A reformed gangster takes a gang of New York City hoodlums to camp to keep them out of trouble. Along the way, they offer a lift to a stranded judge and his daughter who are looking to lay low at his country place before he is tried on bribery charges…
The second in the series of East Side Kids comedies from the cut-price Monogram Studios features the gang of wise-cracking delinquents in very familiar territory: the old dark house mystery. Yes, it’s the usual menu of sliding bookcases, secret passages, mistaken identity and dubious hauntings in this hour-long ‘B’ picture produced by the notoriously cash conscious Sam Katzman.
It’s summer in the city, and it’s too hot to do anything but sit around moaning, uncork a fireplug and get into a scuffle with an Italian street vendor. Pretty serious gang behaviour in 1940s Hollywood. Facing time in Juvie Hall, they are bailed out by former mobster Knuckles Dolan (David O’Brien), whose brother Danny (Bobby Jordan) is the head of the gang. Big brother offers to take the boys out of the city, and the authorities are only too happy to see the backs of them. So the gang pack their golf clubs (really?) and head off down the highway, making for summer camp and a nice spot of fishing. But, in transit, they run across stranded Judge Malcolm Parker (Forrest Taylor), his pretty ward, Louise (Inna Guest) and bodyguard Simp (Vince Barnett).
Taylor’s country place is nearby, and O’Brien is only happy to offer the trio a lift, especially when he meets Guest. To no-one’s great surprise, the house turns out to be of the ‘old, dark’ variety and comes with its own Mrs Danvers lookalike, Agnes (Minerva Urecal). She holds a long-standing grudge against Taylor, who she believes hounded his late wife to death. Why he hasn’t discharged her in the intervening years is one of the plot points that William Lively’s screenplay fails to address. Another thing the gang don’t realise is that Taylor is up on criminal charges due to his mob contacts and some bad men are keen to rub him out before he can testify.
What follows are the expected spooky shenanigans with the kids running around from room to room making lots of noise, Guest getting kidnapped by the masked villain, a trip through a secret passage and someone dancing around the family graveyard in a white sheet. The mystery, if the threadbare plot can be elevated to that description, is not difficult to work out and the resolution of the killer’s identity doesn’t make much sense anyway. O’Brien (a regular on the series in the early days) is probably the unlikeliest reformed gangster in cinema history, and there’s some vaguely racist stereotyping imposed on black gang member Sunshine Sammy Morrison. Yes, he’s the ‘scaredy-cat’ folks and likes nothing better than a slice of watermelon (sigh).
The only real bright spot here is the performance of Urecal, who delivers her dialogue in wonderfully sepulchral tones. ‘There is never any warmth where the dead do not rest’ she intones deadpan at our cowering heroes. As a contract player for Monogram, she supplied creepy support to Bela Lugosi in ‘The Corpse Vanishes’ (1942) and ‘The Ape Man’ (1943) among many other low-budget assignments. Later on, she worked steadily on television until her death in 1966, even fronting her own series ‘The Adventures of Tugboat Annie’ in 1958.
The other notable presence here is director Joseph H Lewis, who is celebrated nowadays for bringing a sense of visual style to many a low budget production. There’s not much evidence of his skill here, however, apart from a few camera flourishes and some good set-ups in the few serious moments. His subsequent career included highly effective film noirs such as ‘My Name Is Julia Ross’ (1945)and ‘So Dark The Night’ (1946), but his reputation rests mostly on two classics of that genre, ‘Gun Crazy’ (1949) and ‘The Big Combo’ (1955).
The East Side Kids began life on Broadway as ‘The Dead End Kids’, stars of Sidney Kingsley’s smash hit play which ran for two years. When the property was optioned for a movie makeover, director William Wyler brought half a dozen of the ‘kids’ to Hollywood (including Jordan and Leo Gorcey), feeling that no local talent could convey the authenticity that the story required. The movie was another hit, and the kids were put into more features as a group, including box office juggernaut ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’ (1938) with James Cagney. However, bad behaviour on set led to their contracts being cancelled (not for the last time!) and some of the revolving lineup became ‘The Little Tough Guys’ at Universal. In 1940, Monogram producer Katzman picked two of them to star in ‘East Side Kids’ (1940) and a franchise was born.
This entry was the second in the series and must have been popular as the studio chose to recycle the plot on several occasions. The kids shared the screen with horror icon Bela Lugosi in ‘Spooks Run Wild’ (1941) and ‘Ghosts On The Loose’ (1943), which also featured a young Ava Gardner! It was also rinsed out and repurposed as ‘Crazy Knights’ (1944) with Shemp Howard and Billy Gilbert.
It is noticeable here, however, that the gang’s usual schtick isn’t wholly present and correct. Here, they are still definitely an ensemble, even if Jordan and Gorcey get a greater share of the screentime. Later on, after Jordan had departed and Huntz Hall (one of the original Dead End Kids) had returned to the fold, the films became more of a showcase for the Gorcey and Hall double act, with the other members relegated to supporting roles.
Some movie fans can’t bear five minutes in the company of these scene-stealing schlubs, and that’s pretty understandable. This is a weak, thin comedy that offers only the occasional moment of enjoyment.