By Steven G. Farrell
The Forty Year Turf Rumble:
Street Gangs on Film: From The Dead End Kids to the Warriors.
A long-enduring genre in Hollywood has been that of the gangs active on the mean-streets of the United States. These motion pictures usually took place in the tenement districts of Manhattan’s Hell Kitchen, or Brooklyn waterfront neighborhoods, and they involved the rumbles between the ethnic, religious and racial divisions from within those confines. From the gritty days of the Great Depression during the Thirties, to the dancing disco days of the Seventies, Irish, Italian, Jewish, African American and Puerto Rican bullyboys have been heading into battle with baseball bats, switchblade knifes, and handcrafted zip guns, making a wasteland out of the already urban decay and squalor within the radius of their domains. The United States has always billed itself as the land of the free. The pursuit of happiness is at the core of the American dream. However, that freedom and happiness has always come with a price: courage, warfare and savage justice are the steps on the ladders of success. Victory goes to the survival of the fittest; and in Hell’s Kitchen, Brownsville or Red Hook, the fittest were the tough goons who joined the street gangs to promote their climb up the ladder. “From sperm to worm” as the Jets sang in West Side Story. One had to be physically tough to get into a gang and then, in turn, the gang had to be physically tougher together to hold onto every inch of their tiny kingdoms within their grasps.
When Dead End was released in 1937, it was meant as a social message about how the dismal economical times had resulted in the city’s youngsters joining gangs to find a purpose in the bleak times. The hardscrabble nature of the era drifted on wards to 1948 with City Across the River, to 1959 with West Side Story, and up to The Wanderers and The Warriors in 1979. Apparently, the growing prosperity of the passing decades never penetrated the clusters of skyscrapers to reach the pavements of the big city. The intervention of well-meaning social workers, concerned parents and watchful police officers did nothing to stem the tide of gang membership over this forty-year period. Gang bangers were remained gang bangers!
Hollywood is certainly a reflection of American society. Motion pictures about street gangs have always reflected the stark realities of urban living amongst the poorer classes. Films also gave expression to the alarm felt by the comfortable middle classes in the suburbs outside of the big cities. However, these movies have always been successful at the box office. Dead End, City Across the Street, West Side Story, The Wanderers and Warriors were all big gross earners in their times. All five films have continued to remain popular on television.
Samuel Goldwyn Studios took Sidney Kingsley’s hit Broadway play, Dead End, seriously enough to invest a $300,000 budget into the project. Director William Wyler had a sterling cast on board: Humphrey Bogart (Hugh “Baby Face” Martin), Claire Trevor (Francey), Allen Jenkins (“Hunk”) and Joel McCrea (Dave Connell). The film also had enough room left over to squeeze in such stalwart character actors as Marjorie Main (Ma Martin) and Ward Bond (The Doorman). It may be needless to state that the real stars of the show were the Dead End Kids: Tommy (Billy Halop), Dippy (Huntz Hall), Angel, (Bobby Jordan), Spit (Leo Gorcey), TB (Gabriel Dell,) and Milty (Bernard Punsley).
The dockside-swimming hole, with the backdrop of the tenements on East 53rd Street, also provided a locale that promoted the dismal atmosphere of the movie. It was the slums in all of its picturesque horror: with underwear hanging from the clothe lines, peddlers hawking their wares, and coppers pushing their way through crowds of smelly poor people to collar the rascals who roomed the area’s streets and alleys. The premises were a sad and helpless place that symbolized a sad and hopeless country ravaged by a decade-long financial downturn. The dockside was on the Lower East Side of New York City, but it could have been anywhere in the United States. The trashiness of the surrounding was familiar across the globe: from London to Tokyo. When the times get tough, people get tougher to survive. Staying alive could mean stealing something to eat, slashing a face with a knife, or paddling a pampered rich boy’s behind with a wooden board with nails sticking out.
The primary story line revolved around “Baby Face” Martin’s return to his old stomping grounds, where he hoped to reconnect with his long-lost girlfriend and his destitute mother. Both encounters turned sour: Francey had become a streetwalker, and Ma had greeted him with a slap across his face. His mother added insult to injury by calling him a “dirty dog.” Baby Face and Hulk decided to kidnap a pampered rick kid who lived in a luxury apartment that bordered the neighborhood. The gangster was hoping to salvage the aborted trip down memory lane with a ransom payment for the return of the wealthy kid to his society parents. The infamous crook’s final caper fell to pieces and he ended up full of lead in a back alley in his old haunting grounds.
Of secondary importance to the storyline are the Dead End Kids, who never seem to have a gang name other than the 58th Street Gang. Milty, a newcomer, receives a rough initiation before being accepted into the fold. After victimizing the new kid on the block, they turn to tormenting a rich kid who had taunted them from the balcony of his ritzy penthouse apartment. The upper- class dwelling symbolized how the new and wealthy had sprung up along the dockside to down upon old and poor neighborhood. The rich brat is lured into an abandoned building by the gang, where he receives a beating. The boy’s expensive clothes are ruined and his fancy watch goes missing. Shortly afterward, Tommy uses a knife to cut the hand of the boy’s father in order to escape. He was the leader on the gang and needed to prove himself as being bold. In between these violent interludes, the Dead End Kids agreed to a rumble with another street gang who lived at the other edge of the block. Both gangs seemed to be very small by the standards of most film gangs.
As a crowd gathers around to gawk at Baby Face splattered remains faced down in the gutter, the doorman of the penthouse (Ward Bond) is able to collar Spit as a member of the gang who had tormented the wealthy boy. Spit commits the ultimate sin in gang life by ratting out Tommy as the one who had done the stabbing with the knife. Towards the end of the picture, Tommy is about ready to use the knife one last time. He threatens to slash Spit across the face with “the mark of the squealer.” Leo Gorcey wrote in his self-published autobiography that the gang represented the main ethnics groups of the East Side: “Now if I were to write a joke about the Dead End Kids it would have to start something like this: Once upon a time there were two Jews, a garrulous Guinea, a dumb Dutchman, a hysterical Irishman and me.” Graham Greene, the British novelist and man of letters, wrote that Dead End “was “one of the best pictures of the year.” Besides being an outstanding picture, Dead End was an indictment of the growing problem of juvenile delinquency. Other critics apparently agreed with Greene; for the film earned nominations for four academy awards, as well as paved the way for an additional seven Dead End Kids movies. Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall starred in a slew of The East Side Kids and The Bowery Boys feature-length films over the next twenty years which were spin-offs from the 1937 film.
Irving Shulman’s novel, The Amboy Dukes, made the bestseller list before it was transformed into a movie in 1949 and renamed City Across the River. The gang featured in the film took their name from Amboy Street in their Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville. This section of the borough was heavily Jewish until 1960 when white flight transformed it into a Puerto Rican neighborhood.
Shulman’s opening paragraph gives the reader a descriptive account of the gangs and the neighborhood: “The Bunches stood on the corners. The Bristol Friends, the Herzl Street Boys, the Amboy Dukes. Each bunch idled on its own corner, although members from Sutter Avenue bunches, East New York cliques, and the Williamsburg gangs might be visiting and strengthening alliances. Off Pitkin Avenue were the unobtrusive but sinister poolrooms, barbershops, and fly-speckled candy stores that served as hangouts and depositories for brass knuckles, knives and an occasional gun.”
The film is notable in that it was the first movie of Tony Curtis’ long reign as a Hollywood star. It was also the launching of Richard Jaeckel very distinguished career as a character actor in film and on television. Tony (Mitch) and Richard (Bull) played second fiddles to Peter Fernandez Johnny Cusack (Peter Fernandez). “Crazy” (Joshua Shelley), and Benny (Al Ramsen) in the storyline. The gang also became less identifiable as a Jewish gang, with the name Cusack being Irish. The film, which was hard-hitting enough with one of the characters being thrown off a building and another young girl being rape, didn’t hold a candle to the original novel for stark realism and savage violence. The book also included a scene where the gang waylaid two Puerto Rican boys, leading to a war council in order to setup a rumble between the Jewish and Puerto Rican teenagers. Any mentioning of race found itself cut out of the movie, leaving behind only the brief mentioning of a war council with another neighborhood gang. The deletion of the racial conflict in the book went missing in the movie to avoid trouble with censorship, or the outcry of concerned citizen groups.
The members of the Amboy Dukes are high school kids who are on their own as their hard-working parents try to make-up for lost wages during the Depression by working overtime and weekends during World War 2. Johnny’s parents, played by Thelma Ritter and Luis Van Rotten are working to payoff old debts, as well as saving for a small grocery store that will enable them to put the ghetto behind them. Crazy is perhaps the only gangbanger in film history to hold a full-time job: he worked on a delivery truck for a meat market. Johnny and his fellow Dukes helped a neighborhood gangster collect protection money from a storekeeper, hassled girls on the streets, and sassed back at their high school shop teacher. Things unravel with an accidental murder of a teacher. To compound their troubles, the Dukes begin to steal one another’s girlfriends and to rat out one another to the police. By the end of the movie, the gang has fragmented beyond repair. Crazy faced arrest for rape. Bennie took a fatal fall off a tenementroof. Johnny found himself stuffed into a patrol car by the cops. A narrator warned the viewing audience that Johnny’s story was the nation’s problem.
