Jinx Money: 'Indubitably,' one of The Bowery Boys' best
When it comes to The Bowery Boys -- those good-natured, ne'er-do-well descendants of the slum-bred street urchins of the 1930s social drama DEAD END -- there are basically two schools of thought. One is advocated by the group that adores the 48 comedic second features that comprised the series, and the other faction that simply detests them and everything about them.
Devotees of the former camp can conclude The Bowery Boys are not for everybody. The locale in what was considered one of New York City's most depressing areas, star Leo Gorcey's verbal slaughter of the English language, co-star Huntz Hall's goofiness, Three Stooges-like slapstick and labored plots didn't endear the series even to natives of the Big Apple. But it was a consistent moneymaker for home studio Monogram Pictures and successor Allied Artists for about a dozen years. The series built a new audience when sold to local TV stations a few years after the last entry, IN THE MONEY, hit theaters in mid-February 1958.
Indeed, for the fans, the features listed as turn-offs are the virtues of The Bowery Boys. Despite the area's onetime notoriety as a literal dead end for the down-and-out, the Bowery in these movies was home to the ice cream parlor known as Louie's Sweet Shop, where the "boys," led by Gorcey's ever-confident Terence Alyosius "Slip" Mahoney, hung out and involved themselves in the lives of their friends and neighbors. Slip held forth with a signature mispronunciation of every other word he uttered and the aid of his loyal sidekick Horace Debussy "Sach" Jones (Hall), whose enthusiastic yet klutzy demeanor, dumb but occasionally resourceful nature added to a genially looney atmosphere occasionally disrupted by the machinations of local bad guys.
That the boys had to work hard for laughs due to deficient scriptwriting and situations only added to the fun, forcing Gorcey and Hall to improvise when needed for the sake of the picture. It was an important investment, especially for Gorcey, who was the uncredited producer who left the onscreen title to his agent, Jan Grippo (succeeded over the years by Jerry Thomas, Ben Schwalb and Richard Heermance). And as for copying the Stooges, what worked for them also worked well for the boys, although instead of Moe Howard poking the eyes of his partners when irritated by them, Slip generally just hit Sach in the head with his crumpled fedora and let it go at that. At Slip's command of "Routine 6!" (or fill in the number), the gang would slug its way out of trouble, befitting their leader's pugnacious manner that usually kicked in when Slip's attempts at reasoning with the villains of the moment failed.
We won't trace the tangled prior history of the boys in Hollywood since the premiere of the Samuel Goldwyn production of DEAD END in 1937, which brought most of the boys to the film capitol from the New York stage in the first place. Suffice to say that Gorcey, when planning the The Bowery Boys, brought back many of the old gang from the East Side Kids, the set of 22 movies produced by Sam Katzman for Monogram from 1940 until 1945. Gorcey (1917-1969) and Hall (1920-1999) had headlined the East Side Kids for most of that series, which Katzman reportedly halted when Gorcey demanded a salary increase.
In fact, it was David (1921-1984) whom a much later addition to the cast, Eddie LeRoy (bespectacled Blinky) quoted as telling him that the subordinate members of the boys could have been painted on the walls of the sets for all the use they were to the stories. However, David added, "suits me fine," LeRoy smilingly told the makers of the 1992 video documentary THE BOWERY BOYS REVISITED: THE REAL STORY PAST AND PRESENT.
A key addition to the group was the Gorceys' father, Bernard (1888-1955) as the dimunitive, explosive, long-suffering and sentimental Louie Dumbrowski, whose Bowery sweet shop was the boys' base of operations for most of the series. Bernard Gorcey, who enjoyed his most successful stage run in the original ABIE'S IRISH ROSE in the 1920s, followed his boys to Hollywood in the late '30s and netted his most noteworthy screen role alongside Charlie Chaplin in the comic genius's THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940). After Leo and David hooked up with Katzman for the East Side Kids, Bernard was cast as different characters in some of their films and in other Katzman productions, including the Bela Lugosi vehicles BLACK DRAGONS and BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT (both 1942).
Separated in Leo's youth, Bernard eventually reconciled with his family, prompting a close bond between father and son that extended to Leo providing his dad with regular employment as Louie, who in turn became one of the series' most popular characters. Like Sach, who is sometimes (and briefly) endowed with supernatural powers, Louie gets out from behind the sweet shop to help in the boys' schemes, impersonating everything from Wild West desperadoes (BOWERY BUCKAROOS) to gangsters (ANGELS IN DISGUISE, 1949), or inventing something of use to national defense (e.g., CLIPPED WINGS, 1953) that provides him with his 15 minutes of fame before returning to the soda fountain.
