Because American culture is still a fairly new the phenomenon it still manifests itself in new ways. For instance, back in the seventies, while watching reruns of the Bowery Boys on the Channel 18 Saturday Afternoon Movie, it was my dad who was nostalgic. He had seen these films as a teenager when they originally played at his neighborhood theatre.
Almost forty-years later, I find myself older than my dad was then and now have been made nostalgic for those Saturday afternoon reruns thanks to the Warner Brothers Archive release of “The Bowery Boys: Volume 2,” a collection of 12 feature films.
The Bowery Boys began film life as the Dead End Kids in “Dead End” (1937), producer Samuel Goldwyn’s still effective look at what crushing poverty, social neglect, and the mythologizing of gangsters can do to turn fairly harmless delinquents into those who would blaze a trail of human misery straight to the electric chair. The Kids would eventually star with James Cagney, John Garfield and others in a number of very good, very serious Warner Bros. crime films where the dramatic tension came from hoping the kids wouldn’t turn permanently bad.
Over time, though, the Kids evolved into “Little Tough Guys” and the “East Side Kids” before finally settling into the Bowery Boys (at a new studio) in 1946. Completely gone now was a social conscience in favor of what you might call formulaic high-jinx.
Once the Kids eventually settled into their last incarnation as the Bowery Boys, the formula worked — for 12 years and 48 feature films (still a record for a film series).
The Bowery Boys’ series is anchored by two of the original stars from “Dead End.” Leo Gorcey (who ended up being the driving force behind the series) plays “Slip” Mahoney, the leader of the Boys who speaks in a wonderful Brooklyn accent littered with hilarious malapropisms. Huntz Hall is “Sach,” the idiotic comic relief. Their chemistry is the whole show.
In supporting roles you will find a couple of the blander actors from “Dead End. ” But more colorful characters were brought in to fill those slots, including Gorcey’s father, Bernard, who plays Leo, the excitable proprietor of the malt shop that doubled as the boys’ headquarters.
The formula was a mix of The Three Stooges (there was a lot of Moe in the short-tempered, aggressive, but not-too-bright Slip) and Abbott and Costello (there was a lot of Lou Costello in Sach). Missing, though, for good or bad, are the musical numbers and romantic subplots that transformed what would be a 67-minute B-film into a 90-minute A-film.
And that is what the Bowery Boys film are: B-films that clock in at under 70 minutes with very tight plots and stories that spoof almost every imaginable film genre.
I’ve sampled three titles from this new collection: “Spook Busters,” “Hard Boiled,” and “Smuggler’s Cove,” and am happy to report that my fondness for the Bowery Boys is not all nostalgia. Gorcey and Hall are fabulous together, the stories whiz by, and the laughs are aplenty.
The innocence, simplicity and familiarity of the films are also comforting. There is absolutely nothing wrong with entertainment that would rather entertain than challenge, or characters that never change or grow. You can always count of the Bowery Boys to be the Bowery Boys, which is probably why thirty years from now someone will write wistfully about watching them through the Warner Archive with their own dad.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC