Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Buried Treasures: Boxing Comedy Twin Bill – The Milky Way (1936) and Kid Dynamite (1943)

On September 22 of this year, longtime New York Post movie critic Lou Lumenick announced on Twitter that he was packing it in after 27 years—he’s been in the newspaper bidness for 48.  Thrilling Days of Yesteryear wishes him all the best; he’s a right guy with a great sense of humor (I had a little fun at his expense one time with a TCM parody I wrote about his and Self-Styled Siren Farran Smith Nehme’s co-hosting of the channel’s “Shadows of Russia” festival in 2010—Her Sirenship always refers to Lou as “Comrade,” which always makes me smile).

But whenever I’m being serious with regards to Mr. L, I have referred to him in the past as “the best friend a classic film fan can have.”  He’s steered me to a number of notable movies I might have otherwise passed on, like The Iron Petticoat (1956—I wanted to like this one, but it just didn’t work for me, Lou) and To the Last Man (1933—this one I did enjoy).  Lou did an introduction and history on this last film when it was released to DVD in July of 2005 as part of those splendid Roan Archival Group releases…one of several Roan projects in which Lumenick participated, including today’s Overlooked Films on Tuesdays.

You get a double feature today, cartooners—a January 2005 Roan release combined a pair of film comedies centering on the Sweet Science, Harold Lloyd’s The Milky Way (1936) and the East Side Kids vehicle Kid Dynamite (1943).  I posted a picture of myself on Facebook with the copy I purchased from Oldies.com for the nominal sum of—get this now—seventy-nine cents.  Was I going to pass this up?  Au contraire!  Anyway, when Lou saw the photo he asked: “Are those the ones I taped in my apartment?  Or on the roof of the former Troma building in Hell’s Kitchen?”  This intro looks like an apartment job; possibly with a blue screen in the background so they could dub in the Troma promotional stuff on the wall in post-production.

In The Milky Way, boxer Elwood “Speed” McFarland (William Gargan) and his sidekick Spider Schultz (Lionel Stander) are getting fresh with nightclub hat check girl Mae Sullivan (Helen Mack) …and she warns them that her brother Burleigh (Harold Lloyd) will give them what for if they persist in their masher ways.  No sooner said than done: Burleigh arrives on the scene, and in the fracas that follows, Speed is sent to the concrete canvas.  The newspapers have a field day with the story that a mere amateur was able to knock out the reigning middleweight champion, and those headlines give Speed’s manager, Gabby Sloan (Adolphe Menjou), a severe case of ulcers.

Sloan’s condition is further exacerbated by the fact that Burleigh—a timid, mild-mannered milkman—didn’t actually slug Speed; all those years of being bullied since childhood have allowed Sullivan to perfect a “ducking” technique, in which he most effectively bobs and weaves to avoid any blows.  Burleigh demonstrates again, and this reveals that it was Spider who sent Speed down for the ten-count…just as a gaggle of reporters descend upon the hotel room where the four men and Sloan’s longtime fiancée Ann Westley (Verree Teasdale) were congregated.

Gabby comes up with a brainstorm: he’ll build Burleigh up as “Tiger” Sullivan, lining up a series of wind-up bouts (the opponents have been paid to take dives) before he steps into the ring with Speed for the middleweight championship…and Speed turns his face into hamburger.  While Burleigh undergoes training (he’s never had any kind of fight in his life), Speed romances Mae to keep her from finding out about the scheme.

There are two schools of thought regarding Harold Lloyd’s “talking” comedies.  One group believes that Movie Crazy (1932) represents his best work from the sound era (I happen to think so myself).  The other faction argues that Milky Way is his finest talkie—an exuberant slapstick affair directed by one of the finest comedy directors in the motion picture business, Leo McCarey.  (Portions of Milky were also directed by Norman Z. McLeod; McCarey and the cast/crew made the mistake of drinking the milk featured in the film—Lloyd’s character is employed by a dairy—and the unpasteurized cow juice made a lot of them sick.  Leo was so under the weather he wasn’t able to attend his father’s funeral…and moviegoers benefited from that when he made his next film, Make Way for Tomorrow [1937], as a tribute to his pop.)

I love Movie Crazy for its classic “magician’s coat” sequence (and its faithful adherence to Lloyd’s “local-boy-makes-good” character—the climax of Crazy is even reminiscent of my favorite of the comedian’s silent, The Kid Brother [1927]), but I always enjoy watching Milky Way…so I guess in a way you could argue there are three schools of thought.  Milky has a superlative supporting cast: Adolphe Menjou as the scheming Gabby; Verree Teasdale as the sarcastic Ann; Lionel Stander as the loyal but dense Spider.  (Stander would reprise this role in the Danny Kaye remake The Kid from Brooklyn [1946]; both he and Eve Arden were regulars on Kaye’s radio show and Evie was perfect for the role of Ann.)