Oddly enough, at the end of the movie, the fourth wall is broken. Introduction of the cast was a very rare occasion in Hollywood pictures. The pavement rats are really handsome young actors dressed in suits and ties. Like Dead End, City across the River is a ringing alarm to make the country aware of the rise of juvenile delinquency across the nation Even post-war prosperity added to the crisis with parents too busy to guide their children on the correct paths to becoming model citizens.
By the late fifties, anybody who was living in an American big city was keenly aware of the migration of whites to the suburbia as African Americans migrated northward from the rural south. At the same point in time, Puerto Ricans were making the short flight from San Juan to New York City. New faces belonging to other races were moving into the tenements in large numbers in search of work and better lives. Entire neighborhoods transformed in a blink of an eyelash. Whereas the Jews, Irish, Italians, Polish and Germans once battled one another for their allotment of urban space, they now found themselves joining forces to stand against the perceived invaders. The old-timers were outnumbered by the swarm of outsiders. Other major cities in the United States found the same racial drama unfolding within their own city limits. The United States will forever be a country where things are constantly shifting and its population must shift with the demographical upheavals and economical shifts. Nothing stays the same for long: it is the American way!
West Side Story was a big budget production that went on to rake-in big box office ticket sales. A six million dollars investment led to a forty-five million dollars profit. The movie, which had originally been a Broadway sensation, was most definitely a collaborative effort: Leonard Bernstein composed the musical score while Stephen Sondheim penned the lyrics. The book’s author was Arthur Laurents. Jerome Robbins orchestrated much of the difficult choreography, as well as directed part of the film before being replaced by Robert Wise.
The original concept of the story of course is from William Shakespeare’s Elizabethan drama, Romeo and Juliet, a timeless tale of a doomed romance between two lovers caught in the middle of a bloody feud between two warring families. In the new version, Tony and Maria replaced Romeo and Juliet. The Capulets and the Montagues go missing for the Jets and the Sharks. The family vendettas of Renaissance Italy disappeared in favor of the racial conflict in post-war modern America, namely the mean streets of a decayed Hell’s Kitchen.
The shooting of the film took place in the San Juan Hill area of New York’s West Side amongst a condemned neighborhood ready to be demolished for the new Lincoln Center. Many scenes were filmed on the sound stages and Los Angeles back alleys rather than on the West Side of Manhattan. The famous snapping of fingers scene featuring the white Jets at the beginning of the movie was filmed in a playground located on the East Side of Manhattan.
One of the chief redeeming qualities of West Side Story is that it tells both sides of the story. Both whites and Puerto Ricans had been victims and aggressors. The mutual feeling was that the crumbling streets belonged exclusively to them. The deeds of ownership also extended to their women, candy stores, and basketball courts “Why don’t you go back to where you come from?” “Why don’t you?” “Mick! “Spic!” “Wop!” The only solution was to arrange a rumble to settle the dispute with fists…switchblades if necessary. If blood was shed, that was the law of the pavements. No quarter to the opposition. The final rumble scene was shot beneath a highway in Los Angles.
The awkwardness of watching the white Natalie Wood darkening herself up to pass as the Puerto Rican Maria is sad. Witnessing George Chakiris, the son of Greek immigrants, transformed into a Latin macho man, Bernardo, is very off-putting to viewers sixty years later. The biggest shame was having Rita Moreno, a native of Puerto Rico, forced to apply the same make-up to make herself darker. I suppose one could argue that having native Californians like Richard Beymer (via Iowa) and Russ Tamblyn play New York punks Tony and Riff were also errors in miscasting. However, the cast made it up for its shortcomings by heartfelt acting, as well as their zesty singing and dancing. The final product is an amazing classic movie: flaws and all!
Perhaps the finished film of West Side Story was so superlative that Hollywood lost any inclination to go back to the street gang motif until the late Seventies when The Warriors and The Wanderers reinvented the genre. The Sixties appears to be devoid of having any major street gang movies. It could be that motorcycle gangs and hippies seemed to have stepped into the void left vacant by the street gangs. Americans needs a constantly changing of their rogue gallery to keep them on the edge of their seats.
