originally published September 23, 2012
1935 was a good year for Sidney Kingsley, 29-year-old New York playwright. His first production, Men In White, dealt with the touchy issue of illegal abortion and had netted him a Pulitzer Prize for Drama the year before. His sophomore effort was also a hit, and launched an unexpected string of Hollywood cha-chingery, thanks to some adept casting and a market that was looking for something new to cheer for.
Dead End was the story of a gang of rag-tag kids (I assume they were rag-tag; in fact, I’m not entirely certain of the ragginess of their tags), living in slum housing and skirting on the edge of crime. The play was a huge hit with a two-year run on Broadway. One night, movie producer Samuel Goldwyn and director Billy Wilder attended a performance and decided it should be turned into a movie. After failing to find kids with the right attitude to pull off the roles in Hollywood, Goldwyn opted to bring six of the play’s stars out to California.
Billy Hallup, Bobby Jordan, Huntz Hall, Bernard Punsley, Gabriel Dell, and Leo Gorcey – these were the six kids, between 14 and 20 years of age, who’d spent two years together on Broadway and were now LA-bound, hoping to get famous. The film, which starred Humphrey Bogart in one of his many gangster roles, was a hit. The kids themselves? Not so much.
Audiences loved them of course – it was Samuel Goldwyn who was displeased. While on the set, the six boys ran around like privileged brats who’d been empowered with the might and leeway of top-end A-listers. They destroyed property. They treated the backlot like a playground. One of them crashed a truck into a soundstage. Goldwyn didn’t want to risk working with them again, so he sold their contracts to Warner Brothers.
Warner was a good fit. The six of them were known as the ‘Dead End Kids’ now, and under that banner they released six films with the studio. Angels With Dirty Faces earned three Oscar nominations and teamed the Dead End Kids with Bogie again, as well as James Cagney.
The Dead End Kids had become a grown-up version of the Little Rascals, but with all the goofiness exorcised and replaced by the gritty, street-wise edge that seeped off the page in Stanley Kingsley’s original play.
In 1938 four of the kids were ‘borrowed’ by Universal Pictures. Leo Gorcey’s younger brother David joined them for a film called Little Tough Guy. This led to the first off-shoot of the gang, as they continued to make films for Universal under the heading ‘Little Tough Guys’. Eleven actors drifted in and out of the Little Tough Guys. Jackie Cooper, known for being one of the dough-eyed, round-faced imps in the Spanky & Our Gang shorts, worked with the group.
In total, the Little Tough Guys appeared in twelve films and three 12-chapter serials for Universal between 1938 and 1943. They never appeared with any major A-list stars, though their last film, Keep ‘Em Slugging, starred Shemp Howard of the Three Stooges. So that’s… something.
Meanwhile back at Warner Brothers, the Dead End Kids were overstaying their welcome. Their wild behavior on set began to irk the Warner executives, and after six movies and less than two years, their contracts were sent to the shredder. It’s an impressive resume for such a short spell though: Hell’s Kitchen had them working with Ronald Reagan and snagging an ‘H’ rating (equivalent of the current ‘X’) in the UK because of its violence. I’m not sure what the movie was about, but I suspect it involved the Dead End Kids being screamed at repeatedly by an angry British reality show chef.
These kids were making a killing together. There really hasn’t been an equivalent to this kind of phenomenon since.
After Warner Brothers dropped them in 1938, and once the Little Tough Guys stopped gracing Universal celluloid, one might expect the typical ‘fall’ part of the average Hollywood rise-and-fall story. To stave off the death-spiral into obscurity that swallows up so many child actors, they instead invented the East Side Kids.
This time they were making movies for Monogram Pictures. Note that ‘Monogram Pictures’ is clearly a dip down the food chain from Universal and Samuel Goldwyn (whose name represents the middle letter in MGM). Monogram was known for making ‘Poverty Row’ movies, the stuff theaters could buy dirt-cheap, often for a fixed rate so they wouldn’t have to share the profits. East Side Kids movies were often made on budgets in the $30,000 range, and shot in less than a week.
The content of the films were evolving – or devolving, depending on your tastes – from dramas about underprivileged kids fighting the odds to wacky comedies. I suppose now that the youngest original ‘Kid’ was over 18, they’d have to be able to laugh at themselves.
In 1945, Leo Gorcey asked for his salary to be doubled. Producer Sam Katzman said no, and Gorcey quit the group. The following year they were back together as the Bowery Boys, with Gorcey and Huntz Hall pushed to the forefront as stars. They had moved fully away from the social realism of the 1930s Dead End Kids films and plunked themselves square into goofball comedy country. They made dozens of movies before calling it quits in 1958.
So, apart from 21 years of Hollywood success, what did those original six kids end up doing with their lives? Well, 21 years in the movies is a damn fine accomplishment on its own.
Billy Halop never made it into the Bowery Boys; in the 40s he found himself in an East Side Kids knock-off called the Gas House Kids. By the 70s he was working as a nurse, but had the recurring role of Bert Munson on All In The Family.
Bobby Jordan left the Bowery Boys when he felt he was getting shuffled down into a minor role. He developed a raging case of alcoholism, and died of cirrhosis of the liver at 42.
Huntz Hall refused to settle for such an unhappy ending. He stuck it out with the Bowery Boys until the end, then made a mint from his offshore oil well investments. He lived to the ripe old age of 79.
Bernard Punsley never rejoined the gang after WWII. He threw away his life by giving up on acting and becoming a doctor, later Chief of Staff at a hospital in Redondo Beach, California. Such a waste.
Gabriel Dell left the Bowery Boys in 1950, and earned modest success as an actor up through the 80s.
Leo Gorcey left the Bowery Boys in 1956 and didn’t do much acting after that. He became infamously known for being the one guy whose agent demanded a fee for appearing on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. His face was airbrushed from the cover. They weren’t paying.
Gorcey died young as well, but it doesn’t appear that the same alleged ‘curse’ that haunted the Our Gang group of actors caught up with these guys. Maybe they were just too tough.