Lunatic Fringe: Wheeler & Woolsey in HOLD ‘EM JAIL (RKO 1932)

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The comedy team of Wheeler & Woolsey is pretty esoteric to all but the most hardcore classic film fans. Baby-faced innocent Bert Wheeler and cigar-chomping wisecracker Robert Woolsey made 21 films together beginning with 1929’s RIO RITA (in which they’d starred on Broadway), up until Woolsey’s untimely death in 1937. I had heard about them, read about them, but never had the chance to catch one of their films until recently. HOLD ‘EM JAIL makes for a good introduction to W&W’s particular brand of lunacy, as the boys skewer both the prison and college football genres, aided by a top-notch comic supporting cast that includes a 16-year-old Betty Grable.

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Football crazy Warden Elmer Jones (slow-burn master Edgar Kennedy ) is the laughing-stock of the Prison Football League. His team hasn’t had a winning season in years, and he sends a message to the president of “the alumni association” to send some new recruits “for the old alma mater”. He goes to the president’s office, and enter Wheeler and Woolsey, two novelty salesmen who proceed to drive him crazy. When he leaves, the real “alumni” show up, and after the boys brag about their gridiron prowess, they’re set up to stick up the joint with real guns instead of their water pistols.

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Of course, the framed fools are sent to Bidemore, where Spider trades barbs with the warden’s spinster sister Violet (the marvelous Edna May Oliver ) and Curley tries to romance daughter Barbara (Miss Grable). They continue to infuriate the poor warden with their antics, especially when Violet has them made trustees. When Bidemore’s star quarterback gets paroled, Woolsey touts Wheeler as a superstar. Let’s just say Tom Brady, he ain’t!! This all culminates in the most improbable victory since Super Bowl LI , with Bidemore winning the game and getting cleared of the frame-up to boot.

The deliriously funny script is by S.J. Perelman, Walter Deleon, and Eddie Welch. Perelman was a writer for The New Yorker magazine, and one of the early 20th century’s best known humorists. He wrote two of the Marx Brothers movies (MONKEY BUSINESS and HORSE FEATHERS), the stage and screen versions of ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, and won an Oscar for his screenplay AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS. His fingerprints are all over the film’s dialog, as in this exchange between Woolsey and Oliver- Edna: “I spent four years in Paris. Of course, I’m not a virtuoso”. Woolsey: “Not after four years in Paris”. Edna (pausing a beat): “I trust we’re talking about the same thing!”. Earlier in the film, W&W get booted out of a swanky nightclub on their keisters, followed by this-  Wheeler: “You know, I met that bouncer’s foot before”. Woolsey: “Yeah, I met it behind”.

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Deleon was no slouch when it came to comedy either, having written films for W.C. Fields , Bob Hope, Jack Benny Abbott & Costello , and Martin & Lewis. Welch seems to be a kind of “comedy doctor”, with three other W&W films to his credit, and an uncredited contribution to Laurel & Hardy’s SONS OF THE DESERT . All this madness was directed under the deft hand of Norman Taurog, who began in films in 1912, won an Oscar for 1931’s SKIPPY, and directed all the great comics of the classic era. Wheeler & Woolsey’s slapstick sight gags and pun-tastic wordplay are on a par with other teams of the time, and are worth rediscovering. Start right here with HOLD ‘EM JAIL.

 

You’re Gonna Make It After All: RIP Mary Tyler Moore

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She was America’s TV sweetheart in the 60’s and 70’s. Beautiful and talented Mary Tyler Moore has passed away at age 80, her smile no longer brightening this world. Mary was Laura Petrie, the perky and perfect suburban housewife on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, then broke new ground as single career girl Mary Richards on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, both seminal sitcoms from television’s Golden Age of Comedy.

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Born in Brooklyn Heights in 1936, Mary became a dancer as a teen, and got her first show business break as ‘Happy Hotpoint’, a tiny dancing elf in TV commercials for Hotpoint stoves. Her next break got her noticed, playing the sexy secretary on RICHARD DIAMOND PRIVATE DETECTIVE, which starred David Janssen. Mary never fully appeared on the show, only her smoky voice and dancer’s legs, and viewers were left to speculate on the rest of the package.

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Then came THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (1961-66), a sophisticated (for its time) half hour about a comedy writer, based on Carl Reiner’s experiences working for Sid Caesar. Laura Petrie was, like Mary, a former dancer who met husband Rob while working for the USO. Mary’s singing and dancing skills were sometimes on display, but it was her comic timing with partner Van Dyke that earned her an Emmy for Best Actress. The pair was pure gold together, and they reunited several times after the series ended its run, including a memorable 2003 PBS adaptation of the stage hit THE GIN GAME.