The Wanderers was directed by Philip Kaufman and released by Warner Brothers in 1979 to mixed reviews and good box office numbers. The popularity of the film has grown over the years, attaining a cult-like status among a new generation of viewers. Richard Price, a New York author, wrote the original novel that was published in 1974. The Wanderers were a minor gang of Italian American teens hanging out near Fordham Road in the Norwood neighborhood of the Bronx. Price was looking backwards to the epoch he grew up during the early Sixties before the Beatles, the Viet Nam conflict and the Civil Rights movement changed the American scene forever. At the end of the movie, the audience hears Bob Dylan singing The Times They Are a Changing somewhere in Greenwich Village. The book was a retrospective look backwards at the gangs of Price’s youth in the early Sixties. The Wanderers was also part of the crest of the wave of nostalgia ushered in by the success of throwback movies like American Graffiti (1973) and television programs like Happy Days (1974-1984).
Richie (Ken Wahl), Joey (John Friedrich), Buddy (Jim Young) and Turkey (Alan Rosenberg) contend with an abusive father, a pregnant girlfriend and a bowling tournament while dealing with the Del Bombers (Puerto Ricans) and the Wong tribe (Chinese) at their high school. The Baldies (Italians) on Fordham Road ruled the turf to the south. The Ducky Boys (Irish) further to the north commanded the area around the Bronx Zoo and the Botanical Gardens.
The Wanderers try to settle their differences with the Del Bombers with a Saturday morning football game in the park with the Wong clan in attendance in the grandstands. The football match was an open invitation for a horde of Ducky Boys to invade from both sides of the gridiron with baseball bats, tire irons and switchblades. The three high school gangs united to fend off the attack. The Ducky Boys were forced to be a hasty retreat back to their own territory.
The Wanderers is interesting in that it featured two actual legendary gangs of the Bronx: The Baldies and the Ducky Boys. The Baldies and The Ducky Boys were many times more lethal and interesting then The Wanderers, whose name was used in the title of the book and the movie. The Baldies in the movies were depicted as skinheads, but in fact they had taken their name form the American bald eagle. The Ducky Boys took their name from their gang’s duck call that mimicked the ducks in the park’s pond in their bailiwick. Price described the Ducky Boys as “stunted Irish madmen” and “stone killers” that always attacked in droves to compensate for the fact that few of them were over five feet tall.
Besides the massive gang rumble at the conclusion of the story, two other encounters with the Ducky Boys are the film’s other highlights. The Wanderers drove their jalopy into a fogbound neighborhood inhabited by silent zombie-like boys and slutty-looking girls who emerged from the alleyways to attack the confused Wanderers. Later on, the unlucky Turkey ends up outside a Catholic Church, where the Ducky Boys have just received Holy Communion with fanged teeth land. The stunted madmen were seen gobbling their communion hosts like they were famished cannibals before going outside to commit murder: Turkey’s murder. In all three scenes with the Ducky Boys, not one of them ever uttered a single word. None of the Ducky Boys even had names, although actors Alan Braunstein and Mark Lesly played two of their leaders.
The Warriors (1979) is the movie that regenerated interest in gang memberships and gang-inspired movies. Upon its release, there were reports of gang fights amongst the audience members. The Warriors, like City across the River (The Amboy Dukes), was based upon a novel. The Warriors, written Sol Yurick, was published in 1965: more than a decade before the release of the movie. Yurick had received first-hand experience with street gangs from his years as a social worker. However, like William Shakespeare’s play influencing West Side Story, the concept of The Warriors derived from an ancient text from classical Greece: Xenophon’s Anabasis. The Dominators, who became The Warriors, in the film, traveled from their turf in Coney Island, Brooklyn, to Van Cortland Park in the Bronx, obeying the summons from Ismael Rivera, leader of the Delancey Thrones. A shooting goes down and the blame falls upon the shoulders of “Papa Arnold.” The leader finds himself surrounded by members of other gangs at the war council. Hector, second-in-command of the Dominators, assumed the title of “Papa” and it was his duty to herd “Lunkface”, “Bimbo”, Hinton, Dewey and “The Junior” back to their fiefdom… many subway stations away. The Dominators are no boy scouts; raping and mugging their way home through a nightmarish New York. City It a landscape that is full of uncharted territories, harboring unknown gangs (also known as “warriors”). Three of the members engaged in a vicious sexual assault upon a drunken nurse in Riverside Park. The boys were finishing off the violent episode by robbing the same victim when they are arrested by the police. The rest of the gang managed to get back home and had found that Papa Arnold had somehow survived the attack in Van Cortland Park. The leader was already at home and asleep in bed. One of the members hung around a Times Square full of midnight freaks as he munched hotdogs.
