In 1935, author Sidney Kingsley wrote a dark and gritty play about children growing up on the streets of New York City during the Great Depression. The play, Dead End, featured real, tough-talking New York boys and was a popular hit with 687 performances during a two year run on Broadway. Legendary film producer Samuel Goldwyn loved the play and decided to make it into a film. He even brought many of the young New York street toughs from the play to Hollywood to co-star in his Dead End movie. The film featured star Humphrey Bogart as merciless gangster Baby Face Martin, Joel McCrea as hard working Dave, and Sylvia Sidney as Drina, a young woman mired in poverty.
The New York boys playing the young gang members included Billy Halop as Drina’s brother Tommy, Huntz Hall as Dippy, Bobby Jordan as Angel, Leo Gorcey as malicious Spit, Gabriel Dell as T.B., and Bernard Punsley as new kid Milty. The boys had a grand old time in Hollywood and ran wild around the studio. They smashed and destroyed property including a truck that they crashed into a sound stage. Samuel Goldwyn was disgusted, dumped the original New York boys, and sold their contracts to Warner Brothers. Warner was happy to get the boys and quickly made six more films featuring the Dead End Kids.
Suddenly films featuring tough talking young hoodlums was all the rage. Universal Studios borrowed several of the original Dead End Kids and made their own film series called the Little Tough Guys. There were twelve Little Tough Guys films and three 12-chapter serials. Poverty Row studio Monogram jumped on the teenaged hoodlum bandwagon and were able to snap up some of the original boys for their own series of films under the name the East Side Kids. Monogram made 22 East Side Kids films. Monogram then started a new series under the name the Bowery Boys and made 48 more films.
From the original 1935 Dead End film to the last Bowery Boys film in 1958, there were four different tough kid series ( the Dead End Kids, the Little Tough Guys, the East Side Kids, and the Bowery Boys). Over that 21 year long reign, there were a grand total of 89 films and 3 serials. The original boys came and went from the various series and many new boys joined the different gangs. Often the cast of boys changed from film to film. Another huge change was the tone of the films. The original Dead End films were gritty real-life dramas with the boys being tough and menacing hoodlums. But the tone changed to comedy-drama and, at the height of their popularity, to full fledged comedies. The boys were no longer so tough. They became “basically harmless, likeable teens – comic caricatures of their former selves”.
Spooks Run Wild, a 1941 East Side Kids film, falls firmly in the comedy category. The first six films of the East Side Kids series, which began in 1940, had a nice balance of drama, social relevance, and comedy. But producer Sam Katzman decided that he wanted a change of pace to comedy-horror for the seventh film in the series. Katzman also decided to make the “biggest East Side Kid extravaganza yet” and feature Monogram’s two most popular properties together for the first time on the big screen: the East Side Kids and Bela Lugosi. Carl Foreman wrote the original story for the grand sum of twenty-five dollars (he got $200 for the scriptwriting). Filming began in August 1941 and lasted only a week and a half. Spooks Run Wild (working titles were Ghosts in the Night and Trail of the Vampire) was finished and in theaters on October 24 – just in time for Halloween.
This time around the East Side Kids include Leo Gorcey as Muggs, Bobby Jordan as Danny, Huntz Hall as Glimpy, Leo’s younger brother David as PeeWee, ‘Sunshine’ Sammy Morrison as Scruno, and Donald Haines as Skinny. Sammy Morrison, the only Black member in any of the gangs, was the very first child ever recruited to star in the Our Gang comedies. He was also the first African-American actor to ever be signed to a long-term contract. Donald Haines was also an Our Gang alumni but Spooks Run Wild was his last film. After filming completed, Donald enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces to fight World War II. He was killed in action in 1943.
In Spooks Run Wild, the boys are forcibly rounded up by the police and shipped out to a summer camp for some fresh air and sunshine (Oh, the horror!). They make break for it the first chance they get and end up wandering around in a graveyard where a nervous gravedigger shoots at them and wounds PeeWee. The boys seek help at a nearby mansion where the mysterious caped figure Nardo (Bela Lugosi) and his dwarf assistant Luigi (Angelo Rossitto) thoroughly spook the boys. Soon PeeWee is missing, Muggs is seeing strange skulls, the boys are stumbling about hidden passageways, and everyone is convinced that Nardo is a maniacal “monster killer”.
Spooks Run Wild is a short film. It runs just 64 minutes but packs a lot of comedy action. I love Bela Lugosi (I think he was severely underused by the studios) and he plays his usual mysterious figure. But this time around he has to deal with the East Side Kids who do a huge amount of mugging and ad-libbing. It is hilarious when the boys pull a spooky trick and turn the tables on Bela and he is the one who gets terrified. Spooks Run Wild is funny but actually I think the later Bowery Boys films are much funnier, in part because they focus more on Leo Gorcey’s character’s malapropisms. He is a laugh riot when he says things like “I regurgitate” instead of “I reiterate” and “I depreciate it” instead of “I appreciate it” and that is missing in this film. Overall, the comedy just seems simpler, much more like a silent film at times, then in the later movies. There are some funny scenes of the boys wandering around the spooky old mansion but there are also some distractions, like too much of a focus on the camp counselor and the nurse and the nervous townsfolk, that take away from the funny interactions between Bela Lugosi and the boys. The story keeps cutting back and forth from the boys to the camp to the nurse to Bela to the townsfolk. I wanted to see more of Bela and the East Side Kids. Film fans should also be aware that some of the jokes involving Sammy Morrison are racist. There are a couple of comments about how he is so scared he is turning white. On the plus side, Sammy is not just a token scared Black kid, he does have a few key scenes and it is obvious he was a professional Our Gang star. He holds his own with the rest of the East Side Kids.
Spooks Run Wild is in black and white. The audio is excellent and the video is pretty good although there are a couple of glitches early on. Fans of Bela Lugosi and the East Side Kids will be happy to learn that they teamed up again for another comedy-horror film: 1943’s Ghosts on the Loose. Both Spooks Run Wild and Ghosts on the Loose are in the Public Domain and available FREE to watch online or download at the Internet Archive. More than half of the 22 East Side Kids films are also FREE at IA. Just search under “East Side Kids” or the titles.