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Mary made a few movies following THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, most notably 1967’s THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE with Julie Andrews and 1969’s CHANGE OF HABIT, Elvis Presley’s final film. She returned to the small screen in 1970, headlining her own sitcom THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. As Mary Richards, a thirtysomething single girl who moves to Minneapolis and lands a job as associate producer of the local Six O’clock News program on fictional WJM, she was an independent working woman paying her own way through life, something rarely seen on weekly TV. The show featured what’s possibly the best supporting cast in sitcom history: there was gruff boss Lou Grant (Ed Asner), newswriter Murray Slaughter (Gavin McLeod), sarcastic neighbor Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper), bubbleheaded anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), man-hungry ‘Happy Homemaker’ Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White), upwardly mobile neighbor Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman), and Ted’s sweet, naïve wife Georgette (Georgia Engel). All had the chance to strut their comedic stuff while level-headed Mary was the glue that held it all together. The series won 29 Emmys during its seven-year run, including three for Mary herself.

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Mary never made it big in feature films, though she did receive a Best Actress Oscar nomination as the icy, uptight mother of a suicide victim in 1980’s ORDINARY PEOPLE, Robert Redford’s directorial debut. Television was her home, and she starred in popular TV movies like FIRST YOU CRY (1978), HEARTSOUNDS (1984, with James Garner), FINNEGAN BEGIN AGAIN (1985, with Robert Preston), and the 1988 miniseries LINCOLN, playing Mary Todd Lincoln opposite Sam Waterson’s President. She proved herself as adept at drama as she was with comedy in these roles. She had an abrupt change of pace in 2001’s LIKE MOTHER LIKE SON: THE STRANGE STORY OF SANTE AND KENNY KIMES, based on the true story of a murderous grifter and her equally homicidal son. But it’s still as America’s TV Sweetheart she’ll fondly be remembered for, the girl who “could turn the world on with her smile, who could take a nothing day, and suddenly make it all seems worthwhile”. Sweet dreams, Mary.

A Pair of Aces: Laurel & Hardy in SONS OF THE DESERT (MGM 1933)

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Laurel and Hardy are still beloved by film fans today for their marvelous contributions to movie comedy. Rooted firmly in the knockabout visual style of the silent screen, the team adapted to talking pictures with ease, and won the Best Short Subject Oscar for 1932’s THE MUSIC BOX. The next year the duo made what’s undoubtably their best feature film SONS OF THE DESERT, a perfect blend of slapstick, verbal humor, and situation comedy benefitting from a fine supporting cast and the undeniable chemistry between Stan and Ollie .

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The boys are at a meeting of their lodge The Sons of the Desert when it’s announced all members must swear a sacred oath to attend the annual convention in Chicago. Timid Stanley is afraid his wife won’t let him go, but blustery Ollie insists, boasting about who wears the pants in his family. Of course, Ollie’s just as henpecked as Stan, and his wife laughs in his face, not to mention crowning him with a vase! Ollie concocts a scheme to trick the wives by feigning a “nervous breakdown”, and gets Stan to have a lodge brother pose as a doctor (Stan gets a veterinarian!). The bogus doc claims the only cure for Ollie is a cruise to Honolulu (!), and Stan is designated to accompany his friend.

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The ‘subterfuge’ (a word that baffles Stan) works, and soon the boys are living it up in Chicago, with lots of drinking, dancing-girls, and tomfoolery going on. They meet up with an obnoxious practical joker from Texas who calls his sister in Los Angeles as a gag. Ollie begins to flirt with her over the phone, that is until he realizes he’s talking to his own wife! Looks like the joke’s on him!

Headlines in the newspaper back home state the Honolulu ocean liner the boys are allegedly on is sinking in a typhoon, and the panic-stricken wives, thinking their husbands are heading for Davy Jones’s Locker, hightail it to the docks. The boys return home after the girls leave for the docks, and are even more panic-stricken when they read the news of their imminent demise! They hide out in the attic, while the wives go to a picture show to calm their nerves. You know it, they see a newsreel featuring their spouses prominently cavorting in Chicago. Stan and Ollie end up on the roof in a rainstorm (after being struck by lightning!!), and a cop, catching them shimmying down the drainpipe (where Ollie gets stuck in the rainbarrel), marches them to their wives. Ollie comes up with a wild tale about being shipwrecked and having to “ship-hike” home. Stan breaks down and confesses (even after Ollie threatens to tell his wife he smoked a cigarette in Chi-town!), and is rewarded for his honesty with chocolates and TLC. As for Ollie… well, after his wife pummels him with every dish and piece of crockery in the house, Stan comes over and tells him, “Honesty is the best politics”. Ollie beans him with a remaining pot for his ill-timed advice!

