This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Horseathon, an event being sponsored by the irrepressible Page at My Love of Old Hollywood from May 25-28. For a list of participants and the movies discussed, click here.
With the release of Crazy Over Horses in 1951, Monogram Pictures Corporation marked the halfway point of one of the longest running movie series in the history of cinema. The Bowery Boys, a series of films spotlighting the misadventures of an aging gang of juvenile delinquents (led by stars Leo Gorcey—as Terence Aloysius “Slip” Mahoney—and Huntz Hall, aka Horace Debussy “Sach” Jones), would be the focus of forty-eight B-pictures produced between 1946 and 1958. The series had its origins as far back as 1937, when Gorcey, Hall, Bobby Jordan, Gabriel Dell, Bernard Punsley and Billy Halop appeared in Samuel Goldwyn’s production of Dead End…and the success of that film prompted Warner Brothers to hire “the Dead End Kids” for even more gritty juvenile dramas, notably Angels With Dirty Faces (1938). The members of the group would later make a number of films both at Universal (as the Little Tough Guys) and Monogram (as The East Side Kids); the Bowery Boys series came about when Gorcey, dissatisfied with his treatment (and salary) in the East Side Kids pictures, revamped the concept with manager Jan Grippo to feature him and Hall as the stars.
The Bowery Boys films are an acquired taste for many filmgoers (sort of along the lines of boiled peanuts). Their content often ran the gamut from urban melodrama to wacky slapstick comedy, but for many people (myself included, since I grew up watching the films both on WCHS-TV in
and later on Charleston,
WGN) they’re a guilty pleasure despite their low budgets and absurd plots. In Crazy
Over Horses, Slip and Sach—along with the other members of the “gang,”
Whitey (Billy Benedict), Chuck (David Condon) and Butch (Bennie Bartlett)—are
“hired” by sweet shop owner Louie Dumbrowski to collect an outstanding debt
owed to him by a stable owner named Flynn (Tim Ryan), who barely makes ends
meet boarding horses and repairing furniture.
Flynn is keeping tabs on a horse called “My Girl,” but because the men
who left the equine in his care haven’t paid the feed bill in six months, Flynn
talks the boys into accepting the nag as payment on the debt.
Louie’s reaction to the news that he is now the proud owner of a thoroughbred is not a positive one…and in fact, when three gangsters—played by Ted de Corsia, Allen Jenkins and Michael Ross—show up at his establishment and offer him $500 for My Girl, he’s all-too-willing to sign on the dotted line. Slip, on the other hand, is convinced that something is not on the up-and-up—and despite an offer of $1000; he nixes the idea of selling the horse. Because the gangsters are not able to obtain what they want through financial channels, they simply switch My Girl with their own race horse, “Tarzana.” The plan, you see, is to run My Girl as Tarzana all along—ignorant of the switcheroo, the odds on Tarzana would enter longshot territory and de Corsia and his gang would clean up after placing a king-sized bet (all planned by de Corsia’s kingpin boss, played by Russell Hicks). A series of horse-switching commences back-and-forth before the gang finally manages to get the right horse (My Girl) and with Sach as jockey, the horse is entered into the race, where it manages to beat Tarzana in an exciting climax, foiling the bad guys’ nefarious plans.
Because it’s better constructed (story-wise) than most Bowery Boys vehicles, Crazy Over Horses manages to be a fairly entertaining little romp despite more than a few weaknesses. It doesn’t break any new comedy ground, for instance—the whole “horse switching” plot is highly reminiscent of the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races, only Horses has to pad out its sixty-five minute running time with the device, not always to its benefit. The film also suffers from two sequences involving unfortunate racial humor: one bit has Chuck and Butch distracting Tarzana’s groom (so that Slip and Whitey can switch the horses), played by Smoki Whitfield, with a pretend game of craps (ouch). Then another horse-switch is attempted by Sach, who has a conversation with the same groom…only Sach is in blackface (double ouch). (This last bit is sometimes trimmed when the film is shown on television, for obvious reasons.)
