An Interview by John Antosiewicz
Author’s Note: The recently published book, From Broadway To The Bowery—A History Of The Dead End Kids, Little Tough Guys, East Side Kids And Bowery Boys Films, With Cast Biographies by Leonard Getz (McFarland, 2006), states that Eugene Francis died in the late 1980s. As of September 6, 2006, the date of our last conversation, Mr. Francis was alive and well and residing in the New York metropolitan area. He will mark his 90th birthday in the summer of 2007.
They were descendants of the Dead End Kids and forerunners of The Bowery Boys. The East Side Kids reigned as Hollywood’s cinematic hooligans during the first half of the 1940s, supplying war-time audiences with their own maniacal brand of New York City street humor. The 22 low budget programmers ground out by Monogram Pictures from 1940-1945 were sure-fire hits with the juvenile crowd they were aimed at. Veteran B film producer Sam Katzman scored a bull’s-eye with the February 1940 release of East Side Kids. This seminal entry in the series was a box office winner and provided the impetus for Katzman’s signing of original Dead End Kids Bobby Jordan and Leo Gorcey for his second effort Boys of the City (1940). One of the regular characters in the fledgling series was well-to-do Algernon “Algy” Wilkes. In the debut film he dispatches the east side urchins one by one in a street brawl, after being ridiculed for his nerdy appearance, and is invited into the gang. Although Algy is far more socially refined he never looks down upon his new friends or thinks himself superior and there is a comfortable relationship among all concerned. Portrayed by Jack Edwards in East Side Kids, Boys of the City marked the Hollywood celluloid debut of twenty-three year old New York theater actor Eugene Francis in the role of Algy Wilkes.
Eugene Francis was born on August 28, 1917 in Brooklyn, N.Y. At the age of twelve he made his first professional appearance with the New York City repertory company of famed actress Eva LaGallienne. More Broadway plays followed and numerous opportunities arose as he broke into radio which was an excellent medium for him, considering his superior vocal skills. A fateful trip to Hollywood in 1940 resulted in what Francis refers to as “a very brief chapter in a hell of a long career.” After a five-year stint in the army during World War 2 he was back on the east coast to resume his radio and theater work. Hollywood beckoned once again but this time the opportunities were in television commercials. Francis worked regularly on both coasts and for a long period was the voice and on-air personality for Goodyear Tires and Remington Shavers. His long-time association with the television show Calliope is of special importance to him. Francis would prefer to talk about his involvement with this educational and learning program for children rather than discuss what it was like hanging out with Muggs, Danny, Scruno and the rest of the gang. However, on a recent summer afternoon we did just that, as Eugene Francis reminisced and graciously shared his East Side Kids memories.
JA: As an eighteen year old New York stage actor you were probably aware of the Broadway production of Dead End in 1935.
Eugene Francis: I attempted to get a try out but couldn’t. A bunch of other kids and I went to the casting office which was rare in those days because there weren’t too many chances for young people. I sounded like an Englishman, and they didn’t want any part of me. That was the problem. They didn’t want that in Dead End, but it did get me cast as the rich man’s son in the East Side Kids pictures.
JA: Did you see Dead End when it first opened?
EF: I saw both stage and film versions. Sidney Kingsley’s original play was far better and more moving than the film. It had a reality to it that the movie didn’t have. There was water [New York’s East River] in the orchestra pit of the Belasco Theater that the kids dove into.
JA: Do you recall seeing any of the Warner Brothers Dead End Kids films when they were released?
EF: Yes I do. When I was out west [late ‘30s] we went to the movies almost every night and saw everything. What happened to the Dead End Kids is they became less and less usable to Warner Brothers who eventually let them go. Along comes a guy named Sam Katzman who was a very funny producer of B films. B meant the second feature on a double bill.
JA: In many cases B simply means better.
EF: It didn’t then. The first picture [East Side Kids, Monogram, 1940] was experimental on Sam’s part and the gamble turned out very nicely when it came to distribution. It was done on the cheap in about a week and did exceedingly well. He signed up a couple of the Dead End Kids and Monogram made a bunch of them.
JA: Were you familiar with this first entry in the series?
EF: I was aware it was filmed but never saw it. I knew it was the nucleus of Boys of the City [Monogram, 1940].
JA: It was directed by Robert F. Hill who had an acting role in your final East Side Kids feature, Flying Wild [Monogram 1941].
EF: Who was in East Side Kids?
JA: Dave O’Brien, Dennis Moore, Hally Chester, Frankie Burke, Sam Edwards, Jack Edwards as Algy.
EF: Sam and Jack Edwards were brothers although I never met either one. These were primarily the same people in Boys of the City, but I didn’t know the character of Algy was in the first one.
JA: How did you get the role of Algy in Boys of the City?
EF: Jack Edwards was supposed to play him in this picture. The day before shooting began he got a better job, which wasn’t hard to do, and bowed out. That evening I was having dinner with a friend in Hollywood when I got a call from Sue Carol [a former lead actress, and later the wife of Alan Ladd] who was my agent at the time. She said to meet her immediately in Sam Katzman’s office on Hollywood and Vine. There I met the director Joseph H. Lewis, Sam Katzman and one of the writers. I auditioned and was told to be at the Hal Roach Studio the next morning.
JA: Do you remember what your salary was?
EF: $66 a week. $11 per day! Sue Carol said there’d be no money involved, but at least I could get some film footage. I knew what I was getting into. It was Gower Gulch-bottom of the barrel. The cliche in Hollywood at the time was if you were working in Gower Gulch you’re either on your way up or on your way down.
JA: What was the shooting schedule like?
EF: Five days, usually going into six.
JA: Were all the New York City street exteriors shot at the Roach studio?
EF: Yes, the back street at Roach. One street. The first morning of shooting [Boys of the City] was on the Roach lot.
JA: Were any interiors done there?
EF: That was in a soundstage on Gower Street next to Columbia. They rented it out. I don’t know who owned it.
JA: Was there much rehearsal time?
EF: None. They’d block it out so we knew where we were supposed to walk. Sometimes that was the trouble with the picture. Everyone would pile in a scene like some kind of free-for-all. It looked like it was ad-libbed or at least that’s how it seemed to me. I’m a guy who likes rehearsing but they didn’t believe in it. I don’t think Leo Gorcey could ever rehearse. He was pretty wild and you never knew what was going to happen.
JA: Was Katzman usually there during filming?
EF: Oh, yes.
JA: How closely were the scripts followed?
EF: There was a lot of ad-libbing but [the scenes and storyline were not substantially changed]. You’d never get the picture done otherwise. We didn’t have to be word perfect just approximate.
JA: Any memories of Joseph H. Lewis who directed your first three features?
EF: Quite a talented man. I liked him very much. Boys of the City was the first of our pictures he did for Sam, right?
JA: Yes. Were you aware of the bizarre camera angles Lewis was noted for?
EF: No. I didn’t know enough about it, but I did know that Boys of the City was terribly shot. You could see the flashlight reflection of a candle during one scene! No one cared. It was junk. They were poverty row films and no one wanted to be in them, but I was happy to get any kind of a job. Probably didn’t mean a thing to my career at all. We got footage so people could see me on the screen, though it didn’t do me any good. They made one after another, and then I got drafted. JA: Your next film was That Gang of Mine [Monogram 1940].
EF: I did have a friend on that one, Clarence Muse. I loved him. He used to come to Screen Actors Guild meetings in Hollywood when I was on the board. He’d sit in front and always had something to say. I walked over by him one time and he remembered me. We had long conversations about racial discrimination.
JA: One of the patented Joseph H. Lewis camera set-ups takes place in the stable where a portion of the scene is shot through the wooden spokes of a wagon wheel.
EF: I remember that. He was a very inventive, imaginative guy. I understand there is quite a cult status regarding several of his films.
JA: It looked like that was really Gorcey on horseback racing around the track.
EF: I wasn’t there when they shot that so really have no idea.
JA: Do you recall where they filmed the racetrack scenes?
EF: That was a track either in Riverside or Pomona [California].
JA: There was racial stereotyping throughout the East Side Kids series.
EF: Oh, terrible.
JA: This wasn’t that unusual in films of that era.
EF: Not a bit.
JA: What do you recall about Sunshine Sammy Morrison?
EF: We were friends. I liked him and he was a talented guy. We never discussed this [racial issues]. I did discuss racial problems with Clarence Muse, but never Sunshine Sammy. He played what he had to, as did Stepin Fetchit. That was his bread and butter playing stereotypes. There was a studio I used to visit right next to ours on Gower Gulch where they were making movies for black audiences with Mantan Moreland. These spooky ghost movies with only blacks in them. They played in the south and in theaters across the country for black audiences. It was terrible, a disgrace.
JA: There’s a scene in Boys of the City where Minerva Urecal is serving dinner to the kids and gives a huge slice of watermelon to an overjoyed Sunshine Sammy.
EF: I winced. I was there at the table and could not believe what they were doing. I should’ve protested but I was a coward. It was terrible and just so embarrassing. What a horrible thing to do.
JA: Sam Goldwyn and Jack Warner were reportedly fed up with the behavior of the Dead End Kids both on and off the set. Did the East Side Kids ever give Sam Katzman’s ulcers any reason to act up?
EF: I think he was probably amused by them but they’d settled down a little bit by then. It was a couple of years after all that. They could have been living up to the reputation of their characters reputation which came from Dead End. I’d say they behaved better than they did at Warner Brothers because they had grown up and knew they were limited. If you wanted a career as an actor you had to do better than playing an East Side Kid.
JA: Some of the kids could list a number of impressive acting credits. Was there any “star attitude” or ego on the set?
EF: No. They were all lucky to be working. Gorcey had sort of an ego. The guy who should’ve had one was Dave O’Brien. He had the credits. O’Brien was an unsung hero as far as I was concerned. He was very talented and had done an enormous amount of work. A lot of actors had long, solid careers and were never out of a job. No one had ever heard of any of them including Dave O’Brien. It’s a game and you’ve got to have a press agent. You need a publicity guy.
JA: There was actually some distant location shooting involved with your next film.
EF: That was Pride of the Bowery [Monogram 1941]. They didn’t know how to use me because it took place in a CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] camp and what would a rich man’s son be doing there. Sam had me under contract so I was in Prescott, Arizona where we shot the picture. I have a copy of it on DVD and went through it but where the hell am I? I can’t find myself!
JA: There’s a brief mess hall sequence where you can be seen eating dinner.
EF: I was angry at Sam. I wanted to play the boxer instead of . . . I forget his name [Kenneth Howell]. He was okay, a good-looking guy. They couldn’t see their way to change the script to accommodate a rich man’s son. I could think of a dozen ways if they really wanted to, but they didn’t.
JA: From a financial viewpoint it’s difficult to imagine a Katzman/Monogram production trekking out to a location shoot in Arizona.
EF: They probably got the camp for free so it was just the price of the buses.
JA: There is another scene where you deliver your only line of the film to Bobby Stone who was making his first appearance in the series.
EF: I remember him. He was a strange kid as I recall, very peculiar.
JA: In what way?
EF: How could I explain? He never looked as if he knew what was going on, but he was also rather crafty. I didn’t trust him, and we weren’t friendly at all. My friends were Donald Haines and Dave O’Brien. O’Brien and I got along very well and I liked him an awful lot. A bright man and a good actor who should’ve been used to better advantage in Hollywood than he was. I think what really sustained him were the narrative things he did for Pete Smith. He was very, very good at that. After World War 2, I didn’t see any of these people. It was a very brief chapter in a hell of a long career. I’m going to be 89 next week [August 28, 2006]. I don’t even know what I’m doing here. All my friends are gone. That’s what happens when you have longevity.
JA: Your fourth and final East Side Kids feature was Flying Wild [Monogram 1941]. For whatever reason Algy’s last name was changed from Wilkes to Reynolds.
EF: As I remember we shot at a small, private airport in Riverside [California]. Was it this one, or Boys of the City, where the car turns over and we all scramble out?
JA: It was this one, Flying Wild.
EF: Well, it wasn’t supposed to tip over. It was an accident. Gorcey was a madman. He went crazy behind the wheel of that Model T and it fell over on its side. We could’ve been killed! I had to fight Sam Katzman to get my trousers replaced as there was a big hole in the knee. He hated the idea that I wanted $15 to get a new pair of slacks.
JA: Was it a case of Gorcey driving too fast?
EF: The car was only going about ten miles an hour but it was a wreck. Gorcey turned the wheel suddenly when he wasn’t supposed to and this overloaded Model T flipped on its side.
JA: Anyone hurt?
EF: We were scratched up a bit. The funny thing is, they used the shot (laughs)! Any time film was exposed on these pictures it would go into the final print. Nothing was wasted!
JA: You mentioned Donald Haines as one of your friends.
EF: Yeah, we were together a lot. Nice guy.
JA: He remained with the series until entering the service in 1941.
EF: Donald Haines enlisted in the Air Corps after I was drafted. He was doing the next film [Bowery Blitzkrieg, Monogram 1941] that I had to say no to, as I was on call to do one more but couldn’t. As I understand it he joined up shortly after Pearl Harbor. He went through training, and on his first mission in a P-38 fighter, a one-man aircraft, was shot down over the English Channel. His very first mission.
Author’s Note: According to internet sources Donald Haines enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps on December l0, 1941 as an aviation cadet. He had reached the rank of 1st Lieutenant at the time he was killed in action.
JA: So you were drafted before he enlisted?
EF: I was drafted before anybody (laughs) and served in the army for five years.
JA: Gorcey’s agent Jan Grippo had overhauled the series by time you were discharged and the East Side Kids were reborn as The Bowery Boys.
EF: I had no intention of getting involved. That was over. When I was stationed in Lawton, Oklahoma one of the films I made was being shown. I had to hide! It was an embarrassment.
JA: Had World War 2 not come along would you have stayed with the series?
EF: Until I got something better. I was also involved in other things at the time such as Lux Radio which paid me more than the East Side Kids.
JA: Do you have a favorite of the four films?
EF: I lump them together. They’re all lousy!
JA: Did you see your pictures theatrically when they were released?
EF: We were always invited to a screening after the film was finished and before it was distributed. Sam Katzman’s office would call and say, “We’re showing the movie tomorrow at 1pm at Columbia” or wherever and I’d go to that. Once it was in theaters I didn’t bother except [turns to wife] I think we went to a double feature one time on 42nd Street [New York City].
JA: Any other particular memories of Leo Gorcey?
EF: Not really. I honestly didn’t have very much to do with him. Look (laughs), we’re going back over sixty, sixty-five years. We made four films together and I was with the guy a total of four weeks. We just weren’t very close.
JA: No socializing?
EF: Not with him or those people. I had nothing to do with them. Donald Haines and I occasionally had a couple of girl friends and would go out. We had a big double romance in Prescott, Arizona on location [Pride of the Bowery] that week. There was a little bit of social activity with him but not anyone else. Not even Dave O’Brien. I did date Inna Gest [Boys of the City].
JA: Bobby Jordan?
EF: He was kind of a cute, funny guy. The Gorceys used to call him fig nose. He reacted to that pleasantly and it wasn’t nasty at all. Bobby was a funny kid who loved to laugh. He was good at doing what he did, as was Gorcey, and they both did it very well. Bobby Jordan used to play a prank on a tormented still photographer. This guy had an audio thing on his chest so he could hear because he was quite deaf. Bobby would silently mouth his words so the photographer had to turn up the sound on his hearing aid. Jordan would then yell into it and the guy would scream in pain.
JA: Any more on Dave O’Brien?
EF: He was one of the best narrators. The Pete Smith Specialties and so on.
JA: What about Hally Chester?
EF: I never met him.
JA: You worked with Hally in Boys of the City.
EF: Really, can’t recall.
JA: Frankie Burke?
EF: He looked like Cagney.
JA: Anything else?
EF: He wasn’t a very good actor. I’m a New York theater guy so they were probably wondering what the hell I was doing there with a phony accent. It’s a stage accent. I’m sure they thought it was very amusing.
JA: David Gorcey?
EF: He was sort of a hanger-on who was there because his brother was Leo Gorcey.
JA: Dennis Moore?
EF: Oh yeah. What can I tell you? I remember him. That’s about all. He was in one or two pictures. I don’t think we ever had a conversation. There was one guy, Alden Chase or Stephen Chase [same person]. He was a New York actor. I saw him in a play opposite Tallulah Bankhead and then he showed up on the set of a couple East Side Kids pictures. After World War 2 he came back east and was doing radio. I got to see him a number of times and we were friendly.
JA: Any final East Side Kids memories?
EF: Gorcey and Jordan were very adept at screwing up lines so they could move into cover with a close-up. Whenever something went wrong that’s how the mistake was covered. Those two wanted their close-ups and got them by misreading lines. They never shot it over again except with that camera angle. To have someone yell “take two” was rare; so rare in fact that everyone would’ve fallen apart with laughter.
East Side Kids Filmography
• Boys of the City. A Monogram Picture. Released 7/15/40, 63 minutes. Also released as The Ghost Creeps. Produced by Sam Katzman (Four Bell Pictures Inc). Directed by Joseph H. Lewis. Original Story and Screenplay: William Lively. Assistant Directors: Robert Kay and Arthur Hammond. Photography: Robert Cline A.S.C. and Harvey Gould A.S.C. Settings: Fred Preble. Film Editor: Carl Pierson. Sound: Glen Glenn. Music: Lange and Porter. Cast: Bobby Jordan (Danny), Leo Gorcey (Muggs), Hally Chester (Buster), Frankie Burke (Skinny), Vince Barnett (Simp), Inna Gest (Louise Mason), David O’Brien (Knuckles Dolan), Sunshine Sammy Morrison (Scruno), Minerva Urecal (Agnes), Dennis Moore (Giles), Donald Haines (Peewee), David Gorcey (Pete), Eugene Francis (Algy), Forrest Taylor (Judge Malcolm Parker), Alden Chase (Harrison), Jerry Mandy (Cook), George Humbert (Tony), Jack Cheatham (Policeman, uncredited), Jim Farley (Police Captain, uncredited), Murdock McQuarrie (Man, uncredited).