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All this allows Stan and Ollie to indulge in some of their wackiest bits; I especially love the slapstick silliness involving Stan, Ollie. Mae Busch, and a tub of hot water when Ollie’s playing sick. Then there’s Stan innocently munching on wax fruit in the Hardy’s living room. Laurel’s malaprops (calling their lodge leader “the exhausted ruler” for example) are always welcome, but it’s his big-worded soliloquy in the attic (and Ollie’s reaction) that got me laughing. Hardy’s bullying of his little pal is offset by his cowering before his wife, and it wouldn’t be a Laurel & Hardy film without Ollie getting the chance to tell Stanley, “Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!”.

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“The ever-popular Mae Busch” (to quote Jackie Gleason) is Ollie’s wife, and she’s at her shrewish best here. In fact, you can see a lot of Ralph and Alice Kramden in the relationship between Mae and Ollie. Dorothy Christy plays Stan’s gun-toting, duck hunting wife, and she holds her own in her only film with the boys. Comedian Charley Chase is the raucous conventioneer from Texas, and he’s a hoot. Chase starred in his own two-reelers and features for Hal Roach , and after moving to Columbia, he directed some of the Three Stooges best 30’s efforts. If you’ve never seen any of Chase’s solo work, do so immediately; you’re in for a treat!

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Familiar Faces in the cast include Lucien Littlefield as the ersatz doctor, and if you look close you’ll find Stanley Blystone, Ellen Corby, young Robert Cummings , Charlie Hall, and producer Hal Roach himself. Actor Frank Craven wrote the story, embellished by Laurel and Hardy and five others, including director William A. Seiter, a Mack Sennett vet who also worked with comedy teams Wheeler & Woolsey, Abbott & Costello, and the Marx Brothers. SONS OF THE DESERT is by far my favorite Laurel & Hardy feature, a timeless classic that gets better every time I view it. There’s an international Laurel & Hardy fan club called “Sons of the Desert” that’s still active,  with thousands of members in the U.S. and abroad. I wish there was a chapter near me, I’d sign up today!

The Wild & Wacky World of Dickie Goodman

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“Sampling” in popular music today is as common as a cold, with hip-hop and electronica artists cutting in bits and pieces from other artist’s songs to create something entirely new. You could say Dickie Goodman was “The Godfather of Sampling” and not be far from the truth. Goodman and his partner-in-crime Bill Buchanan were the originators of “break-in” records, novelty discs that spliced snippets of contemporary hit tunes into comic scenarios, starting with the 1956 smash “The Flying Saucer Pts. 1 & 2”.

Goodman was born in Brooklyn on April 19, 1934. He was a struggling young songwriter when he and Buchanan came up with the idea of producing a comedy record based on Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast, using lines from rock records as answers to man-on-the-street questions. Goodman played the DJ while Buchanan acted as reporter “John Cameron Cameron”, a play on noted newsman and Timex pitchman John Cameron Swayze. The silliness gained airplay in New York, and soon went national, climbing to #3 on the Billboard charts:

 The song created quite a buzz among listeners, but some of the artists sampled (including Fats Domino) were not amused, suing Buchanan and Goodman for copyright infringement. The case went to court, and the judge ruled in the defendent’s favor, stating the record was a parody and as such considered a new piece of work. Buchanan and Goodman went on their merry way poking fun at virtually every fad or trend that came along. They even parodied their own legal battles with “Buchanan and Goodman On Trial”:

The duo eventually parted ways, and Goodman went solo, parodying every trend from TV crime shows (“The Touchables”) to monster movies (“Frankenstein of ’59”) to spy flicks (“James Bomb”). One of my favorites is Goodman’s take on the mid-60’s superhero camp craze, “Batman and His Grandmother”:

Goodman continued in this satirical vein spoofing politics with records like “On Campus”, “Watergate”, and “Mr. President”. He went toe-to-toe with “Mr. Rocky”, flew into space again with “Star Warts”, and had his biggest success ever with the 1975 spoof “Mr. Jaws”:

Dickie Goodman’s life took a turn for the worst in the 80’s when his wife left him. Heavily in debt due to his gambling addiction, Goodman shot himself on November 6, 1989. The party was over, but his legacy lives on. Goodman’s son Jon wrote a book on his father called “The King of Novelty” in 2000, which is still available on Amazon. Dickie Goodman’s “break-in” records brought loads of laughs to his listeners, and are still funny today as a nostalgic look back at the fads and foibles of yesteryear. I’ll leave you with one of his latter-day efforts, the Reagan-era “Mr. President”. Enjoy!

