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Hal Roach Studios (Spotlight)
Remind Me

Introduction to The Boyfriends Shorts

If you've ever wondered what happened to "Our Gang" kids once they outgrew short pants, ponder no more. TCM presents a rare screening of the little-known series "The Boy Friends," engineered by the Hal Roach Studios to employ two post-adolescent Rascals -- Mickey Daniels and Mary Kornman -- and target the upwardly mobile teen market.

The brainchild of director George Stevens (near the beginning of his long and distinguished Hollywood career), "The Boy Friends" was a replacement for a poorly-received series of talkie shorts starring silent comedian Harry Langdon. Initially announced as "The Younger Set," "The Boy Friends" films were produced over the course of two theatrical seasons (between 1930 and 1932).

The two-reel comedies followed the madcap exploits of a trio of collegiates: enterprising acrobat Dave (David Sharpe); drawling, hangdog "Alabam" (Grady Sutton); freckled, horse-laughing clown Mickey (Daniels); and their respective love interests Gertie (Gertrude Messinger), Mary (Kornman), and Dorothy (Dorothy Granger).

The series opener was Doctor's Orders (1930), in which David and Mickey agree to help suicidally lovelorn Alabam meet the girl of his dreams. They stage a jalopy accident in the front yard of the sorority house and David, posing as a mustachioed doctor, has the injured Alabam (and copycat Mickey) taken inside where they can recover. After administering a dose of castor oil and cleaning fluid, David decides to also pose as a nurse, and dons a sausage-curled wig to embellish his performance. The ruse soon runs out of control as David must race up and down the rainspout to tend his patients, juggle phone calls, and outwit one girl's grumpy uncle (slapstick veteran Edgar Kennedy).

In Bigger and Better (1930), the second film of the "Boy Friends" series, the perky collegians are on board a train, ready to spend their summer vacation at Arrowhead Lake. But their plans jump the tracks when the ambitious David lands a job in the department store owned by Alabam's uncle. Against their better judgment, Dave's pals also land jobs: Alabam in the fabric department and Mickey as a store detective ("another dick," one hardboiled shopgirl complains). David's ambitions run aground when he is unable to please a particularly gruff customer in the hat department (Edgar Kennedy, who also directed this installment). Once the three boys break free of their professional obligations and head back to the train, they discover that their girlfriends have just taken jobs in the same department store to keep them company.

For a brief period during the early 1930s, Hal Roach made the most of talkie technology by opening some of his comedies not with painted title cards but by having the credits spoken, in tandem, by fancifully-attired twins: Beverly and Betty Mae Crane. By 1931, the novelty had worn thin and Roach reverted to conventional title cards. The Cranes faded into obscurity, occasionally appearing (unbilled) as dancers in various musicals.

Roach contract player Thelma Todd (who was then appearing in a series of comedy shorts opposite Charley Chase) plays herself in Love Fever (1931), arriving at a swank hotel just as the Boy Friends are breaking up with their girls. Todd's attempts to rehearse lines in her room cause a variety of men to rush into her room to rescue her from an unseen attacker. Alabam poetically declares his love for Miss Todd, Mickey ends up walking her dog, and David is the target of her devilish flirtation. When the girls confront the actress for "vamping our boyfriends," "Hot Toddy" decides to patch up the broken relationships by alternately abusing, seducing, insulting, threatening, and firing a pistol at the lovestruck lads.

Most of the "Boy Friends" shorts derive laughs from wacky sound effects and excessive facial mugging, but the seventh film in the series, Air-Tight (1931) is a throwback to slapstick of the silent era. The story is set at an airfield meeting of the Greased Lightning Glider Club. Though fearful of heights, Alabam wants his picture taken in an airplane. Just as the picture is being snapped, the tow cables are confused and Alabam's glider is mistakenly borne aloft. Thus begins a prolonged chase sequence in which David and Mickey try to coax Alabam's plane back down to earth, much to the annoyance of the plane's owner (Charlie Hall).

The thirteenth -- and third from last -- film in the series, You're Telling Me (1932), has David replaced by Gordon Douglas as school chum Eddie Morgan. When, at the end of the sophomore year, Eddie invites his pals to visit his prosperous family, Mickey and Alabam quickly take up his offer, literally crashing at Eddie's place. The two schoolmates test the limits of the generosity of Eddie's parents (Billy Gilbert and Lyle Tayo) and horn in on a surprise party being thrown by Eddie's sweetheart (Julie Bishop). The Boy Friends spice up the comedy by performing bits of comedy that are old-fashioned (a pie fight variation) and out-of-date (some cringe-inducing japery with an African-American maid, played by Louise Beavers). By mid-summer, the family's patience has expired, and Mickey and Alabam's presence are a source of unending irritation and comic opportunity -- wrecking the family car, distracting the mother in the kitchen, destroying a pair of expensive tuxedoes.