Synopsis: While traveling to a camp in the Adirondacks, the gang becomes sidetracked with mystery and murder in an eerie mansion.
• That Gang of Mine. A Monogram Picture. Released 9/23/40, 62 minutes. Produced by Sam Katzman (Four Bell Pictures Inc). Directed by Joseph H. Lewis. Original Story: Alan Whitman. Screenplay: William Lively. Production Manager: E.W. Rote. Assistant Directors: Arthur Hammond and Herman Pett. Photography: Robert Cline A.S.C. and Harvey Gould A.S.C. Film Editor: Carl Pierson: Settings: Fred Preble. Musical Director: Lew Porter. Cast: Bobby Jordan (Danny), Leo Gorcey (Muggs), Clarence Muse (Ben), Dave O’Brien (Knuckles), Joyce Bryant (Louise), Sunshine Sammy Morrison (Scruno), Milton Kibbee (Mr. Wilkes), David Gorcey (Peewee), Donald Haines (Skinny), Richard R. Terry (Blackie), Wilbur Mack (Nick), Hazel Keener (Mrs. Wilkes), Eugene Francis (Algy), Forrest Taylor (Morgan, uncredited), Nick Wall (Jimmy Sullivan, uncredited).
Synopsis: Muggs and the kids try to help a poor old man get his thoroughbred racehorse ready for the big race.
• Pride of the Bowery. A Monogram Picture. Released 1/31/41, 61 minutes. British title: Here We Go Again. Produced by Sam Katzman (Banner Pictures Corp). Directed by Joseph H. Lewis. Story by Steven Clensos. Adapted by William Lively. Screenplay: George Plympton. Assistant Producer: Pete Mayer. Production Manager: Robert Tansey. Assistant Directors: Arthur Hammond and Herman Pett. Photography: Robert Cline A.S.C. Sound: Glen Glenn. Film Editor: Robert Golden. Musical Direction: Lange and Porter. Cast: Leo Gorcey (Muggs), Bobby Jordan (Danny), Kenneth Howell (Allen), Mary Ainslee (Elaine), Bobby Stone (Willie), Donald Haines (Skinny), David Gorcey (Peewee), Sunshine Sammy Morrison (Scruno), Kenneth Harlan (Captain White), Nick Stuart (Ranger), Lloyd Ingraham (Camp doctor), Steven Clensos (Man, uncredited), Eugene Francis (Algy, uncredited), Carleton Young (Norton, uncredited).
Synopsis: The East Side Kids toil in a CCC Camp while boxer Muggs can’t stay out of trouble.
n Flying Wild. A Monogram Picture. Released 3/10/41, 64 minutes. Working title: Air Devils. Produced by Sam Katzman (Banner Pictures Corp). Directed by William West. Assistant Producer: Pete Mayer. Story and Screenplay: Al Martin. Production Manager: E.W. Rote. Assistant Directors: Arthur Hammond and Herman Pett. Director of Photography: Fred Jackman Jr. A.S.C. Film Editor: Robert Golden. Settings: Fred Preble. Musical Direction: Lange and Porter. Sound: Glen Glenn. Cast: Leo Gorcey (Muggs), Bobby Jordan (Danny), Joan Barclay (Helen), Dave O’Brien (Tom), George Pembroke (Dr. Nagel), Sunshine Sammy Morrison (Scruno), David Gorcey (Peewee), Donald Haines (Skinny), Eugene Francis (Algy), Bobby Stone (Louie), Herbert Rawlinson (Mr. Reynolds), Dennis Moore (George), Forrest Taylor (Mr. Forbes), Bob Hill (Mr. Woodward), Mary Bovard (Maise), Alden Chase (Jack), Al Ferguson, Jack Kenny, Carey Loftin, Bud Osborne, Eddie Parker (Henchmen, uncredited).
Synopsis: A flying ambulance holds the key to spies and sabotage as the gang unravels another mystery.