I grew up on the Our Gang comedies. They were a summertime staple on Chicago television during the 70’s and 80’s. I loved the personalities and camaraderie of the gang. I think that’s why now, as an adult who is interested in the wide world of movie history, I’ve found myself drawn to The Bowery Boys and their various other incarnations. In many ways, they feel like an older version of Our Gang. They started as The Dead End Kids, advancing on to The Little Tough Guys, The East Side Kids, and eventually The Bowery Boys. Though the lineups changed over the 20+ years that the team was making films, the primary constants were Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall. Today we take a look at 1946’s “Live Wires,” the first film made under the Bowery Boys name.
The film follows Slip Mahoney (Gorcey), a street-smart New Yorker who has trouble hanging on to a job. He lives with his sister Mary (Pamela Blake), who is getting more and more frustrated with her brother’s lack of direction. Truth be told, Slip would probably much rather spend his days hanging at the soda shop with his buddies Sach (Huntz Hall), Bobby (Bobby Jordan), Whitey (Billy Benedict), and Homer (William Frambles)…and he does. Although, Sach has had some success as a suit-wearing repo man, or “skip tracer” as the boys call it, for the most part these guys just sort of hang out.
One day, Slip spots a guy selling spot remover on the street and thinks this looks like a good money-making gig. He asks the salesman if he can get a piece of the action, but the man refuses. That is, until he sees the cops approaching. Suddenly, he is now anxious to sell his interest in the company. So Slip and boys pool their money and buy the remaining bottles. Of course, when Slip tries to conduct a demonstration for potential customers, a fight breaks out when he stains a man’s suit with ink and the spot remover won’t work. But the boys get their investment back, since Sach bet others in the crowd that Slip would lose.
Mary now steps in to help her brother by setting up a meeting with him and her boss, Mr. Sayers (John Eldredge). Sayers give Slip a job on a construction site. Of course, Slip thinks he’s landed a management position, but is surprised to find he is being tapped to dig ditches. Another fight breaks out and, once again, Slip needs a job.
Even though he is reluctant, Slip decides to go to work with Sach doing repo work. His first assignment is to repossess a car from a singer (Claudia Drake) who works at the High-Hat Club. This is a perfect opportunity for Slip to take his girl on a date to the club, it’s company expense, after all.
After Slip is successful getting the car, he and Sach are given the job of serving a summons to two people involved in an auto theft ring. The names are Patsy Clark and “Pigeon.” Slip figures serving papers to this dame will be no problem. But it turns out that Patsy is an over-sized, child-like tough guy (Mike Mazurki) who has no love for people who serve him papers. As for “Pigeon,” it turns out to be a code name for someone close to Mary…and unknown to her, she’s in danger.
There isn’t really on overarching story to “Live Wires,” other than the loose connecting thread of Slip looking for a job. Otherwise, the film is fairly episodic, with each new job for Slip feeling like a separate short film. All of the different job situations work well and make great use of Gorcey’s considerable comic talents, but it’s the repo man segments that work the best. On a whole, the picture may have turned out a bit stronger had that been the primary focus.
The rest of the Bowery Boys team doesn’t get near as much screen time as Gorcey does in this one. In fact, the title screen proclaims the film as starring “Leo Gorcey and the Bowery Boys.” Even Huntz Hall’s role is really downplayed and he seems a little out of place considering that he spends the entire film wearing a suit. It’s certainly not the normal look for the boys. Though, to Hall’s credit, he does have some fun moments in the scene where he and Gorcey deal with tough guy Mazurki.
Though one character certainly dominates here, there is still that Our Gang all grown up kind of feel. “Live Wires” isn’t any sort of great cinematic achievement, but the fun and playfulness of this classic film team is well intact.