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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

'Hell's Kitchen:' Ronald Reagan and "The Dead End Kids" but no Nancy Boys

The “Dead End” Kids On Dress Parade/Hell’s Kitchen
In recognition of the high quality of both films in the Warner Archive's recent "'Dead End Kids' Double Feature" DVD release, and in the spirit of prime time television's new season, Unreal TV will run a special two-part review of the films in that set. Today's post is on "Hell's Kitchen," and a review of "On Dress Parade" will follow tomorrow.

"The Dead End Kids," who later became "The Bowery Boys" were a group of New York City delinquents who starred in a series of Warner Brothers films in the '30s. These films typically played on the kids' tough-guy personas and hard-luck lives.

The 1939 film "Hell's Kitchen" was a multi-layered story about the Hudson Shelter reformatory where the kids suffered unfortunate incarcerations. The film's title referred to that group's nickname for the institution, and they added that they sometimes omitted the "kitchen" portion of the name.

The crux of the problem regarding this privately funded, and loosely regulated, allegedly rehabilitative facility was its corrupt head Hyram Krispan. Krispan's stern discipline includes depriving misbehaving students of the barely inedible and adequately insufficient serving of dinner and even more brutally locking them in the school's walk-in refrigerator. Krispan additionally pocketed the charitable deductions that he collected under the guise of projects that included a new library and a gymnasium for the reformatory.

This fundraising brought Krispan to the door of Buck Caesar, a racketeer who recently received a heavy fine and strict probation in a criminal trial. The scene in which the judge decreed Caesar's sentence was the funniest in the film.

Caesar's attorney and nephew Jim Donahue, played by Ronald Reagan, advised Caesar to make the requested contribution to demonstrate his desire to reform himself. This led to Caesar and Jim becoming volunteers at the school.

The middle portion of the film involved the efforts of Caesar and crusader teacher Beth Avery to make the shelter less hellish for the students; anyone who has ever seen a film knows that all did not go as planned, but some of the retribution was more brutal than expected. Krispan's iron-fist and particular cruelty regarding one the kids' dog evoked thoughts of brutal women's prison guard Evelyn Harper in "Caged," which Unreal TV reviewed a few months back.

The following clip, courtesy of YouTube, provides a sense that hell is for children; it also demonstrates the ability of the actors who portray the kids to make the audience sympathize with characters that most of us would walk city blocks to avoid.

The inevitable showdown between the students and Krsipan was both powerful and uplifting in the sense that it showed that these kids who "the system" placed in this place of eternal torment still respected our justice system. The additional element of the final scenes of "Frankenstein" in which a monster was hunted down was another indication that the "Kitchen" filmmakers cared about their craft.

Other "must-see" scenes involved the interaction between the kids and Caesar. Those moments clearly showed that Caesar came from the same place as the kids, literally spoke their language, and represented their future if they did not reform through one means or another.

The final verdict regarding "Kitchen" is that it, and "Parade," make this DVD set worth adding to your collection. These films show a portion of the range of the "Kids" films. They will also make you laugh, cry, and think.

Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Kitchen" or "Parade" is welcome to email me. You can also follow me on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.