I’m glad they went with William Gargan as Speed (Brian Donlevy, who played the part in the original 1934 stage play, wouldn’t have been as effective in the comedic aspects of the character) because he has a nice chemistry with Helen Mack, best known for her roles in Son of Kong (1933) and His Girl Friday (1940).  You’ll also spot familiar faces like George Barbier, Charles Lane, Murray Alper (the truck driver in Saboteur), Eddie Dunn, Lloyd Ingraham, and Milburn “Doc” Stone; of course, I can’t leave out the contribution of Marjorie Gateson—who plays the dowager taught by Burleigh to “duck” in the movie’s highlight.

The [always reliable] IMDb says this was Anthony Quinn’s movie debut but I wasn’t able to pick him out.  It might have been the quality of the print; Sam Goldwyn bought the rights to Milky when he was planning the Kid from Brooklyn remake and purportedly destroyed not only the original negative but all existing prints.  (Fortunately Harold Lloyd’s original nitrate print surfaced—the one featured on the Lloyd boxed set—but a good many of the DVD releases of Milky are public domain copies.)

Kid Dynamite may also be public domain…but except for a few bad edits and scratches it’s a fairly nice-looking presentation on this DVD (apparently an Astor re-release), as moviedom’s favorite juvenile delinquents fuss and scrap for an hour and five minutes.  Ethelbert “Mugs” McGinnis (Leo Gorcey) is scheduled to fight in the neighborhood boxing match—but after running afoul of pool shark Harry Wycoff (Gabriel Dell), Mugs finds himself taken for a ride by a pair of goons who work for Harry’s boss, a mobster (Wheeler Oakman) named Tony.  (How original.)  In the place of the missing Mugs, his pal Danny Lyons (Bobby Jordan) agrees to put on the gloves…not the wisest decision in retrospect.

You see, Mugs has convinced himself that Danny is his mortal enemy—Danny was supposed to substitute a certain type of pool chalk when Mugs was playing Wycoff, and his reluctance to cheat (Danny honestly thought Mugs could beat Harry without it) leads Mr. McGinnis to suspect that Danny planned it all along.  Being eliminated from a jitterbug contest at a neighborhood dance—Mugs’ partner (Kay Marvis—Mrs. Gorcey at the time, and later Mrs. Groucho Marx) is a professional dancer, which is verboten in an amateur competition—doesn’t smooth things over between the two, particularly since Danny benefits from Mugs’ removal.  Ethelbert, not to put too fine a point on it, is being a bit of an asshole (he’s turned his fellow gang members against Danny) and if Danno expects to live happy ever after with Ivy McGinnis (Pamela Blake), Mugs’ sister, he needs to show his future brother-in-law who’s boss.

Because I’ve always preferred the “pure comedy” approach of the later Bowery Boys films (though the early ones did dabble in melodrama), I’m not as fond of the East Side Kids movies as are others.  But, hey—for 79¢ I’ll make myself a fan; besides, I do enjoy the ones where the Kids match wits with Bela Lugosi (Spooks Run Wild [1941], Ghosts on the Loose [1943]—both of which will air on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ later this month) and East Side features that have a “pure comedy” approach (like Clancy Street Boys [1943]) are also most welcome.  Kid Dynamite has many interesting facets: the jitterbug dance is a lot of fun (watching Huntz “Glimpy” Hall dance with his Amazonian date is chuckle worthy); the Gorcey-Jordan rivalry was apparently drawn from real-life; and Bennie “Beanie” Bartlett probably has more lines in this film than he did in all of the later Bowery Boys romps.

Monogram may have been a B-picture factory…but their movies are a virtual cornucopia of character veterans.  Daphne Pollard, who worked with comics like Shemp Howard and Laurel & Hardy, plays Mugs and Ivy’s mom…and Vince “Elmo” Barnett is on hand as a nemesis of the gang named Klinkhammer.  Columbia shorts player Dudley Dickerson is “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison’s (Scruno’s) father; Minerva Urecal a judge who reads Mugs and Company the riot act; and if you’re quick you’ll spot ‘Snub’ Pollard as one of the dance contest officials.  Directed by programmer auteur Wallace Fox, Kid Dynamite also takes a little time for a musical interlude from Marion Miller and Mike Riley’s Orchestra with a jazzy version of Comin’ Thro’ the Rye.  If that’s not enough to entice you (I’d like to think I had you at seventy-nine cents), Morey Amsterdam gets an “additional dialogue” credit!

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