"The Boy Friends" was not among the more popular offerings by Roach, who is credited with the discovery of Laurel & Hardy, Harold Lloyd, and Charley Chase. According to Richard Lewis Ward's book A History of the Hal Roach Studios, the fourth installment, Blood and Thunder (1931) "did not even receive a theatrical release -- a sure sign of a series in trouble."

In a ranking by box-office returns (1931-1932), "The Boy Friends" ranked last among Roach's two-reel offerings, beneath Laurel & Hardy, Charley Chase, Our Gang, and the Zasu Pitts/Thelma Todd shorts. "The Boy Friends" earned an average gross of $63,826 per release, with an average per-print rental of $8.97 -- compared to $11.83 for a Laurel & Hardy picture (Ward).

In spite of Stevens and company's best efforts, the corny college capering was canceled after fifteen installments. "The Boy Friends" was replaced by a new series of two-reelers known as "The Taxi Boys," which lasted a single season.

Just as "The Boy Friends" was coming to an end in 1932, acrobatic leading man Sharpe married co-star Messinger, though their marriage, like the film series, wasn't fated to last.

Another reunion occurred in 1935. Sharpe, Daniels, Kornman and Messinger were brought back together for a pair of fast-paced comedy programmers for independent producer William Berke, who typically specialized in Westerns. But Adventurous Knights (1935) and Roaring Roads (1935) also failed to catch on with the public and the ensemble went their separate ways.

After "The Boy Friends," Daniels and Kornman shared a destiny common to Hollywood players whose bids for stardom were only moderately successful. They appeared in bit parts, frequently uncredited, for another decade before retiring. Sutton, on the other hand, was able to master a variety of "types" and remained busy in film and television well into the 1970s.

Acrobatic Sharpe was a stunt man before becoming a Boy Friend. After leaving the series, he resumed stunt work, appearing in numerous Westerns at the Republic Studios. He became a fighter pilot during World War II, then returned to Hollywood, continuing to perform stunts until shortly before his death in 1980.

Director: Edgar Kennedy
Producer: Hal Roach
Cinematography: George Stevens
Music: Leroy Shield
Cast: David Sharpe (David), Mickey Daniels (Mickey Daniels), Grady Sutton (Grady "Alabam" Sutton), Gertrude Messinger (Gertie), Mary Kornman (Mary), Dorothy Granger (Dorothy), Edgar Kennedy (hat customer).

Director: Arch Heath
Producer: Hal Roach
Screenplay: Warren Burke and George Stevens
Cinematography: George Stevens
Music: Leroy Shield
Cast: David Sharpe (David), Mickey Daniels (Mickey Daniels), Grady Sutton (Grady "Alabam" Sutton), Gertrude Messinger (Gertie), Mary Kornman (Mary), Dorothy Granger (Dorothy), Edgar Kennedy (Uncle).

Director: Robert McGowan
Producer: Hal Roach
Screenplay: H.M. Walker
Cinematography: Art Lloyd
Music: Leroy Shield
Cast: David Sharpe (David), Mickey Daniels (Mickey Daniels), Grady Sutton (Grady "Alabam" Sutton), Thelma Todd (Thelma Todd), Mary Kornman (Mary), Gertrude Messinger (Gertie), Dorothy Granger (Dorothy), Edgar Kennedy (hotel guest).

AIR-TIGHT (1931)
Director: George Stevens
Producer: Hal Roach
Screenplay: H.M. Walker
Cinematography: Art Lloyd
Music: Marvin Hatley and Leroy Shield
Cast: David Sharpe (David), Mickey Daniels (Mickey Daniels), Grady Sutton (Grady "Alabam" Sutton), Betty Bolen (Betty Bolen), Gertrude Messinger (Gertie), Mary Kornman (Mary), Charlie Hall (rival pilot).

Director: Lloyd French and Robert McGowan
Producer: Hal Roach
Screenplay: H.M. Walker
Cinematography: Len Powers
Music: Leroy Shield
Cast: Mickey Daniels (Mickey Daniels), Grady Sutton (Grady "Alabam" Sutton), Gordon Douglas (Eddie Morgan), Billy Gilbert (Mr. Morgan), Julie Bishop (Jacqueline Wells), Betty Bolen (Betty Bolen), Louise Beavers (Maid).

by Bret Wood


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