The 1937 film Dead End, adapted from Sidney Kingsley's hard-hitting play about life in Manhatten's slums, starred Humphrey Bogart, but is remembered for introducing the Dead End Kids. From 1937 until 1943, the Kids appeared in high-quality dramatic films by MGM and, under the name "Little Tough Guys," in less well-financed pictures by Universal Studios.
Monogram Studios, the B movie house of Hollywood's Golden Age, also got ahold of the Kids, tapping an underused potential. Even in their most serious films, the young actors demonstrated a talent for comedy and humorous ad-libbing, and these things contributed to their charm and success. Rechristening them the East Side Kids, Monogram spun a series of comic adventures involving the familiar streetwise characters, beginning with 1940's Boys of the City. The films were made rapidly and cheaply. Continuity never crossed anyone's mind; Leo Gorcey’s character, "Muggs" usually carries the last name "McInnis" but it switches to "Maloney" for That Gang of Mine and Pride of the Bowery. Bobby Jordan’s character has the first name "Danny," but his family name will change with nearly every adventure.
It's easy to criticize these films. They pale beside the best of the Dead End Kids productions, and the technical aspects are seldom impressive. But these were aimed at the Kids' growing audience of young viewers, and since television would not makes its impact felt on North America until the 1950s, the series is essentially a silver screen tv show, with a new episode playing every few months at the local theatre. This was something real-life kids did to kill time on a Saturday afternoon. Viewed as such, these poverty row pictures improve a little.
The original kids were: Huntz Hall, Leo Gorcey, Bobby Jordan, Gabriel Dell, Billy Halop, and Bernard Punsley. David Gorcey appeared for his brother in the Little Tough Guy pictures; Hal E. Chester and Frankie Burke joined them for some of their other films. All of these actors would appear as East Side Kids, save for Halop and Punsley. Halop tried to find work outside of the Kids early on; while he would appear in several b-movies, his career would never take hold, and he ultimately became a male nurse. Bernard Punsley joined the army in 1943 and entered medical school after he was discharged. He died on January 20, 2004, the last of the original Dead End Kids.
The complete list of East Side Kids films runs:
Boys of the City
This film uses the premise of wise-ass street kids in the country, and also throws in a haunted house, an element which would be reused.
Huntz Hall was hoping for better things, so he does not yet appear. The gang is nevertheless at its largest here, and includes Bobby Jordan, Leo Gorcey, Dave O'Brien, George Humbert, Hal E. Chester, Frankie Burke, Donald Haines, Vince Barret, David Gorcey, and Ernest Morrison as Scruno aka Sunshine Sammy, a character who would become an East Side Kids regular.
That Gang of Mine
The gang befriend a poor old man who owns a championship race horse, and enter the world of professional racing.
Pride of the Bowery
Danny (Jordan) manages Muggs' (Leo Gorcey's) boxing career, in the first of a few pugilist-themed series entries.
By now the kids are old enough to work in a wartime aviation factory, where the plot (naturally) involves foreign spies.
Dead End veteran Huntz Hall finally joins as "Glimpy"; he and Leo Gorcey would become the heart of the gang, in this and their future Bowery Boys incarnation.
Spooks Run Wild
Bela Lugosi, on his long downward slide from Universal Horror star to Ed Wood actor, appears for the first of two times with the Kids, in a comedy/horror entry.
Mr Wise Guy
This is a little more serious, as the gang find themselves unjustly convicted of stealing a truck and sent to reform school, while Danny is implicated in a murder and sentenced to death. The plot revolves around their attempts to clear themselves.
Original dead end kid Gabriel Dell will join, as Charlie Manning. He will remain for the rest of the series, but under various names, and possibly as different characters.
Let's Get Tough
The boys run into some more Axis spies and, briefly, another haunted house.
Danny gets turfed out of the gang for not sharing reward money and then is beaten up by the man whose capture he abetted. It turns out well in the end.
'Neath Brooklyn Bridge
The gang assists an innocent girl who has been implicated in a killing.
Muggs’ boxing career plays a central role again, as he faces a challenger from the West Side, gangsters, and group in-fighting.
Clancy Street Boys
In a scam to impress Muggs’ rich uncle, the boys have to pose as his brothers and sister (Huntz Hall in drag). Billy Benedict joins the gang as "Butch." He will return for the remainder of the series as "Skinny," and find work afterwards as a Bowery Boy.
Ghosts on the Loose
(aka Ghosts in the Night and The East Side Kids Meets Bela Lugosi)
Bela Lugosi appears for the second time in one of the series' most famous episodes. Glimpy’s sister is getting married; the kids want to fix up the newlyweds’ house, but end up in the haunted house next door.
Mr. Muggs Steps Out
The series draws laughs from the rich/poor clash that had been treated so seriously in the original Dead End. Muggs finds a job as a chauffeur and gets his friends work at a high society party.
Million Dollar Kid
Apparently the previous film was a success, because this film also uses the wealth/poverty conflict. The gang befriends a wealthy man they save from a mugging, and discover that his son may be heading down the path to criminality. Naturally, these life-long thugs and layabouts are the perfect people to show the boy the error of his ways.
Follow the Leader
Muggs and Glimpy return from serving the shortest term ever overseas; perhaps they gained credit for the two spy rings they stopped. In any case, they find that Danny has been accused of involvement in a robbery. Any bets on his innocence?
This one involves a French visitor to the Bowery.
The boys investigate a murder and become convinced the woman accused is not guilty. Apparently, the plot was too good to only use once.
Docks of New York
The guys once again prove to be danger-magnets as Glimpy finds a necklace beside a dead body and trouble, not surprisingly, follows.
Mr. Muggs Rides Again
After a false accusation, Muggs is barred from involvement with horse-racing. Complications ensue while he tries to clear his name.
Come Out Fighting
Monogram ends its series with the boys being recruited by a police commissioner to toughen his son up.
The gang was by now far to old to be "kids." Nevertheless, they would return a year later, as the Bowery Boys
Next: The Bowery Boys.