When the 10th Bowery Boys film, JINX MONEY, was issued by Monogram on June 27, 1948, all of the elements that had won the series a loyal following were in place. The 68-minute entry is aided by a strong central story, a murder mystery that generated laughs and chills in equal measure thanks to the screenplay by Tim Ryan, Gerald Schnitzer and Edmond Seward, and due diligence in direction by B movie master William Beaudine, who went on to helm just over half of the boys' adventures. Also missing is the series' occasional fondness for mawkishness seen in its first entry of 1948, ANGELS' ALLEY, in which the death of a beloved neighborhood youth due to reckless driving puts the bereaved boys on to an auto theft ring.
JINX MONEY opens with a definitely unsentimental situation suggested by a story credited to Jerome Todd Gollard that one wonders if Monogram meant for a more serious crime film. Augie Pollock (Benny Baker) wins $50,000 in a high stakes, backroom card game. Not amused at his good fortune are the sharpies he skinned for the loot -- sarcastic Lippy Harris (Sheldon Leonard), whose favorite parting thought to all and sundry is "drop dead"; sinister-looking Jake "Cold Deck" Shapiro (Ralph Dunn) and Benny the Meatball (Ben Welden); smooth Lullaby Schmoe (John Eldredge) and his girl Candy (Betty Caldwell). Witnessing the win is meek waiter and verbal punching bag Tipper (Lucien Littlefield), so named because of his past reputation as an informant for hire.
Augie wraps up his winnings in a bunch of newspapers and leaves his fellow card-players, only to be slain in the alley by a mysterious figure in an overcoat and wielding a swordstick umbrella. The bundle he carries falls unnoticed to the ground.
The next day, childlike Sach finds the bundle, brings it to Slip and the gang at the sweet shop and to their delight discover its contents, manna from heaven especially since they're all out of money and owe Louie a $3.80 tab for banana splits and the like. Local newsman Gabe Moreno (Dell), sensing a scoop, encourages the boys to wait out the period of time required by law to see if anyone claims the money. If no one does, they should donate some of the swag back to the community. Gabe's story soon attracts the attention of the gamblers and police Capt. James Q. Broderick (Donald MacBride) who's investigating Augie's murder.
Soon, Cold Deck comes to Louie's and tries holding up the boys for the money; he becomes the killer's second victim (this time by spiking a glass of Coca-Cola with poison while Cold Deck's back is turned). Benny the Meatball (not to be confused with Danny Beck's Lennie the Meatball from HARD BOILED MAHONEY, 1947) tries the same move in the boys' clubhouse and is jabbed by the deadly umbrella as he exits. Sach witnesses the slayings and tries to warn Broderick (whose name is wildly misspelled as Broaderik on his office nameplate) about the unknown man with the umbrella, but the flustered cop, dismissing Sach as a nutball, brushes him off.
Lullaby then tries to use finesse by introducing Slip to Candy and luring him to his apartment, but Tipper, as usual working both sides of the street, warns Lippy of this ploy. Lippy disposes of Lullaby (offscreen), and manages to get what he thinks is the booty from Slip by forcing him to call Sach and have him bring the bundle. But as Lippy triumphantly stands in the apartment doorway advising Slip, Sach and Candy to all drop dead, he collapses as the umbrella strikes again.
Because the killer didn't get away with the cash (Sach, in one of his more clever moments, had only brought a roll of newspapers and nothing else to Lullaby's apartment), the boys are soon confronted in the clubhouse, where Sach has secreted the money on his person. The killer is none other than Tipper, his resentment toward the gamblers and greed turning him into a multiple murderer. "They treated me like dirt. I had to outsmart them. Now they're under the dirt," he reflects bitterly. Tipper, armed with the umbrella and a gun, is about to do in the boys when Broderick and Gabe arrive with the police and take him, and the money, in charge.
The nicely ironic denouement finds the boys, dejected and broke again at Louie's, on top of the world when the money is tossed onto the table where they're sitting by a grateful Gabe and Broderick. After every charitable outfit they promised cash takes their cut, the boys are left with a neat $12,000 -- which is promptly taken by a tax collector (George Eldredge, older brother of John Eldredge, who played Lullaby). Louie turns the boys out, with Slip decrying the need for money and urging the gang to forsake filthy lucre for good. That resolve lasts as long as it takes for them to find and pile atop a $5 bill on the sidewalk -- that Louie confiscates to settle their delinquent tab. As Sach tries being philosophical about the turn of events, Slip advises him to "drop dead," and his agreeable buddy obliges by falling backwards.
