In Michelle Vogel's 2006 book, "Marjorie Main: The Life and Films of Hollywood's 'Ma Kettle," the author lists BOY OF THE STREETS as one with: "Prints of this street kid drama seem to have disappeared, so the basic plot outline is all that exists today." BOY OF THE STREETS (Monogram, 1937), directed by William Nigh, is far from being a lost film, having turned up on cable television during its earliest years in the 1980s, to its availability on home video from Movies Unlimited, and finally its presentation on Turner Classic Movies where it premiered November 6, 2008. Jackie Cooper, former child star of such 1931 hits as THE CHAMP (MGM) and SKIPPY (Paramount), heads the cast not as a homeless teen living off the streets of New York but that of a tough high school drop out and gang leader living under the care of his parents in the city's poor district. To fill in the gap to what might have been described in the published tribute to Marjorie Main and her films, here's an analysis to this little known social drama.
The opening scene introduces kids gathered together in masks and costumes celebrating Halloween on the streets of New York's 9th Avenue district. The peaceful evening is soon disrupted by a series of prank phone calls leading the police and firemen arriving to what's turned out to be false alarms. In due time, Chuck Brennan (Jackie Cooper) and his gang are caught and sent to night court, with the desk sergeant to dismiss the case. O'Rourke (Robert Emmett O'Connor), the good natured cop raised in that district, believes all the boys need is a chance in life. While Chuck idolizes his father (Guy Usher), his long suffering mother, Mary (Marjorie Main) hides the fact that her husband, who hasn't worked in ten years, is nothing but a no good loafer. In spite of Brennan's goal forming a union for soda jerks, nothing really comes of it. Living in the same building is Nora (Maureen O'Connor), a sweet Irish girl whose mother has been sent by ambulance to the hospital for treatment of tuberculous. To help Nora, Chuck arranges for her to earn a living singing at Pete's Grotto, but soon loses the job because she's under age. With no place to go, the Brennans look after Nora rather than having her taken away by the Children's Aide Society. In an effort to support himself, Chuck learns the awful truth about his father acting as stooge or "Yes Man" to a local businessman (Fred Kelsey) rather than attending to business appointments. Losing his chance in joining the Navy, Chuck teams up with Blackie (Matty Fain), a racketeer who steers this rebellious teen to the wrong direction.
Also participating in the story is Julie Stone (Kathleen Burke), a rich girl who, after inheriting the building called "rat traps," not only gets her first hand view of poverty life, but teams up with Doctor Allan (Gordon Elliott) in an attempt to help make a difference for the tenement people.
Basically patterned upon the success of Sidney Kingsley's 1935 play and Samuel Goldwyn's 1937 motion picture, DEAD END (1937), each featuring Marjorie Main as the slum mother to a racketeer, BOY OF THE STREETS is simply routine melodrama. Main's performance here bears little difference from her role in DEAD END, from her uncombed pull-back hair to second-hand clothing, though lipstick and little make-up take away from the realism of her portrayal. The only time the familiar Main persona shines through is when she pretends to be Nora's mother in order to mislead the investigating social workers.
Nora, enacted by O'Connor, in her motion picture debut, provides much of the vocalization to such tunes as "Did Your Mother Come from Ireland?" (by Michael Carr and Jack Kennedy); "Carelessly," (by Charles and Nick Kenny); "Those Foolish Things Remind Me of You" and "Sweet Low, Sweet Chariot." Although resembling that of Universal's ever popular Deanna Durbin by way of singing and mannerism, no further O'Connor films were made by Monogram or any other studio.
With Jackie Cooper being the only familiar face in the group of kids, Paul White, the black member of his gang who later risks his life to save another, stands out with his secondary role. Predating Monogram's own "East Side Kids" series (1940-1945) featuring Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall and Bobby Jordan by way of screenplay and dramatic situations, BOY OF THE STREETS, though never spawned any sequels of its own, did provide Cooper in similar boy of the streets theme with Monogram's GANGSTER'S BOY (1938) and STREETS OF NEW YORK (1939), yet nothing compared to the "East Side Kids" nor Leo Gorcey's charisma as leader of the pack.
Slightly longer than the usual 60 to 70 minute programmers, BOY OF THE STREETS, at 77 minutes, looks more like a Universal product than Monogram. In spite of certain situations depicted in the screenplay not fully resolved, and a chance to see Marjorie Main early in her career, the film makes a satisfactory Depression-era theme time capsule. (**1/2)
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