Saturday, April 16, 2022

Stubs - Crime School

Crime School (1938) Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Gale Page, Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Huntz Hall, Leo Gorcey, Bernard Punsly, Gabriel Dell, Charles Trowbridge Directed by Lewis Seiler. Screenplay by Crane Wilbur, Vincent Sherman. Produced by Jack L. Warner (Executive Producer), Hal B Wallis (Executive Producer). Run time: 86 minutes. USA Black and White Drama. Crime.

The Dead End Kids were a group of young actors who had appeared in the play version of Dead End on Broadway. As a result, Samuel Goldwyn signed Bernard Punsly, Huntz Hall, Leo Gorcey, Bobby Jordan, Gabriel Dell and Billy Halop to a two-year contract. Following the success of his film version of Dead End (1937), Goldwyn sold his contract with the Dead End Kids to Warner Bros.

Crime School came together because Jack Warner didn’t like to let his contracted actors not to work for their money. According to screenwriter Vincent Sherman, in his book Studio Affairs: My Life as a Film Director, "the project never came to life, and Warner, annoyed with having to pay the Kids' salaries for months when nothing was being done with them, voiced his feelings one day at the lunch table. [The head of Warner Bros' B-unit Bryan] Foy said he could put the boys to work quickly by doing a switch, remaking, and combining two old studio A films. Warner said, 'Go ahead. You've got 'em.'"

Shot in eighteen days starting in late January 1938 on a budget of $186,000, the film was assigned to B-picture director Lewis Seiler. It would open on May 28, 1938.

This would be the second pairing with Humphrey Bogart, the first having been Dead End. Bogart was still, at this time, the actor Warners didn’t know what to do with. While his biggest days were still ahead of him, Bogart did not receive top-billing and was set to play second-fiddle to this ensemble cast.

The story revolves around a group of street kids, Frankie (Billy Halop), Squirt (Bobby Jordan), Spike (Leo Gorcey), Goofy (Huntz Hall), Fats (Bernard Punsley), and Bugs (Gabriel Dell), who spend their days committing petty crimes and their nights working for Junkie (Frank Otto), a corrupt pawnshop owner.

Most of them come from broken homes, or like Frankie; his parents dead, he lives with his sister Sue Warren (Gale Page), who works days and goes to school at night to learn to be a secretary. Frankie wants to make enough money to buy Sue a typewriter so she can practice.

However, on the night they’re supposed to be paid off by Junkie, he reneges on his offer, and instead of $20, he offers to pay them $5. Frankie gets angry and the two fight, however Spike gets involved and hits Junkie with a blunt instrument. They think he’s dead and scatter outside, but the police arrive and one-by-one arrest the boys. Junkie doesn’t die, but they are still in trouble.

When they’re brought before Judge Clinton (Charles Trowbridge), he offers to let them go if they’ll tell him who hit Junkie. None of the boys want to be a fink and no one rats out Spike. However, all of them are to be punished and they’re sentenced to a reform school for two years. Watching the proceedings is Mark Braden (Humphrey Bogart), who has been appointed as new deputy commissioner.

When Frankie makes trouble, the warden of the school, Morgan (Cy Kendall), whips him.

When the boys’ train is late arriving at the reform school, they are denied dinner. However, Frankie, who is the leader of the group, stands up to the warden that runs the school, Morgan (Cy Kendall). His punishment is to be flogged by a whip, but Frankie has other ideas and tries to escape. He might have made it too, if he didn’t get caught up in the barbed wire around the school.

Mark Braden (Humphrey Bogart) watches as Fats (Bernard Punsley)
has a bad reaction to the food served at the reformatory.

The next day, Braden arrives at the school for an inspection. Not only does Morgan prove to be a harsh taskmaster, feeding his new inmates poor-quality food, Morgan’s support staff also proves to be below standard. Being aware of Frankie’s case, Braden asks to see him and is taken to the hospital. There, he discovers that Frankie’s wounds haven’t been treated and that the doctor in charge is drunk on duty.

While Morgan and Cooper (Weldon Heyburn) look on, Braden
discovers the severity of Frankie's (Billy Halop) wounds.

When he researches the background of the guards, Braden fires several on the spot. But the head guard Cooper (Weldon Heyburn) acts like he backs Braden’s reforms, which includes firing Morgan for embezzlement of the school’s food budget. But before he leaves, Morgan confers with Cooper, as they are both in on the scheme. Cooper promises to play along until he can ruin Braden and bring Morgan back.

Braden takes charge and Cooper acts like he supports him.

Braden takes charge of the reformatory himself and tries to win over Frankie and his gang but it is a no-go. He tries to reward the boys, allowing them to repaint their dormitory room. However, they do a really lousy job until Braden promises to let them live with it.

Braden admires the boys' painting and decides to let them live with it.

Meanwhile, Braden gets Sue a job using her new skills and he begins to see her when he’s in the city.

Cooper suggests that Braden try punishing the boys by giving them the hard work of shoveling coal for the school’s boiler. However, the boys overdo it and the boiler is about to explode. While everyone flees, Braden goes into the building and rescues Squirt, who got trapped.

Braden wins their respect by risking his life to save Squirt (Bobby Jordan).

Saving a life cements Frankie’s feelings for Braden and he tows the line from then on and brings the other boys with him. The one holdout is Spike, who doesn’t like that Frankie has changed. Spike gets manipulated by Cooper, who has overheard the boys talking and knows Spike is the one who hit Junkie over the head.

Cooper makes a deal with Spike. He won’t tell Braden about him hitting Junkie in exchange for Spike helping him to discredit Braden.

One night when Braden is in town visiting Sue, Spike tells Frankie that Sue is being used to pay back Braden for going easy on Frankie. Spike provides Frankie with the keys to Cooper’s car, as well as Cooper’s gun. Frankie tries to resist, but it gets to him and he decides to go into town and teach Braden a lesson.

They go to Sue's apartment and Frankie climbs the fire escape with the gun to confront Braden, but Sue and Braden dispel Frankie's suspicions.

Meanwhile, Cooper "discovers" that the kids have escaped, and Morgan calls the press to discredit Braden and get him fired. But Braden learns what is going on from Judge Clifton and he drives the boys back to the reformatory and has Sue drive Cooper’s car back as well.

Braden ruins the surprise Morgan and Cooper had cooked up to get him fired.

The Commissioner (Frank Jaquet) is alerted by Morgan and they arrive at the reformatory. Cooper has also alerted the media about the escape. Everyone is ready to blame Braden when he arrives and are shocked when they go to the dormitory to find the boys are all in bed.

Morgan is arrested, as is Cooper, but only after Braden has beaten him up for trying to get him killed.

A romance has bloomed between Braden and Frankie's sister Sue (Gale Page).

The boys are subsequently paroled into the care of their parents. It is obvious to the boys that Sue and Braden are about to get engaged.

Humphrey Bogart was enjoying his work on the film, since it was a break from playing a gun-toting heavy, which had been his role in several other Warner Bros. films up to that time. He is good in the role, though this is far from his best or his most memorable. As Bogart biographer Eric Lax worded it, "he was in constant need of money and therefore hooked by a studio who had him in what seemed a set pattern for his future: lead roles in minor films, minor roles in big films, and occasional appearances in great ones but only grooming a horse or toting a gun."

When the initial rushes of the film came back, the acting seemed tedious, so Vincent Sherman, a writer on the film as well as its dialogue coach, thought it might be better if the boys were allowed to adlib their lines, "at the end of the third day's shooting, after we had seen the rushes of the first two day's work, I thought the scenes... lacked spontaneity and a sense of life: The Kids seemed to be constrained by the individual lines of dialog assigned to them. I felt they needed to be free to ad-lib..." The director agreed and the boys, along with Bogart, were allowed to ad-lib their lines.

After blocking the shots with Seiler, the director, Sherman would take the Kids aside and run through the scene, allowing them to use their own words. "I sat nearby with a pad and pencil, and as they ad-libbed I jotted down as much as I could, especially those lines that were good, and there were plenty."

The film’s story borrows from other Warner films. The reviewer for Time magazine noted such, saying that "Crime School is a mug of cinema mulligan stocked with chunks of such seasoned staples as James Cagney's The Mayor of Hell [1933], Freddie Bartholomew's The Devil Is a Sissy [1936], and the Pat O'Brien-Humphrey Bogart San Quentin. But what gives it a rich and salty flavor of its own is ingredients like the six young toughies from Dead End and a dialogue script that is often spicier than Dead End. That someday this gang would wind up in a tough cinema reformatory was entirely conceivable. That it would reform them as thoroughly as Crime School does is not so easy to believe."

The film was also a success, earning over $2 Million at the box office, making it one of Warner’s most successful pictures of 1938. But despite the success, the studio did not consider making a series of films starring the team and instead broke them up. Halop, Hall, Dell, and Punsley were released from their contracts, while Leo Gorcey and Bobby Jordan were kept on to appear in juvenile parts in other Warner productions. The Dead End Kids would be reunited for Michael Curtiz's Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), with Bogart again in a supporting gangster role, third-billed after James Cagney and Pat O'Brien.

That same year, Universal would star Punsly, Hall, Dell and Halop in Little Tough Guy, adding Hally Chester and David Gorcey to the cast.

Dropped from Warner Bros. after the film On Dress Parade (1939), the ensemble moved on to Universal, which had decided to make a series of Little Tough Guy films, featuring Halop as "Tom," Punsly as "Ape," Hall as "Pig," Dell as "String," and Jordan, for a short time, as "Rap." The series, which ran until 1943, had them joined at various times by David Gorcey, Chester Berger and Harris Berger. Another series ran from 1940-1945 called The East End Kids. Produced at Monogram, the series featured many of the same actors. And still another series, called The Bowery Boys, ran from 1946 to 1958.

I can’t say I was ever a big fan of theirs. I sort of put them in the same category as Abbott and Costello; they were probably better in their time and have not aged particularly well. They do seem to work well together and I have to think that they overstayed their welcome on the silver screen.

Gale Page made her film debut in Crime School. Prior to that she had appeared on radio as an actress and a singer. She would appear in only 16 films in her career, including Four Daughters (1938), in which she co-starred with the Lane Sisters (Lola, Rosemary, and Priscilla) and was the only film "daughter" not played by one of the Lanes. She appeared in three other films with the Lane sisters: Daughters Courageous (1939) and the two "Four Daughters" sequels, Four Wives (1939) and Four Mothers (1941). She’s okay here, but there is not a lot for her to do as Frankie’s sister but worry about him.

Overall, Crime School is not a film to really seek out. If you’re a Bogart fan like I am, you’ll want to see it just to say you have. He’s still in that awkward not-quite-a-star stage in his career. This shows he can do more than be a gun-toting heavy but, no one in control of his career seemed to take notice. He was still a B-picture star at the studio. He elevates the film, but there is only so much he can do with the material.

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