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The Forty Year Turf Rumble


Forty Year Turf Rumble: Street Gangs on Film-From the Dead Kids to the Warriors. By Steven G. Farrell.

A long-enduring genre in Hollywood has been that of the street gangs on the mean-streets of the United States.  These motion pictures usually took place in the tenement districts of New York’s Manhattan or Brooklyn waterfront neighborhoods, and involved the rumbles between the ethnic, religious and racial divisions 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, Black 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 freedom and the pursuit of happiness.  However, that freedom and happiness has always come with a price: courage, warfare and savage justice. Success goes to the survival of the fittest; and in Hell’s Kitchen, Brownsville or Red Hook, the fittest were the tough goons who joined street gangs to promote their climb up the ladder. “From sperm to worm” as the Jets sang in West Side Story. One had to scrape to get into a gang and then the gang had to scrape together to keep 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 a bleak time. The hardscrabble nature of the times drifted to 1948 with The 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 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. Boys will be boys.

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 and how it alarmed the comfortable middle classes in the suburbs outside of the big cities. However, these movies were primarily produced because they were successful at the box office. Dead End, The 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 to work with: 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 the locale that promoted the atmosphere of the movie. It was the slums in all of its picturesque glory: 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 that had been 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 probably also could have been easily recognized 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 in it.

The primary storyline revolves “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 turn sour: Francey is now a streetwalker and Ma slaps his face and calls him a “dirty dog.” Baby Face and Hulk decide to kidnap the pampered rick kid in order to salvage the aborted trip down memory lane. The infamous crook’s final caper falls to pieces and he is shot to pieces in his old haunting grounds.

Of secondary important are the Dead End Kids, who never seem to have a gang name other than the 58th Street Gang. Milty, a newcomer to the neighborhood, 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 taunts them from the balcony of his ritzy penthouse apartment that borders the slums. The rich kid is lured into an abandoned building, where he receives a beating. His expensive clothes are torn to shreds and his fancy watch is ripped off.  Shortly afterward, Tommy, the leader, uses a knife to cut the hand of the boy’s father in order to escape. In between these violent interludes, the Dead End Kids agree to a rumble with street gang who live at the other edge of the block. Both gangs seem to be very small by the standards of most film gangs.

As a crowd gathers around to gawk at Baby Face splattered faced down in the gutter, the doorman of the pent house (Ward Bond) is able to I.D Spit as a member of the gang who had tormented to 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 by slashing Spit across the face with “the mark of the squealer.” Leo Gorcey wrote in his self-published autobiography that the gang represented the main ethics 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 received 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 that 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 The 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) were 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, couldn’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 was sponged 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 was left out of 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 left to their own devises 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 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 help a neighborhood gangster collect protection money from a storekeeper, hassle girls on the streets and sass back at their high school shop teacher. Things start to snowball when the unforgiving teacher is killed by Johnny and Bennie in an altercation. 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 is arrested for rape. Bennie takes a fall off a tenement roof. Johnny is stuffed into a patrol car by the cops. A narrator warns the viewing audience that Johnny’s story is the nation’s problem.

Oddly enough, at the end of the movie the fourth wall is broken, and the Dukes are introduced to the audience. The pavement rats are now revealed to the audience as really being handsome young actors dressed in suits and ties. Like Dead End, The City Across the River isa warning of the rise of juvenile delinquency across the United States. Even post-war prosperity was adding 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 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 the allotment of urban space, they now found themselves joining forces as they were being rapidly becoming outnumbered by the invasion of outsiders.  Other major cities in the United States found the same racial drama unfolding within their own city limits. The United States is a country were things are constantly shifting and its population must shift with the demographical upheavals.

West Side Story was a big budget production that went on to rake-in big box office ticket sales. Six million dollars invested 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 was authored by Arthur Laurents. Jerome Robbins orchestrated much of the difficult choreography, as well as directed part of the film before being dismissed and replaced by Robert Wise.

The original concept of the story of course was lifted 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, Romeo and Juliet were swapped out for Tony and Maria. The Capulets and the Montagues were replaced with the Jets and the Sharks. The family vendettas of Renaissance Italy disappeared in favor of the racial strife taking place 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 also shot inside of Hollywood sound stages and Los Angeles back alleys. The famous snapping of fingers scene featuring the white Jets at the beginning of the movie was actually filmed in a playground 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 sides had been victims and aggressors. The mutual feeling was that the crumbling streets belonged exclusively to them, along with their women, candy store sand basketball courts “Why don’t you go back to where you come from?”  “Why don’t you?” “Mick! “Spic!” “Wop!” The only solution is to have a rumble to settle the dispute with fists…switchblades if necessary. If blood was spilt that was the law of the pavements. No quarter to the opposition. The rumble was actually filmed beneath a highway in Los angles.

The awkwardness of watching the white Natalie Wood darkening herself up to pass as the Puerto Rican Maria and George Chakiris, the son of Greek immigrant, being transformed in a Latin macho man, Bernardo, is somewhat off-putting sixty years later.  The biggest shame was having Rita Moreno, a native of Puerto Rico, forced to apply the same make-up. I suppose one could argue that having native Californians like Richard Beymer (via Iowa) and Russ Tamblyn play New York street punks Tony and Riff were also errors in miscasting. The cast made it up for its shortcomings by heartfelt acting, as well as zesty singing and dancing. The end result 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.

The Wanderers was directed Philip Kaufman and released by Warner Brothers in 1979 to mixed reviews and modest box office success. The popularity of the film has grown over the years, attaining a cult-like status among younger people.  Richard Price, a New York author, wrote the original novel and it 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 Bel Bombers (Puerto Ricans) and the Wongs (Chinese) at their high school. In their own neighborhood, they are outnumbered by the Baldies (Italians) on Fordham Road to the south and the Ducky Boys (Irish) further to the north 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 unite to fend off the attack.

The Wanderers is interesting in that it featured two actual legendary gangs of the Bronx: the Baldies and the Ducky Boys, who were many times more lethal and interesting then the gang mentioned in the title. The Baldies in the movies were skinheads but in actuality they took 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. 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 films other highlights.  The Wanderers drive into a fogbound neighborhood that is inhabited by silent zombie-like boys and slutty-looking girls who emerged from the alleyways to attack the boys inside of their car. Later on, the unlucky Turkey ends up outside a Catholic Church, where the Ducky Boys have just received Holy Communion with fanged teeth land gobbled like famished cannibals before going outside to commit murder: Turkey’s murder. In all three scenes with the Ducky Boys, not one of them ever utters 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 generally considered the movie that regenerated interest in gangs and gang memberships. Upon its release there were reports of gang fights amongst the audience members.  The Warriors, like City Across the River (The Amboy Dukes) and The Wanderers, was based upon a novel. The Warriors by Sol Yurickwas published in 1965: more than a decade before the release of the movie. Yurick had received first person 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 was borrowed from an ancient text from classical Greece: Xenophon’s Anabasis. The Dominators, who became The Warriors, in the film, journey 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” and he is surrounded by members of other gangs at the war council. Hector, second-in-command of the Dominators, assumes the title of “Papa” and it is 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. It a landscape that is full of uncharted territories, harboring unknown gangs (also known as “warriors”). Three of the members engage in a vicious sexual assault and robbery upon a drunken nurse in Riverside Park, where they arrested by the police. The rest of the gang manages to get back home and find Papa Arnold had somehow survived the attack in Van Cortland Park and reached home and was tucked away in bed. One of the members hangs around a Times Square full of midnight freaks as he munches hotdogs.

The motion picture was released during the winter of 1979. The four million dollars budget was earned back 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 War Chief Cleon (Dorsey Wright) who leads Swan (Michael Beck), Ajax (James Remar), Snow (Brian Tyler), Cochise (David Harris), Cowboy (Tom McKitterick), Rembrandt (Marcelino Sanchez) and Vermin (Terry Michos) 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 upon the summons of Cyrus (Roger Hill), leader of the mighty Gramercy Riffs. The agenda is to unify all of the gangs to cease control of New York City. Cyrus is gunned down by Luther (David Patrick Kelly,) the insane leader of the Irish Rogues from Hell’s Kitchen. Luther pins the rap on Cleon who, in turn. swarmed by angry gang members.

Swan, the second in command, becomes the war chief and it is obligation to see to the safe return of the gang to the tenements of Coney Island. The Warriors must undertake an epic journey on the longest subway ride ever recorded that covered three of New York’s five boroughs. They also have to elude the police, as well as the colorful array of street gangs like the Furies, The Orphans and The Punks. Along the way, they pick up Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), a groupie of toughies who are cocky enough to wear their colors as they boldly paraded through 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, arrive just in a nick of time to finish off the job started by the Warriors.

Five movies based upon street gangs of New York were selected to be discussed in this article: Dead End (1937), The 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), black and Puerto Rican; and they were led by young men who felt 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 home boys’ fiefdom.  These movies may go a long ways in helping us to understand the racial, religious and cultural conflict in our own times: the gangs are still rumbling to protect their turf!

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