Those insensitivities aside, there are some fitfully funny moments in Horses—mostly involving the chemistry between Gorcey’s Slip and Hall’s Sach. I’ve always been a big fan of Leo’s; he had a wonderful comic persona (the wise guy who made malapropisms a fine art) and demonstrated that he was an accomplished talent even outside of the Bowery Boys (he was a regular on Bob Burns’ radio show, and also appeared alongside Groucho Marx on Blue Ribbon Town, where he often called the host “Marxie”). I don’t share the same affinity for Hall, however; I always found his character a bit abrasive and annoying—but with Gorcey beside him as a counterweight, he wasn’t too difficult to take. Hall has some moments in Horses where you’d jump at the chance to strangle him with a bridle at first opportunity…and yet there are amusing scenes such as this conversation with stable owner Flynn:
SLIP: We’re from the Mahoney Collection Agency…I’m Mahoney, da collector…you owe our client, Louie Dumbrowski, $250 plus interest—which we’re willin’ to disintegrate…plus court impoundments…now, of course, we really don’t wanna take ya to court as it might cause ya a lotta inconveyance…
FLYNN: I don’t understand, Mr. Mahoney…I explained all that to Louie this morning…business has been very bad…
SACH (gritting his teeth and acting tough): Will ya stop with that hearts and flowers…we want that money! You gonna give us that money? I’m gonna tear you apart… (He lunges for Flynn) Gimme that money, you… (To Slip) Tough enough, Chief?
SLIP: Keep yourself in tow, Lassie…
FLYNN: As I was saying…business is very bad…
SLIP: Well, we can depreciate that fact, Mr. Flynn…but…couldn’t ya just give us a little…collateral payment?
SACH: Collateral payment? We want money!
FLYNN: I wish I could, Mr. Mahoney…I work very hard in trying to sell this old furniture… (Sad, somber music plays on the soundtrack) I just make a bare living…if you give me a little more time, I’ll get the money somewhere…I don’t want to go to court…I’ll pay…believe me, I’ll pay!
SACH (blubbering and kneeling in front of Slip): Will you give us a little more time? What do you want from us, blood? We don’t make any money…just mending this furniture, and doing this, and doing that…we buy old things…will you give us a little more time…we don’t make…my wife’s sick…my baby’s going to the mountains for the summer…please…give us a little more time…will ya? Give us some time… (He stops crying and says to Flynn) Last time I asked for time I got six months!
There’s also some hilarity when Sach and Slip, looking out of an opening at Flynn’s stable, watch as his daughter Terry (Gloria Saunders) teaches My Girl a trick of picking up Terry’s handkerchief with its teeth. (This is how the gang later discovers that the horses have been switched, by the way.) Both Slip and Sach are quite taken with Terry, and experience a little initial confusion when Flynn tells them that’s “My Girl” (meaning the horse, not his daughter) and that they’re welcome to take her as payment on the debt. (“She’ll be nice to have around the store,” brays Sach.) Once the matter is cleared up, Terry is impressed that Slip knows his horse flesh (having pegged My Girl as a thoroughbred) and Slip replies “Oh…a little…I used to be an exercise boy.”
“You could do with a little exercise now,” cracks Sach, which gets him a rap in the face that would do Moe Howard proud.
If you’re going to cast gangsters in your film—and let’s face it, every Bowery Boys film had to have gangsters—you’d definitely want TDOY faves Ted de Corsia and Allen Jenkins in your corner. The only downside is that Jenkins doesn’t have stronger material than he should, but he’s still a welcome presence. In the Bowery Boys films, Gorcey and Hall pretty much got the lion’s share of the laughs and everyone else was left to fend for themselves; this infighting is the reason why Horses was the final outing for William “Billy” Benedict, who had been playing “Whitey” since the series began in 1946. (I’ve stated previously on the blog that “Whitey” was my favorite of the gang…mock me though you will. His absence from the series was a sad one, even if there were still a few goodies to come.) Leo’s brother David, whose only purpose in these films was to stand in the background (usually in tandem with Bennie Bartlett) and try to look interested in what was going on in order to maintain the illusion that Leo and Huntz had a “gang,” changed his name from “Gorcey” to “Condon” (his mother’s maiden name) with this picture as well in the hopes that it might kickstart his career…but no such luck.
Crazy Over Horses was also the first film to abandon the montage of
City that had introduced the previous films in the
series, instead featuring caricatures of Slip and Sach in whatever situation
the film happened to center on (this one featuring the two of them with the
horse). It foreshadowed the direction
the series was headed (Gorcey and Hall as a comedy duo that later morphed into
an ersatz Three Stooges, particularly when that team’s former director-writer
Edward Bernds joined Monogram in 1953 and started working on the Bowery Boys pictures) and inched the franchise closer and
closer to the zany comedy that many fans recognize as its trademark. If you’re a fan, Horses remains one of the Bowery Boys’ most entertaining