JINX MONEY can be seen as the first of the series in which all of the situations, characters and locations settled into a neat whole. Although the production is a standard low-budget affair for Monogram, staging much of the action within the confines of Louie's, it's a smooth-looking product that flows neatly under "One Shot" Beaudine's usual swift direction. JINX MONEY allots time for the boys to engage in their trademark silliness as the more serious scenes involving the money-hungry gamblers and Tipper generate a welcome bit of tension.
While many of the previous series numbers took the boys out of their regular environment, much of JINX MONEY, when not occurring at the sweet shop, is on their home turf. A highlight is when Slip takes the money to a local bank to verify if it's the real McCoy. "I just want your degenerated opinion," he asks the institution's president (Stanley Andrews).
While the boys and their predecessors almost always encountered crime in their lower-case urban surroundings, it's more interestingly handled here, thanks in part to an unusual storyline and JINX MONEY possessing one of the best supporting casts in the series. Leonard, the chief villain of the boys' third film, BOWERY BOMBSHELL (1946) and not shy about telling later interviewers how much he disliked working with Gorcey and the gang, nevertheless gives Lippy an edge that his ill-fated cohorts, no strangers to crime movies and the rising influence of film noir in Hollywood, match perfectly.
MacBride, whose slow burn exasperation matched that of comedy legend Edgar Kennedy (witness MacBride's hotel manager at wits' end with the Marx Brothers in ROOM SERVICE, 1938), employs his talent to great effect in JINX MONEY as he copes with Sach's seemingly crazy warnings about the man with the umbrella. And Littlefield, often cast as mild-mannered eccentrics and family men, grandly rises to the occasion as the surprise murderer Tipper. Fans of television's ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN will remember him in a typical role as Horatio Hinkle, inventor of "The Runaway Robot," a first season episode filmed three years after JINX MONEY.
As for the boys, Gorcey has Slip down to a T with malaprops aplenty ("Money is the roost of all evil") and generally unsuccessful attempts at being a ladies' man after meeting slinky Candy. Hall's antics as Sach hit a fine medium and he milks laughs from a sequence where, obsessed with the mysterious umbrella wielded by the killer, he recoils from people in the street carrying them, falls down a flight of steps, knocks himself out and has a dream in which he navigates his way out of a sea of umbrellas.
The gang likewise settled into a manageable group of flunkies for Slip and Sach -- Gabe (Dell), Chuck (David Gorcey), Whitey (William Benedict) and Butch (Bennie Bartlett). In this and succeeding films, Whitey is seen as the more industrious member, using whatever talents he has on hand to aid the boys in their endeavors. In JINX MONEY he rigs up an outlandish electrically-charged wall safe to hide the cash, which promptly blows up in his face. Benedict, whose Hollywood career predated most of the boys' endeavors, made Whitey a genial companion, even serving as a foil on occasion to Sach until he and the character bid goodbye to the series in 1951.
Except for HARD BOILED MAHONEY, in which he was simply a member of the gang taking orders from Slip, Dell's Gabe is about the only one of the bunch who's broken out to find a job -- in fact, several in the course of his tenure with the series, ranging from underworld stooge who sees the light (ANGELS' ALLEY and NEWS HOUNDS, 1947) to crusading television commentator (LUCKY LOSERS, 1950). Consistency not one of the series' virtues, Gabe changed occupation from film to film as suited the need of the plots, but was usually the voice of reason when the boys' schemes threaten to trip them up. Dell (1919-1988), whom Gorcey considered the real actor of the grouping, was missed upon his departure; his presence in the series as Gabe provided the boys with a link to the world beyond the Bowery.
Elements that made JINX MONEY work carried over into The Bowery Boys' remaining releases for 1948, SMUGGLERS' COVE and TROUBLE MAKERS, and the following year's crop of FIGHTING FOOLS, HOLD THAT BABY, the surprisingly grim ANGELS IN DISGUISE (another indication Monogram might have had something else in mind than a Bowery Boys movie), and MASTER MINDS, all bearing a quality that slowly evaporated as the series pressed on into the Eisenhower years and the boys really began to look their age. Most of the films that followed JINX MONEY brought the boys back into conflict with criminals, which eventually forced them into new areas such as armed service farces, comic clashes with the upper crust and horror spoofs, of which MASTER MINDS was their second.
But as a standalone, though, JINX MONEY shines as an example of the series at its best, a felicitous mixture featuring the boys' own unique take on comedy and drama. Praised as an "exceptionally tight, visual production" by historian Leonard Getz, JINX MONEY was among the handful of top Bowery Boys films first released to home video by Warner Bros. in the mid-'80s.