of the City) and Ghosts on the Loose (1943). His touch for youth culture never faded over the years, as he went on tosuch drive-in titles as Hot Rods to Hell (1967), AIP's surreal Angel,Angel, Down We Go (1969), and two Elvis Presley vehicles, Harum Scarum(1965) and Kissin' Cousins (1964).

As for the Kids themselves, all of them remained busy in Hollywood thanks to minorroles in other films and another decade of reliable work in East Side Kids and BoweryBoys job assignments. The clear winner for sheer output remains Gorcey, who rackedup the highest tally of screen credits thanks to all of the Dead End and East SideKids films along with no less than 41 quickie Bowery Boys films. Thanks to a notoriouslyhuge roster of traffic tickets and a much later messy divorce that involved the exchange of gunshots, he became an enduring minor legend in Hollywood and provedthat some kids just never grow up.

Producer: Sam Katzman
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Screenplay: William Lively
Cinematography: Robert Cline, Harvey Gould
Film Editing: Carl Pierson
Art Direction: Fred Preble
Music: Lew Porter
Cast: Bobby Jordon (Danny Dolan), Leo Gorcey (Muggs McGinnis), Hal E. Chester (Duster),Dave O'Brien (Knuckles Dolan), Frankie Burke (Skinny), Vince Barnett (Simp).

by Nathaniel Thompson

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