The motion picture premiered during the winter of 1979. The four million dollars budget was earned back by ticket sales within two weeks after release. Directed by Walter Hill, the movie has now earned cult status across the globe. The Dominators led by Papa Arnold were replaced by War Chief Cleon (Dorsey Wright) who marches “Swan” (Michael Beck),” Ajax” (James Remar), “Snow” (Brian Tyler), “Cochise” (David Harris), “Fox” (Thomas A. Waites), “Cowboy” (Tom McKitterick), “Rembrandt” (Marcelino Sanchez) and “Vermin” (Terry Michos) to the Bronx. Hollywood’s Warrior were the most thoroughly diverse street gang ever presented in American films. Whites, blacks and Puerto Ricans took on whites, blacks and Puerto Ricans in a movie that not once brought up the issue of skin color. The Warriors, as in the book, traveled to Van Cortland Park. In the movie the summons comes from Cyrus (Roger Hill), leader of the mighty Gramercy Riffs. The agenda is to unify all of the gangs with the intention of taking control of New York City by storm. A shooting goes down and Cyrus is murdered by Luther (David Patrick Kelly). the insane leader of the Irish Rogues from Hell’s Kitchen. The Rogue pinned the rap on Cleon who, in turn, is swarmed by angry gang members.
Swan, the second in command, became the war chief, and it was his obligation to see to the safe return of the gang to the tenements of Coney Island. The Warriors undertook an epic journey on the longest subway ride ever recorded on film; one that covered three of New York’s five boroughs. They also must elude the police, as well as the colorful array of street gangs like the Furies, The Orphans (the sorriest gang in film history) and The Punks. Along the way, they pick up “Mercy” (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), a groupie of toughies. She fell for the Warriors who were cocky enough to wear their colors as they boldly paraded through one combat zone after combat zone. The climax of the movie occurs on the sandy shores of the Atlantic Ocean, where there is a final showdown between Swan and the Warriors against Luther and the Rogues. The Gramercy Riffs, armed to the teeth with baseball bats and hockey sticks, arrived just in a nick of time to finish off the job started by the Warriors.
This article selected five films for discussion: Dead End (1937), City across the River (1948), West Side Story (1959), The Wanderers (1979) and The Warriors (1979). The movies covered the rumbles on the pavements of Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn from the Great Depression of the Thirties to the dancing disco days of the Seventies. The members of these gangs were white (Irish, Jewish, Italian, German, Polish), African American and Puerto Rican. These savage young bloods charged into mortal combat led by their chieftains. The overwhelming belief of these teenagers was that the only way to hold onto the scant yards of their turf was through the art of war: the street rumble. Fists, knives, bats, hockey sticks and guns all came in handy when it came to the protection of the fiefdom. These movies may go a long way in helping us to understand the racial, religious and cultural conflict in our own times: the gangs are still rumbling to protect their turf!
1) Barrios, Richard. West Side Story: The Jets, The Sharks, and the Makings of a Classic. NewYork, N.Y: Running Press, 2020.
2) Gorcey, Leo. An Original Dead End Kid Presents Dead end Yells, Wedding Bells, Cockle Shells and Dizzy Spell. Anthony Restoration: The Leo Gorcey Foundation, 2004.
3)Hannon, James. Lost Boys of the Bronx: The Oral History of the Ducky Boys gang. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2010.
4) Price, Richard. The Wanderers. New York, NY:Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
5) Root, Richard. Hollywood’s Made-To-Order Punks: The Complete Film History Of The Dead End Kids, Little Tough Guys, East Side Kids and Bowery Boys. Albany, GA: BearManor Media, 2010.
6) Shulman, Irving. The Amboy Dukes. Cutchogue, New York: Buccaneer Books, 1946.
7) Yurick, Sol. The Warriors. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965.
(Bio: Steven G. Farrell is a Professor in the Speech & Theater Department at Greenville Technical College in Greenville, South Carolina. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Crime, Scary Monsters, Film & History, Lost Treasure, Frontier Tales and Candlelight Stories. Professor Farrell short film about the Beatles, Mersey Boys: A Letter From Al Moran, has been screened at ten international film festivals.)