After their praise-winning performance in MGM's 1937 adaptation of Sidney Kingsley's Dead End, the "Dead End Kids," as they came to be known, found themselves a hot commodity. Urban Legend, possibly encouraged by the studio, claimed they were actual slum children; in fact, they were actors, who had appeared on Broadway in the original production of Dead End. They would make several more appearances in film, and become an enduring part of the twentieth century's pop culture.
During the same period that the Dead End Kids schemed onscreen for MGM, most of the same actors appeared as the Little Tough Guys for Universal. These two sets of films have been handled together here; the name "Little Tough Guys" is almost unknown, and those films have been marketed on video as Dead End Kids movies.
The original kids were: Huntz Hall (Dippy), Leo Gorcey (Spit), Bobby Jordan (Angel), Gabriel Dell (T.B.), Billy Halop (Tommy), and Bernard Punsley (Milty). Throughout the remainder of their collective career, they played essentially the same characters as they had in Dead End, speaking the same memorable argot, but their names and destinies changed regularly.
They made their second appearance in 1938's Crime School. This drama teamed them once more with Humphrey Bogart, who had starred in Dead End as a gangster. This time he plays the Deputy Commissioner of Corrections, investigating the terrible conditions at a Reform School where the boys reside. Here, they are: Huntz Hall (Goofy), Leo Gorcey (Spike), Bobby Jordan (Squirt), Gabriel Dell (Bugs), Billy Halop (Frankie), and Bernard Punsley (Fats). Hollywood was still taking the gang seriously in this film; this is a quality picture which packs a solid punch. Frankie gets caught on a barb-wired fence while trying to escape, and is whipped as punishment. We're still in the world of Dead End, of hard-hitting drama and progressive politics.
Since Universal Studios made the next film, Little Tough Guy, the Kids had to become the Little Tough Guys; they would alternate these identities for several years. The film concerns the teenage son of a man unjustly sent to the electric chair, who decides to become a criminal. His gang is financed by a mystery man, whose identity, when finally revealed, provides a perhaps too-obvious moral on social inequality and official hypocrisy.
The Little Tough Guys are: Huntz Hall (Pig), David Gorcey (Sniper), Hal E. Chester (Dopey), Gabriel Dell (String), Billy Halop (Johnny) and Bernard Punsley (Ape).
The Little Tough Guy films are not so seldom seen, as they pale beside the better-made Dead End Kids series. Leo Gorcey did not appear in any of the Universal films, and is replaced in this one by his brother, David. Hall fares better, as he has a more hardcore personality in this series. At MGM, he generally plays the group dimwit.
The Kids next appeared in a top-rate period crime drama, Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), which stars Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and Pat O'Brien. In this feature, former Hell's Kitchen children Rocky Sullivan (Cagney) and Jerry Connolly (O'Brien) meet as adults. Sullivan is a gangster; Connolly is a priest. The kids are the next generation, torn between the two futures represented by Sullivan and Connolly. A high point of the series, Angels features excellent use of light and shadow and familiar stock sets.
In this version of reality, the Dead End Kids are Huntz Hall (Crab), Leo Gorcey (Bim), Bobby Jordan (Swing), Gabriel Dell (Pasty), Billy Halop (Soapy), and Bernard Punsley (Hunky).
Busby Berkeley directed the next film, They Made Me a Criminal (aka I Became a Fugitive and They Made Me a Fugitive), about a man on the run from the law. His flight takes this from a dance picture (which is how it starts) to a crime drama, where the Kids make their appearance, this time clearly the same characters who had appeared in Dead End: Huntz Hall (Dippy), Leo Gorcey (Spit), Bobby Jordan (Angel), Gabriel Dell (T.B.), Billy Halop (Frankie), and Bernard Punsley (Milty).
The series becomes more melodramatic with 1939's Hell's Kitchen (based on a short story by Crane Wilbur), but the gang now have top billing. Essentially, this is Crime School again, with a reformed criminal (Ronald Reagan) out to clean up a corrupt Reform School. The warden might've got away with it, too, if it weren't for the meddling kids: Huntz Hall (Bingo), Leo Gorcey (Gyp), Bobby Jordan (Joey), Gabriel Dell (Ace), Billy Halop (Tony), Bernard Punsley (Ouch), and Frankie Burke (Soap). Although softer than Crime School, it still depicts brutal conditions; one of the Kids' characters dies from the warden's harsh treatment.
Reagan and Ann Sheridan star in the next film, Angels Wash Their Faces, about a criminal (the future American president) trying to go straight. Naturally, the lure of easy money proves a major plot point. As in Dead End, the kids influence the world around them. Their growing fame is reflecting in the names: Huntz Hall (Huntz), Leo Gorcey (Leo aka Mousy), Bobby Jordan (Bernie), Gabriel Dell (Luigi), Billy Halop (Billy), and Bernard Punsley (Sleepy).
Call a Messenger, also made in 1939, features Huntz Hall and Billy Halop as Little Tough Guys "Pig" and "Jimmy." This one involves a kid who takes a real job as a messenger boy in order to avoid Reform School. Unfortunately, a friend wants him to use his new position to pull jobs of the other kind.
On Dress Parade rounded out their work for 1939, and lightens the tone somewhat. In this film, the Kids get sent to a Military School where they ultimately learn to succeed.
The cadets' roster: Huntz Hall (Johnny), Leo Gorcey (Slip), Bobby Jordan (Ronny), Gabriel Dell (Georgie), Billy Halop (Jack), Bernard Punsley (Dutch), Johnny Litel (Michael), and Frankie Thomas (Murph).
Not So Tough (1940) continues with a lighter tone, as the the Little Tough Guys try to make a buck in California. Actors and roles are the same as in Little Tough Guy, but Dopey and Sniper are gone, and Bobby Jordan appears as "Rap."
Universal also gave the actors top billing in a serial
, Junior G-Men
. Twelve chapters long, rarely seen now, and not well-reviewed, the story has the Kids help the FBI
track down foreign spies who have kidnapped a noted scientist. In this incarnation, they are: Huntz Hall (Gyp), Gabriel Dell (Terry), Billy Halop (Billie), Bernard Punsley (Lug), Kenneth Lundy (Buck), and Hal E. Chester (Murph).
They revert to their Little Tough Guy names for Give Us Wings (1940), in which they once again become tough-guy heroes in a comedy-drama about crooked cropdusters. Hit the Road (1941) mixes comedy and adventure with a harsh premise: the kids' fathers have been killed in a mob war, and they're out for revenge.
The Guys would also appear in Tough as they Come (1942), Mug Town and Keep'em Slugging (both 1943).
These films, which emphasized the humour and treated the boys as tough guy heroes, would be superseded by two other incarnations. In 1940, several of the kids had appeared in Boys of the City, which introduced the low-budget East Side Kids series, which, after the war, would beget the Bowery Boys.
See next: East Side Kids