“A Little Nonsense Now And Then Is Relished By The Wisest Men”: RIP Gene Wilder

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The world just got a little sadder. News has been released that funnyman Gene Wilder has passed away at age 83 from complications due to Alzheimer’s Disease. Wilder was without question one of the greatest comic actors of the late 20th Century, beloved by both filmgoers and peers for the manic energy he brought to his everyman characters.

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Born in Milwaukee, Gene Wilder (nee’ Jerome Silberman) made his film debut in the small part of Eugene, hostage of the outlaw duo BONNIE & CLYDE. He then scored the plum role of neurotic accountant Leo Bloom, caught by in Zero Mostel’s scheme to produce a Broadway bomb in Mel Brooks’ THE PRODUCERS. This was the first of three Wilder/Brooks collaborations, each one funnier than the last. BLAZING SADDLES casts Wilder as The Waco Kid, an alcoholic ex-gunfighter who helps Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) bring peace to Rock Ridge. Best of all was YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (“That’s Fronkensteen!”), a hysterical send-up of the Universal horror movies of the 30’s and 40’s that’s a film buff’s dream, which Wilder co-wrote and starred as Fredrick Frankenstein, descendant of the monster maker who creates his own monster (Peter Boyle) with hilarious consequences.

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Wilder was the original Candy Man in 1971’s WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, playing the delightful trickster of the title. The film wasn’t initially a hit, but gained momentum to become a cult classic beloved by millions. Wilder’s next film, Woody Allen’s episodic EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX (BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK) did hit box office gold, and Wilder’s sequence as a psychiatrist who falls in love with a sheep named Daisy, is side-splittingly funny.

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In 1976, Wilder began another film collaboration, as he played opposite Richard Pryor in Arthur Hiller’s SILVER STREAK. The scene where Pryor teaches Wilder to act black, so he can escape the bad guys, is another comic gem. Their best pairing is undoubtably 1980’s STIR CRAZY, as two muttonheads framed for bank robbery and sentenced to 125 years in max. Once again, Pryor has to teach Wilder the ways of the streets by “acting tough”, (“That’s right, we bad, uh-huh”) with riotous results. As for their last two, SEE NO EVIL HEAR NO EVIL and ANOTHER YOU… well, as Joe E. Brown says in SOME LIKE IT HOT, “Nobody’s perfect”.

HANKY PANKY, from left: Gilda Radner, Gene Wilder, 1982. ©Columbia Pictures
HANKY PANKY, from left: Gilda Radner, Gene Wilder, 1982. ©Columbia Pictures

But Wilder’s most important collaboration came in 1981 when, while filming HANKY PANKY, he met SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE alumnus Gilda Radner. The two fell in love and were married in 1984. After making THE WOMAN IN RED and HAUNTED HONEYMOON together (both films written and directed by Wilder), Gilda began feeling fatigued, and was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She battled bravely but succumbed to the disease in 1989, devastating Wilder. Though he did remarry a few years later, he never quite got over Gilda, his comic match.

Besides those mentioned, Wilder also wrote, directed, and starred in THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER and THE WORLD’S GREATEST LOVER, the former as Holmes’ jealous brother Sigerson, the latter a silent film spoof with Wilder as Rudolph Valentino wanna-be Rudy Hickman. Gene Wilder was one of the 70’s biggest box-office stars, a true renaissance man of the movies. He may be gone, but surely won’t be forgotten by anyone as long as there are film fans eager for classic comedy. Thanks for the laughter, Gene. You’ll be missed.

