Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Dead End Kids

I just finished Cagney by Cagney and he was telling of an interesting interaction he had with a group of kids he referred to as the Dead End Kids on the set of Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). This piqued my interest so I went to research who those kids were and made a mental note to do a blog about them. That night I went home and perused my DVR and found that I not only had Angels with Dirty Faces in queue, but Dead End (1937) as well! So I thought I would watch them and expand on the blog I had in mind.

The Dead End Kids were a group of young actors from New York who appeared in Sidney Kingsley's Broadway play Dead End in 1935. In 1937 producer Samuel Goldwyn turned the play into a film and after a long search, decided to use the kids from the play in the film. So he brought them all to Hollywood and put them under contract. Goldwyn later regretted the decision, as the boys ran wild through the studio, destroying property and crashing a truck through the wall of a sound stage. Afterwards, he decided not to use the boys again and sold their contract to Warner Brothers. Despite their wildness, the boys were extremely popular and continued to make movies under various monikers, including The East Side Kids, The Little Tough Guys, and The Bowery Boys, until 1958. Dead End and Angels with Dirty Faces are two of seven movies featuring The Dead End Kids.

The players:
Billy Halop
Huntz Hall
Gabriel Dell
Bobby Jordan- who I had seen previously in Off the Record (1939)
Bernard Punsly
Leo Gorcey
David Gorcey

Mini-biographies below provided by IMDb:

Halop left the group in the early 1940s to seek a career on his own, but could only land parts in B pictures. His career was also hampered by a long string of marital and financial problems and a lifelong struggle against alcoholism. Toward the end of his career, he had a recurring role as Munson, the owner of the cab company where Archie Bunker worked part time, in All in the Family (1971). His last years were spent making a living as a male nurse.

Hall auditioned for the play Dead End and got the part because he could imitate a machine gun to playwright Sidney Kingsley's satisfaction. Hall appeared in a total of 81 East Side Kids/Bowery Boys features and serials, more than any other actor. In 1940 he married 18-year-old dancer Elsie May Anderson (they divorced in 1944). During WW2 Hall enlisted in the Army, and after his discharge returned to Hollywood, where his first jobs were in war films playing soldiers (for his impressive work in A Walk in the Sun (1945) he received the New York Theatre Critics Circle Blue Ribbon Award). In 1948 Hall found himself in the same kind of jam as did Robert Mitchum -- getting arrested for possession of marijuana, but he was acquitted by a jury. After the trial Hall married showgirl Leslie Wright. In the early 1950s, Hall and former Bowery Boys actor Gabriel Dell teamed up for a "Hall and Dell" nightclub act that was so successful it cost both men their marriages; in 1953 Hall's and Dell's wives both sued for divorce, claiming the men thought more of the act than they did of them. In 1954 Hall was arrested for fighting with the manager of a building where he was attending a party; apparently the party was too noisy and the manager told the occupants to quiet down. Hall took offense at this, a fight ensued and Hall was arrested for assault, for which he paid a $50 fine and was put on probation. In 1959 he was arrested on a drunk driving charge. Having stayed out of trouble for quite some time now, Hall has been content in retirement, with occasional film and television work (not that he needed the money; in addition to owning 10% of the Bowery Boys pictures, Hall made some wise oil and gas investments that paid off handsomely).

Dell made his stage debut in the play Dead End and, with the other juvenile members of the cast, was called to Hollywood for the film version. Dell was one of the more unusual members of what came to be known as the East Side Kids/Dead End Kids/Bowery Boys in that when he appeared in many of their films, he, unlike his colleagues, didn't always play a member of the gang. He often played a reporter, or a cop, or even a gangster, somebody who had either befriended the gang or used to be one of them but got out.
Dell took a leave from the film business during WW II and served in the Merchant Marines for 3-1/2 years. When he returned he played in a few more of the Bowery Boys series, but made his final film with them in 1950 and struck out on his own. He took roles in Broadway plays, formed a nightclub act with former East Side Kid Huntz Hall and studied for three years at the Actors Studio. He worked steadily in television, and was a regular cast member of the The Steve Allen Show (1956). He alternated between TV and film parts, with one of his better roles being that of a sardonic hitman with a sense of humor in director Phil Karlson's actioner Framed (1975).

Jordan was raised in Flatbush, Brooklyn. By the time he was four and a half, he could act, tap dance and play the Saxophone. He made his stage debut in 1930 and film debut at Universal Studios in 1933 where he appeared in short subjects and a bit part in the 1934 Eddie Cantor film, Kid Millions. He then appeared on Broadway in Dead End, which opened on October 28, 1935. He left the show in mid-November 1936 to appear in the The Samuel Goldwyn Company film version of Dead End. Warner Brothers studios signed all of the Dead End Kids to contracts. At the peak of his career, Bobby made $1,500 a week, owned a $150,000 home in Beverly Hills and was the sole support of his mother, two brothers a sister and a niece. In 1940, Bobby returned to Universal to appear with several other Dead End Kids in The Little Tough Guys series. Later the same year, Monogram featured him in his first East Side Kids film, Boys of the City. In 1943, Bobby was drafted. He served as a foot soldier in the 97th Infantry until 1945 with his only film appearance being the East Side Kid's Bowery Champs (1944), playing himself in a running gag. In 1946, Bobby appeared in the first Bowery Boys picture, Live Wires. But, after eight films he left because he was forced to take a backseat to Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall. In March of that year, he married Lee, and in 1949, they had a son, Robert Jr.. Bobby worked sporadically in film and television afterwards. He tried a nightclub act, then he found additional work as a bartender, door-to-door photograph salesperson and he later worked as an oil driller in Coalinga. In 1957, he and Lee divorced, and in 1958, he declared bankruptcy when he failed to pay alimony and child support. On August 25, 1965, Bobby collapsed at the home of a friend he had been living with. Already a heavy drinker, he was admitted to a Veterans Administration Hospital in Los Angeles for treatment for Cirrhosis of the liver.

Punsley auditioned for the 1937 play Dead End on a lark - he had absolutely no show-business experience whatsoever, had never studied acting and had no desire to be an actor. He said that show business seemed like it might be fun, so he figured he'd give it a shot. To his surprise he was picked for he play, and when it turned out to be a huge hit, was called to Hollywood with the rest of the juvenile cast for the film version. While Punsley appeared in most of the Dead End Kids films made after the play, he didn't participate in any of his colleagues' "extra-curricular activities" - while they were out partying, vandalizing studio property and getting into trouble with the law, Punsley would go home after a day's filming and read, mainly medical books, as he always wanted to be a doctor. His lack of film-industry ambition is reflected in the fact that he appeared in only two films outside of the Dead End Kids series. Punsley left the series in the mid-40's to join the army, where he received his medical training. Upon his discharge he enrolled in the University of Georgia, eventually attaining his life's dream of becoming an MD. He returned to California, but not to a film career - he opened up a medical practice in Torrance. Punsley says that he never watches his old films - not because he has any regrets about making them, but because, as he says, he grew out of them.

Leo Gorsey in 1935, starred in the stage play Dead End. In 1937, this was made into a movie, and Leo became one of the busiest actors for the next 20 years -- from 1937-1939 he starred in seven Dead End Kids movies, from 1940-1945 in 21 East Side Kids films, from 1946-1956 in 41 Bowery Boys movies. In 1939, Leo married 17-year-old dancer Kay Marvis, who appeared in four of his movies. They divorced in 1944 after five years of marriage; she went on to marry Groucho Marx. In 1945, Leo married Evalene Bankston; they divorced in 1948. Leo was to have paid her $50,000 in a divorce settlement; however, when two detectives she hired broke into his home, he retaliated by firing his gun at them. They sued, and Leo counter sued for illegal entry and won $35,000 back. In 1949, Leo married Amelita Ward, whom he met while filming Smugglers' Cove (1948). Their marriage produced Leo Gorcey Jr. in 1949, and a baby girl they named Jan (after Leo's producer and manager, Jan Grippo) in 1951. They divorced in 1956. That year Leo married his young nanny, Brandy, who was taking care of his two kids. They had a baby girl, Brandy Jo, in 1958. The couple divorced in 1962. Leo went to the altar one last time in February, 1968, marrying Mary Gannon. He stayed married to her until his death on June 2, 1969.

David Gorcey is not usually thought of as one of the "original" Dead End Kids, but he did have a small role in the 1935 Broadway production of Sidney Kingsley's Dead End and he is the person responsible for getting his brother Leo a part in the play. Ultimately this led to Leo's becoming a movie star while David played supporting roles and bit parts. Although David is not in the movie Dead End (1937), he appears in more of the Dead End Kids/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys movies than anyone else except Huntz Hall. Later David became a clergyman who specialized in helping troubled kids.

Oh! And that interesting interaction that prompted the research was this:

"The Bowery Boys, known as the Dead End kids when we made Angels with Dirty Faces in 1938, had been throwing their weight around quite a bit with directors and other actors at the time. It developed that I was to have a little off-screen encounter with them. Our opening scene in the picture takes place in the basement of a deserted building. I am fresh out of Sing Sing, and the kids have just rolled me for my wallet. I walk in, tell them to hand it over, and with a little emphatic coercion force them to get up the wallet. According to the script my next line was "Come here, suckers," and I lead them over to the door on which is carved "Rocky Sullivan" put there when I was a kid. The kids must look at this with respectful awe because of my rough reputation and say, "You're Rocky Sullivan?"
We shot the scene, but just before I said, "Come here, suckers," Leo Gorcey said, "He's psychic!" thereby throwing the rhythm of the scene right out the window, souring the whole thing very nicely. So in the next take just before I said, "Come here, suckers," I gave Leo Gorcey a stiff arm right above the nose -bang! His head went back, hitting the kid behind him, stunning them both momentarily. Then I said, "Now listen here, we've got some work to do, so let's have none of this goddamned nonsense. When we get on, we're pros- we're doing the job we're asked to do. Understood?"
"Yeah," they said. One of the kids turned to Gorcey and said, "Who the hell you think you got there- Bogart?" I learned later that Bogie had incurred their disfavor on a film they'd done together, and they expressed their displeasure by taking his pants off. But in our picture, once they had learned that their jumping me would be troublesome for them, we got along fine."
- Cagney by Cagney

Tonight on TCM! These will fit in nicely with my research on Cagney!

The Oklahoma Kid (1939)
A cowboy sets out to avenge his father's lynching. Cast: James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Rosemary Lane, Donald Crisp Dir: Lloyd Bacon

The Roaring Twenties(1939)
Three WWI Army buddies get mixed up with the mob in peacetime.
Cast: James Cagney, Priscilla Lane, Humphrey Bogart, Gladys George Dir: Raoul Walsh


  1. Great stuff, the Dead End Kids got top billing over Bogey in the movie Crime School and the Bowery Boys don't get the credit they deserved, meaning Gorcey and Huntz Hall as a team who did some work that was as good as Abbott and Costello.

  2. Great story about Cagney dealing with the cocky Leo Gorcey. The thing is Gorcey always looked like the one most likely to cause trouble on and off screen. And did they really do that to Bogart? I loved them in Dead End and Angels with Dirty Faces. Another thing i've noticed is that most of them didn't reach old age and died relatively young, Cagney was almost 20 years older than them and yet outlived most of them by quite some distance.