Obituary: Huntz Hall
Wednesday 03 February 1999
Hall was the rubber-faced, eager oaf, forever the butt of the others' humour and the recipient of countless whacks over the head from the group's leader (Leo Gorcey). Told "The only thing that could improve your looks is plastic surgery", he delightedly replies, "Thank you for the compliment." With his wide eyes and hunched demeanour, as if constantly cowering from the inevitable blows, he created a memorable character and proved the most durable of the cast, appearing in 81 of the series' films (more than any other actor) including the final one in 1958.
The Dead End Kids started life in Sidney Kingsley's play Dead End, produced on Broadway in 1935 and filmed two years later by William Wyler. The six juveniles from the play - Hall, Gorcey, Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Gabriel Dell and Bernard Punsly - were all recruited for the Hollywood version, recreating their roles as youngsters whose attitudes are conditioned by their poverty-stricken environment, making them easy prey to the influence of a gangster (Humphrey Bogart).
Hall was already a veteran in show business, having made his Broadway debut at the age of three months in the play Thunder on the Left. The 14th of 16 children of an Irish immigrant engineer, he was born Henry Richard Hall in New York City in 1919, but was rechristened "Huntz" by a brother who said his large nose made him look German. After graduating from a Catholic grammar school he attended the Professional Children's School.
While studying, he sang as a boy soprano with the Madison Square Quintette, appeared in an experimental television transmission in 1932, and acted in several radio shows. He was still attending the school when he auditioned for Dead End and was given the part of Dippy because he could imitate a machine gun. "That's how I got in Dead End," he said later, "after all the training, the tap dancing and the singing."
The Dead End Kids featured in six subsequent dramas for Warner Brothers, notably the Michael Curtiz classic Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), in which they again idolise a gangster (James Cagney), and Busby Berkeley's They Made Me A Criminal (1939). Hall then appeared in several Universal films which featured both the Dead End Kids and the Little Tough Guys. Primarily comedies, these were undistinguished, but the actor later stated that he benefited from watching the studio's main comic stars in action, particularly Shemp Howard and W.C. Fields.
In 1940 Hall married for the first time, eloping with the dancer Elsie May Anderson. They were divorced four years later after a stormy marriage during which Hall developed a reputation as a woman-chaser. Evelyn Ankers, who played the female lead in Hit the Road (1941) stated, "On one occasion after a day's shooting I thought I was the last one to leave but on my way out I bumped into Huntz Hall (acne and all). He put his arms around me and tried to force me to kiss him. I responded as my daddy taught me to - I let him have it with my knee right between his legs."
Bowery Blitzkreig (1941), made by the minor studio Monogram, was the first film in which Hall played as one of the East Side Kids, but it was the next, Spooks Run Wild (1941), that firmly established the team as purveyors of good-natured corn and Hall's character Glimpy as the principal comic, blissfully unaware of his own stupidity. (When Hall reads a magazine in a darkened bedroom he is asked how he can read in the dark and replies, "I went to night school.")
Hall played one of his rare roles without the gang in Private Buckaroo (1942), as a corporal who teaches Harry James to play the trumpet, but his most acclaimed performance was as Private Garroway, one of a battalion on a suicidal mission in Italy in Lewis Milestone's A Walk in the Sun (1946), which won him the Blue Ribbon Award from the New York Theatre Critics Circle. Hall himself served in the Army briefly before being honourably discharged with bad eyesight.
Though several of the films starring the East Side Kids were entertaining, notably Let's Get Tough (1942, in which the boys expose a wartime secret society plotting against the US), Clancy Street Boys (1943), Block Busters (1944) and Bowery Champs (1944), it was with the Bowery Boys series, launched by Monogram in 1946, that the team found their biggest success, with greater uniformity of style and characterisation.
Gorcey, now given star billing, was Slip, given to wild malapropisms and ideas above his station, and Hall was Sach, frantically gyrating his lips and often taken advantage of by Slip. The prime setting was the drug- store run by Louie (played by Gorcey's father Bernard) where the boys sip sodas they cannot pay for. An indication of the films' profitability was Monogram's decision to give them a shooting schedule of two weeks (the previous films had been shot in six or seven days). Gorcey, Hall, Jordan and Dell remained of the original team, with Billy Benedict now a regular member.
"We all got along fabulously," said Hall. "We went our own ways when we were not working professionally. We tried to avoid the problems of other comedy teams like Abbott and Costello or Martin and Lewis. If we were always together, it could have caused problems." Of Gorcey, he stated, "We dug one another." Hall's character was central to many of the plots - in Mr Hex (1946), Sach acquires superhuman strength after being put in a trance by a magician, and in Hold That Baby! (1949) he registers as a patient at a sanatorium so that he and Slip can investigate suspicious doings. (Signing the registration form, Sach carefully writes an "X", prompting Slip to tell him, "Don't sign your real name." Sach erases it, and replaces it with an "O".)
In Master Minds (1949), Sach's brain is electronically transplanted into an ape man, and in Blues Busters (1950) he becomes a popular crooner after a tonsillectomy gives him a seductive singing voice. Hall's private life was not without incident - in 1948 he was arrested for possession of marijuana, though later exonerated by a hung jury, in 1954 he was charged with disturbing the peace after fighting an apartment manager who had tried to quieten a noisy party, and in 1959 he was charged with drunk driving.
By the time of the Bowery Boys film Clipped Wings (1953), Gorcey and Hall were getting virtually all the screen time, with the other "boys" little more than extras, and Gabriel Dell, the last remaining original, left the series, but their popularity continued. "There is a peculiar chemistry that keeps a series going for years," said the producer Ben Schwalb. "Leo and Huntz have an instinctive feeling about dialogue and scenes. They live their parts before the camera and they know just what will play for a laugh and what will not."
After Bernard Gorcey died, Leo made one more film in the series, Crashing Las Vegas (1956), then retired and was replaced by Stanley Clements, but the chemistry was not the same and, though he now received star billing and did seven more pictures, Hall was not happy.
In the Money (1958) was the last Bowery Boys film, but Hall continued to perform. He and Gabriel Dell formed a night-club act, "Hall and Dell", which led their respective wives (Hall had married a second time in 1948) to sue for divorce, claiming the couple thought more of their night-club act than they did of their wives. Hall played character roles in Gentle Giant (1967), Herbie Rides Again (1974) and Ken Russell's Valentino (1977), for which he won praise with his portrayal of Jesse Lasky, and he worked frequently in television.
On stage, he toured in productions of The Odd Couple and The Sunshine Boys, finally retiring in 1994. Proud of his son Gary, who is a Catholic priest, Hall was active in lay Catholic affairs, and in 1973 participated in Princess Grace's Council for Drug Abuse. Divorced three times and widowed once, the actor lived comfortably in Los Angeles, wealthy from offshore oil investments and a 10 per cent percentage of the Bowery Boys films. (The only one of the original six Dead End Kids surviving is Punsly, a retired doctor, with Billy Benedict the only survivor of subsequent gang members.)
Asked in 1990 why the films had such universal appeal, Huntz Hall replied, "They're Americana. They were also pretty entertaining. After seeing our pictures, you got rid of your problems. In today's movies, the problems are on the screen."
Henry Richard Hall (Huntz Hall), actor: born New York 15 August 1919; married four times (one son); died Los Angeles 30 January 1999.
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