Arthur Hiller: An Appreciation

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Peter Brooker/REX/Shutterstock (379086do) ARTHUR HILLER OSCARS / ACADEMY AWARDS AT THE KODAK THEATRE, LOS ANGELES, AMERICA - 24 MAR 2002

The name Arthur Hiller doesn’t really spring to mind when I think about great directors. However, when I heard the news he passed away last night at age 92, I looked him up on the IMDb. Much to my surprise, Arthur Hiller was responsible for some of my favorite funny films. Hiller wasn’t a distinct stylist or auteur, just a skillful handler of actors with a deft touch for comedy. In remembrance of the man, here are a few of my favorite Hiller-directed films, in chronological order:

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PENELOPE (1966): I covered this movie in-depth at this link about a year ago. It’s a silly, saucy comedy starring Natalie Wood as a neglected housewife who robs a bank. A quintessentially 60’s flick with comic support from Peter Falk, Dick Shawn, Jonathan Winters, and a good turn by Arlene Golonka as a hooker. It’s definitely worth your time if you haven’t discovered it yet.

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THE TIGER MAKES OUT (1967): Another movie that could only be a product of the 60’s. Husband and wife team Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson star in this howler about an isolated mailman plotting to kidnap his dream girl, and winding up snatching a middle-aged housewife. The pair play it over the top, which makes for a whole lot of fun. Dustin Hoffman makes his film debut here.

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SILVER STREAK (1976): The first screen pairing of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor was a box-office smash. The Hitchcockian plot involves murder on a train trip from Chicago to Los Angeles, with Jill Clayburgh, Patrick McGoohan, and Ned Beatty all on board. The scene where Pryor helps Wilder disguise himself as a black man is pure comedy gold. Highly recommended!

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THE IN-LAWS (1979): Frantically funny with Peter Falk and Alan Arkin in rare form. Arkin’s a deranged ex-CIA agent who puts Falk through the wringer on a road trip from hell. Another big hit for Hiller, and an uproarious good time! See this one and avoid the 2003 version.

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TEACHERS (1984): This underrated comedy-drama features Nick Nolte as a burned-out teacher in an urban battle zone of a school mentoring young Ralph Macchio. Richard Mulligan is hilarious as an escapee from the nut house who mistakenly becomes a history teacher! JoBeth Williams is Nick’s former student and current love interest, and the cast includes Judd Hirsch, William Schallert,  Art Metrano, and early appearances by Laura Dern and Crispin Glover. The distinctly 80’s soundtrack features Bob Seger, Night Ranger, ZZ Top, and a hit theme song by .38 Special. Another film worth discovering.

Arthur Hiller is most remembered today for the 1970 tear-jerker LOVE STORY, but his comedy films are what I’ll remember him for the most. Thanks for the laughs and rest in peace, Mr. Hiller.

 

Happy Birthday Huntz Hall: DON’T KILL YOUR FRIENDS (1943)

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Today marks the birthday of a definitely acquired taste, Huntz Hall. Born Henry Richard Hall in New York on 8/15/1920, he got his nickname because his large proboscis made him look German, according to his Irish neighborhood friends. Huntz entered show biz at a young age, and by 1935 was starring on Broadway in the hit play DEAD END. The six original cast members (Hall, Leo Gorcey, Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Gabriel Dell, Bernard Punsley), collectively known as The Dead End Kids, appeared in the 1937 film version with Joel McCrea, Sylvia Sidney, Claire Trevor, and Humphrey Bogart as the slum kids’ idol, gangster Baby Face Martin. Warner Brothers signed all six boys to contracts and featured them in prestige films like CRIME SCHOOL, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, and THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL with top stars James Cagney, John Garfield, and Ronald Reagan.

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The Kids were a rowdy bunch on-set, wreaking havoc and causing more than their fair share of trouble, and Warners released them in 1939. Hall, Gorcey, Jordan, and Dell moved to Monogram and were rechristened The East Side Kids, eventually evolving (or devolving depending on your point of view) into The Bowery Boys. Gorcey was the group’s de-facto leader Slip Mahoney, but it was Hall’s character of Horace Debussy “Sach” Jones that proved most popular with juvenile audiences. Hall had created this manic, dimwitted comedy persona and his shenanigans drove the movie’s plots, such as they were. He once stated his biggest influence was Shemp Howard, and you can see a lot of the Stooge’s mannerisms in Hall’s out-there Sach.

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Huntz Hall appeared in all the various Dead End Kids/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys permutations, had a good part in 1945’s A WALK IN THE SUN, and was even on the cover of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album. He had a percentage of the Bowery Boys films, and along with some wise investments, was a very rich man. His son is Rev. Gary Hall, who recently retired as Dean of the Washington National Cathedral. In 1943, Huntz Hall appeared in a Naval training film called DON’T KILL YOUR FRIENDS as Dilbert, a screw-up of a sailor created by Robert Osborn (not the TCM host) for propaganda purposes. Here’s a look at Huntz Hall in this slice of WWII history: