The Child Witness: Peril and Empowerment in 1940s Horror, from The East Side Kids to The Window (1949)

While we are all stuck at home due to COVID-19, we’ve dug out some older articles, essays and interviews – this piece was commissioned for the book Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade, edited by Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare, Kristopher Woofter and Charlie Ellbe and published by Lexington Books in 2014. What follows is the edited version of the essay that appeared in the book; my thanks to the editors for their improvements on the piece. The full book is available on Amazon HERE >>


Concurrent with the popular misconception of 1940s horror cinema as a period of decline in quality and inspiration is the notion that the era’s horror cinema was marked only by spoofs and imitations. This is especially the way scholars have viewed the films made on decreasing budgets in the latter half of the decade and by the independent Poverty Row studios. Forties sequels, parodies and other variations on a now-canonized 1930s horror are characteristically seen as examples of generic degeneration (aesthetically and morally) rather than as part of a period during which genre filmmakers carried on a dialogue with prior genre films and worked within and against their tropes to crystallize certain formulas and expand upon others. Interesting hybrids such as the “weird western” (e.g., Wild Horse Phantom [1944, Sam Newfield]) and the “monster rally” film (e.g., House of Dracula [1945, Erle C. Kenton]) were the result. In this essay, I consider one of the most maligned combinations—that of horror and comedy—as a starting point in an investigation of the representation of child empowerment onscreen. From the perspective of a child, the 1940s was an especially rich and inspiring period of cinema, one that helped them navigate a world where they were often left to their own devices. I examine the agency of children in the 1940s through their viewing habits concerning the slapstick horror outings of the East End Kids and the Bowery Boys, and I link this experience to the grim world of the horror-film noir hybrid via Ted Tetzlaff’s The Window (1949[i]). In the process, I also open up a much-needed line of inquiry into the reception of forties cinema related specifically to young audiences and wartime youth culture.

Rather than looking at the decade’s horror efforts as aping the canonically accepted 1930s horror associated with Universal, I will show how the comedy-horror films of the 1940s—especially those coming from the metaphorical “slums” of the Poverty Row studios—were evoking, and expanding upon, a tradition of horror that predates the ‘classic’ Universal era. A world of old dark houses and diabolical supervillains in films such as The Cat and the Canary (Paul Leni, 1927) would inspire generations of Monster Kids to come; some of these films were already comically-tinged efforts, and their format and aesthetic can be easily recognized as influences on the zany, low-budget films of Ray Dennis Steckler and Jack Hill, Hanna-Barbera’s Scooby Doo, Where Are You? (1969), the spoofs of Mel Brooks, and 80s kid-power adventure stories like Fred Dekker’s The Monster Squad (1987). In a large number of 1940s films, young audiences had their fears validated and their problem-solving abilities empowered by what they saw onscreen. I discuss how horror and social realism intersected at the onset of film noir, a world typically devoid of children but host to a few stunning examples of child ingenuity in the face of very palpable danger. In examining these facets of the child’s relation to 1940s horror cinema, I offer two primary case studies: the gang of kids known variously as The East Side Kids and The Bowery Boys, and the lone child at the centre of Ted Tetzlaff’s horror-film noir hybrid, The Window. What all these films have in common—whether or not one considers the upbeat antics of the East End Kids and the bleak cynicism of horror-noir to be polar opposites—was the centrality of a child who had to face and overcome danger, often without the help of established authority figures. This reflected the reality of those children that came of age and attended the cinema during wartime, and often had to fend for themselves. These audiences were the first generation of American “latch-key kids” (Khatkar 2010), a term coined in an American TV documentary in the 1940s to refer to children who would spend long periods of time unsupervised due to their mothers working to support the war effort.[ii]


The Hays Code, the Saturday Matinee and The Dead End Kids

In examining the development of 1940s horror, specifically as it relates to child audiences, it is important to first go over the history and mandate of the Hollywood Production Code—otherwise known as “the Hays Code”—that became compulsory in 1934 (Brown 2010, 13). The code, named after Will H. Hays, the head of Hollywood trade office the MPPDA (The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America) was intended to make all films universally acceptable in an attempt to pacify the conservative religious watchdogs that were clamouring for the clean-up of Hollywood following the Fatty Arbuckle/Virginia Rappe scandal.[iii] The Hays Code cemented the burgeoning concept of the “family film”—which did not imply, or require, that the films were made for children, but that they were safe for children. At the time, there was pressure to make motion pictures acceptable for all audiences because in the absence of a ratings system (which would not come into place in the U.S. until 1968), children were identified as being exposed to salacious and violent content on a regular basis. Children formed a large percentage of the cinematic audience, and then—as now—acted as unknowing pawns for conservative watchdog groups in creating politically motivated moral panics.

In his dissertation, Hollywood, The Family Audience and the Family Film, 1930-2010 (2010), Noel Brown points out that the stirrings of the family film had already begun as early as 1910, and that in 1915 the Supreme Court ruled that films were not protected by the First Amendment, because, unlike the press, they could not prove to exist for any reason other than financial gain. This meant that filmmakers had no legal recourse on the grounds of artistry should any censorial agency wish to exert its authority over their content, thus leaving them at the mercy of moral watchdogs.  “The ruling was a landmark,” Brown says, and it would hold until 1952, when it would finally be overturned by the Supreme Court in the case surrounding Roberto Rosselini’s 1948 film The Miracle, which had been deemed sacrilegious by the National Legion of Decency (Brown 2010, 49). In the early cinema, while the threat of censorship merely loomed, Hollywood producers still went into the 1920s favouring films that glamorized violent and licentious behaviour, and the box office numbers showed that audiences supported this, which made it hard for Will Hays and his religious supporters—as influential as they were—to gain a foothold in terms of moral reform. Hollywood was not interested in producing sanitized films for a youth market. That is, until the end of the decade, when it suddenly felt competition coming from the educational sector. When the first 16mm projectors were introduced in 1912 (Alexander 2010, 15), they were quickly adopted by churches and schools as educational aids, and by the late 1920s their manufacturers were offering subsidization programs to schools that wanted the equipment, thereby creating a demand for more child-friendly content. Originally Hollywood studios responded by trying to cull “safe” content from their existing films to repackage them for the educational market, but eventually the demands created by this market bolstered Hays’ support for the establishment of the Hollywood Production Code in 1930. The code would become mandatory in 1934, aimed at upholding “a higher level of wholesome entertainment for all the people”.[iv]

The children’s matinee movement started as early as 1913, with screenings usually organized by local community groups, but Alice Miller’s 1929 study Children and Movies indicated that they were not only unpopular with children but also “a sloppy, semi amateur industry” (Brown 2010, 54). By 1925 the Hays Office was heavily pushing a national Saturday Matinee Program through advertising in schools and garnering considerable grassroots support from community organizations, which Richard DeCordova’s 2007 study—in contrast to Miller’s assertion—claims was inaugurated on April 25, 1925 with “great success” (DeCordova 2007, 236). But regardless of whether or not the Saturday Matinee program was popular with children, it is important to remember that at the time, kids could get into pretty much any film they wanted to attend, and they exercised that right.  As DeCordova points out:

In an era which increasingly worked to separate children from adults through institutions such as children’s hospitals, juvenile court systems, and reform schools, the cinema mixed ages indiscriminately, providing the same entertainment for adults and children alike. The ideal of preserving childhood by maintaining a childhood culture distinct from adult culture was disrupted by the cinema as the boundaries between children’s films and adult films became blurred. (2007, 234)

While the different states varied on the rules surrounding child attendance at cinemas, in all cases children had to navigate through an adult world to see films. In some states there were restricted hours for children, and others prohibited entry to unaccompanied children. But as Sarah J. Smith notes in her book Children and Censorship (which, it must be noted, focuses on 1930s audiences) underage audience members would circumvent regulations by having strangers accompany them into the theatre. They would bargain with their parents, they would get odd jobs to save money to see films, and they would barter with the theatre owners, sometimes bringing food or other items in lieu of cash payment (2005: 43). Many kids would just sneak in through the alternate exits or bathroom windows. Although adults were supposed to police their entry into the theatre, they rarely did, partially because kids formed a major part of the cinematic economy, with the neighbourhood theatres or “nabes” especially relying on the younger demographic.[v] Smith goes on to assert that the cinema provided children a means of “ownership and control over a public space,” and that it “offered liberating escapism through films and a warm, dark, virtually adult-free environment for engaging in ‘wild’ and ‘subversive’ behaviour” (2005, 172). Youth participation in cinema culture also extended beyond the theatre; they collected film magazines and trading cards, with some kids as young as 12 even making their own films and running their own underground cinemas (Smith 2005, 171).

The pre-code gangster and horror films were immensely popular with children, who tended to go to the theatre once or twice a week and served as one-third of the US film audience. They went to neighbourhood theatres—distinct from the larger, more opulent picture palaces—which often showed B-movies and second-run films, which explains the Poverty Row studios’ interest in film cycles that would engage young audiences. Children idolized the hoodlums that were the anti-heroes of many gangster films, and their imitation of the streetwise dialogue (“OK”, “Youse guys”) was responsible for bringing many expressions into the vernacular (Smith 2010, 150). But if movies like Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy, 1931) and The Public Enemy (William A. Wellman, 1931) made kids want to be tough guys when they grew up, in 1937 they were given role models their own age that made the theoretical gateway that much more accessible: just as the squeaky-clean Shirley Temple was becoming Hollywood’s adopted daughter, Sidney Kingsley’s popular 1935 stage play Dead End was adapted by William Wyler for the screen. The film was cleaned up slightly—references to syphilis were removed, among other things—but nonetheless the film still negotiated a number of censorial boundaries; it was overtly critical of social inequality and the juvenile reform system, as well as referencing both prostitution and police brutality against women. It was an underdog picture through and through. And at the center of it all were a gang of juvenile delinquents who were about to become superstars: The Dead End Kids.

Wyler and Producer Sam Goldwyn rounded up six of the original 14 kids from the theatrical production to appear in the film version, including Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall and Bobby Jordan, who would be the staples of the gang as they went through various incarnations (The East Side Kids, The Little Tough Guys and The Bowery Boys) from the 1930s through the 1950s. According to David Hayes and Brent Walker’s 1984 book The Films of The Bowery Boys, the young actors were actual juvenile delinquents and destroyed enough property on set during the shoot that their two-year contract with United Artists was sold to Warner Brothers, who made five more ‘Dead End Kids’ films, including their most famous, Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) alongside James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. When Warner Brothers released them from their contracts—also due to shenanigans on set—Sam Katzman from Monogram Pictures picked them up and created the East Side Kids series in 1940, with the first official film being Boys of the City.[vi] Monogram was a Poverty Row studio and the budgets for these films were about $30,000 each, which often meant quick turnovers for scripts and shooting schedules in comparison to their bigger studio counterparts. They would make 20 East Side Kids pictures in all.

But while the Dead End Kids films were serious and hot-topic social dramas with a real grittiness, the boys were domesticated significantly at the height of their fame; by the time they moved over to Monogram in 1940, a lot of the hard-knock realism of their former roles had been stripped away, and they became more family-friendly, comedic caricatures of their earlier roles. They were still portraying mostly orphans, foster kids and at-risk youth, but were transformed from a hoodlum gang into a kind of mystery-solving gang. This allowed them to delve into more genre-heavy plotlines, including horror pictures very much modelled on the early ‘old dark house’ films of the late 1920s and early 30s,[vii] which featured slapstick comedy, secret passageways, trap doors and even horror icon Bela Lugosi as a sinister stranger playing everything from a hiding-out Nazi scientist (Ghosts on the Loose, 1943) to a suspected serial killer (Spooks Run Wild, 1941). Ironically, the 1920s old dark house films have not been discredited to the degree of their 1940s counterparts.


Kids and Horror on Poverty Row

In their first picture at Monogram, Boys of the City (Joseph H. Lewis, 1940), after a brush with juvenile court the boys reluctantly agree to go to summer camp under the guardianship of Knuckles Dolan, the older, reformed criminal brother of Danny (Bobby Jordan). On the way there, the car breaks down and the gang ends up staying overnight at a gigantic manor house in the country, owned by a Judge who’s currently being threatened by dangerous mobsters. Once they arrive at the old house, the superficial conventions of gothic horror are clearly demarcated—characters ominously lit from below, doors that open and close by themselves, a secret bookcase door leading to underground tunnels, and the obligatory creepy housekeeper who is obsessed with the memory of the Judge’s dead wife, a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film adaptation of Daphne DuMaurier’s 1938 novel, Rebecca. Even the housekeeper’s physical appearance is remarkably similar to that of Mrs. Danvers as portrayed by Judith Anderson in Hitchcock’s film, released a few months earlier.[viii] There’s even a spooky organ that plays the kind of tune associated with horror radio plays that became popular in the 1930s, and direct mystery-film references in the dialogue:

Muggs:  “You know this joint kinda reminds me of those old castles with their secret passageways and secret panels and all that junk…I’ll betcha there’s a secret panel!”

Danny: “You’re crazy. You been seein’ too many movies.”

Muggs: Movies! That’s it! Say, what’s The Thin Man got that I ain’t got?”

Danny: “Myrna Loy.”

Scruno, the sole African American character in the gang (played by Ernie “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison, one of the original Our Gang cast) especially typifies the racist ‘old dark house’ stereotype of black characters: he’s the first to notice impending danger and consequently acts out the scaredy-cat role complete with stutter and bulging eyes. “Man, I sure do miss that old plantation!” he exclaims after meeting the creepy housekeeper. When the other kids are served pie for dessert, Scruno relishes the fact that he alone is served watermelon. At one point, Muggs even bites Scruno’s hand, thinking it’s a piece of chocolate cake. This would be Scruno’s role throughout the entire series—while integrated into the gang he’s also coded as “other,” clearly the lowest on the gang’s totem pole. In many ways Scruno’s character in The East Side Kids references those played by prolific African-American actor Mantan Moreland, also a Monogram regular[ix] and a popular but critically disdained actor to whom British critic Peter Noble referred as “the accepted USA idea of the Negro clown supreme” (Means Coleman 2011, 84). But both Morrison and Moreland’s habitual characters are throwbacks to an earlier era of Black minstrelsy that was a key component of the earliest comedy-horror films.

Each of the kids had their own increasingly-pronounced personality traits, with Gorcey modelled on James Cagney, Hall on Shemp Howard, and Jordan as the pure-hearted cutie-pie. Ernie Morrison was the most long-standing actor of the bunch, having appeared in films as early as 1916. His first horror-comedy role was as a child servant in Harold Lloyd’s 1920 comedy-horror Haunted Spooks (as a kid so terrified he dives into a vat of flour to hide from the ghosts, only to emerge “white”), directed by Our Gang’s Hal Roach. This ‘knock-kneed scaredy-cat’ character was one he would adopt in all of The East Side Kids/Bowery Boys horror-comedy efforts.

Just as the boys were undergoing their transition to The East Side Kids, a new comedy duo burst onto the scene that would reign throughout the 1940s and much of the 50s and prove a major influence: Abbott and Costello. In 1941 the duo did their first horror crossover picture, Hold That Ghost (Arthur Lubin, 1941)which, like Boys of the City, referenced ‘old dark house’ tropes. They would go on to make seven horror crossover pictures in all—including The Time of their Lives (Charles Barton, 1946), Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Charles Barton, 1948), Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (Charles Barton, 1949), Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (Charles Lamont, 1951), Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (Charles Lamont, 1953) and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (Charles Lamont, 1955)—as well as adding scares or supernatural sequences into over a dozen more of their pictures, as producers recognized the appeal of such sequences in targeting crossover audiences. Still, while the Abbott and Costello brand of comedy would be incredibly influential on the trajectory of The East Side Kids and their evolution into The Bowery Boys in the latter half of the 1940s, The East Side Kids remained more popular with the youth market, not only because of youthful protagonists they could more readily identify with, but also because the East Side Kids films tended to prioritize jokes and action over drawn-out musical numbers.[x]

The East Side Kids’ Spooks Run Wild was released on October 24, 1941, only three months after the debut of Abbott and Costello’s Hold that Ghost the previous summer. In fact it started filming in early August, making it entirely plausible that it was a direct riff on the horror angle of the Abbott and Costello hit. The film brought together Monogram pictures’ two most popular assets—Bela Lugosi and The East Side Kids—again opening with the gang busted for some petty crime and sentenced to summer camp under the guardianship of a young law student and his lady love, who is also the camp nurse. And again, the bus temporarily breaks down, long enough for the boys to stop at a malt shop and overhear news on the radio of a serial killer in the area. Later that night the classic East Side Kids triumvirate—Muggs, Bobby and Glimpy (The Dead End Kids’ Huntz Hall in his first East Side Kids film)—leads the charge sneaking out of camp, and they end up at the creepy Billings Manor where a sinister magician (Lugosi) and his dwarf sidekick (Angelo Rossitto of Tod Browning’s Freaks [1932]) have recently taken up residence. From there the usual hijinx ensue: the boys bumble around the cobwebby mansion chasing after one of their sleepwalking cohorts, encountering spiders, skeletons, secret passageways and a host who seems incredibly amused by how terrified they all are. While their guardians try to find them, going the usual route of seeking help from the police and the mayor, it’s Muggs himself who saves the day, managing to physically detain the killer until the police can arrest him.

Narrative continuity was not prioritized in the series—not only would the gang members (and their name spellings) change, but sometimes the former orphans would suddenly have family members, such as in the 1943 Ghosts on the Loose (William Beaudine) where Glimpy has a mother and sister, the latter played by a then-unknown Ava Gardner. In this story Muggs’ innate bossiness is put to use as wedding planner for Glimpy’s sis, and when she and her beau skip off to their honeymoon, Muggs sets the boys to work cleaning the couple’s newly-purchased house. Of course, a mix-up causes them to go to the house next door, which is reputedly haunted. It is soon discovered that these rumours are proliferated to hide a den of Nazi spies (led by Bela Lugosi) who are printing propaganda in the basement. By this point, US involvement in WWII was in full swing; thus, Nazi and Japanese villains were commonplace in film, including several East Side Kids films, which were becoming increasingly patriotic in tone as a result of pressures from the Office for War Information (OWI).[xi] As Amanda Ann Klein notes in her chapter on The Dead End Kids in her book American Film Cycles, “These spin-off cycles effectively tapped into the national project of rallying the population behind the war effort by transforming the unrecuperable social problem of the late 1930s—the urban juvenile delinquent—into a useful social product for the 1940s—the patriot or the soldier” (2007: 98). In the context of WWII it makes perfect sense that the anti-social aggression of the original Dead End’s ‘smart aleck’ street urchins would be redirected toward a common enemy, with their ‘heroic’ acts meant to bolster the idea of wartime unity among all social classes. This is key to understanding the Dead End Kids’ transition to comedy as they were rechristened The East Side Kids and became role models to an increasingly young audience. In Ghosts on the Loose, the police are summoned, but it’s the boys themselves who incapacitate the Nazis, with Gorcey giving a Shemp-like flip, flopping on top of them all in a pile.

Gorcey didn’t flop over so easily in real life, however. In 1946 Monogram refused his request for a raise, and he left the series, taking Bobby Jordan and Huntz Hall with him to create the independently-produced series, The Bowery Boys, which by the end of the decade would be much more blatantly modelled on the antics of Abbott and Costello. While the Bowery Boys films utilized many cast members from various Dead End Kids/East End Kids/Little Tough Guys lineups, the focus was increasingly on Gorcey and Hall as a duo. Bobby Jordan left after eight films, while Gabriel Dell showed up intermittently in alternating character roles and Ernie Morrison turned the series down completely. With the new series came new names: Gorcey was renamed Slip Mahoney, Hall became Sach, and Bobby used his real-life first name. There would be nearly 50 Bowery Boys films in all.

Typical of Monogram production, shooting schedules were very short, and the gang made 5 features in 1946 alone. Spook Busters (working title: Ghost Busters) was the fourth Bowery Boys film, directed by William Beaudine, a frequent East Side kids director who would also go on to helm a number of Bowery Boys pictures. By this point Gorcey’s trademark malapropisms are rampant: “I was stirred up with commotion,” he narrates over the graduation ceremony that opens the film (the camera pulls back to reveal that said graduation is from the College of Insect Extermination, from which Sach is the only flunkee). Slip sets up his new exterminating business inside Louie’s ice cream shop (Louie is played by Bernard Gorcey, the even more diminutive father of Leo and David Gorcey) and his first big job comes via a realtor who needs him to exterminate a ghost at one of his properties. It turns out that the disturbance in the house isn’t caused by a ghost, but by a mad scientist doing biological experiments in the basement. After a succession of the same joke about falling through secret panels in the ‘haunted’ house, the film culminates in a show-stopping scene wherein Sach is abducted by the creepy scientist, who is bent on swapping his brain with that of a gorilla. Slip gets drugged, making the climactic fight take place in hilarious slow motion, with Slip’s voiceover operating as a sort of sports play-by-play.

The series (as with much 40s horror cinema) has been criticized by film reviewers for recycling and repetition—even the seemingly unique plotline of Huntz Hall swapping brains with a gorilla would be recycled in 1949’s Master Minds—and a comparison between the critical reception of these horror-comedies and Val Lewton’s championed ‘terror films’ is an example of the high art/low art binary that continues to trouble the genre. But as Mark Jankovich points out in his essay, “Pale Shadows: Narrative Hierarchies in the Historiography of 1940s Horror,” it is easy for critics to overlook what is ‘common’ in favour of what is ‘special’, which allows for a misreading of larger historical trends (2008: 16). Not only did The East Side Kids deliberately turn their anti-heroes into juvenile patriots to coincide with the war effort, but the cycle was successful because it understood and catered to its core audience, which was largely made up of children—specifically with the emergence of “latchkey kids,” children who lived with limited adult supervision due to fathers being away at war and mothers who took their place in the workforce on the homefront. The Dead End Kids’ transition to The East Side Kids and, later, The Bowery Boys, was a smart way to address the need for family entertainment necessitated by the Hays Code while cashing in on a franchise and on star power that kids recognized, as well as acknowledging the ways that kids responded to genre and exploitation cinema. Even if their role was to embody conservative representations of the juvenile patriot during WWII, the trajectory of these onscreen representations of children is a sign of how horror filmmaking in the 40s was creatively engaged with its sociological context, and not ‘asleep’ as some critics have suggested.

One reason these particular cinematic kids remained so popular—more so than manufactured “role models” like Andy Hardy or Henry Aldrich (the latter had his own horror-comedy outing with the insipid Henry Aldrich Haunts a House in 1943)—is that they were troublemakers who made their own rules, got out of their own jams, and spoke their own lingo. Until the 50s, when the juvenile delinquent would become popular enough to form its own massive genre, most writing for kid or teen characters was of the “Gee, golly!” variety; it condescended to its audience and didn’t reflect how kids really talked and felt. For young audiences in the 1940s, hanging out with The East Side Kids was like vicariously playing hooky and learning how to get away with it while ultimately still being seen as “good guys” who triumphed in the end.


Post-WWII: From Horror-Comedy to Horror-Noir

The horror explored in The Bowery Boys films—while always draped in the trappings of old dark house shenanigans as their East Side counterparts were—was also one with an increasing tendency to feature monstrous mad scientists (Spook Busters, William Beaudine , 1946; Master Minds, Jean Yarbrough, 1949; The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters, Edward Bernds, 1954), which coincided with the horrific revelations of the Nuremberg trials starting in late 1945.[xii] The American press had been reporting on Nazi atrocities as early as 1933, and were fully aware of ‘the Final Solution’ by 1942 (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), but playwright Arthur Miller, who was working in a Navy shipyard at the time, suggests that, as they were largely focused on the Pacific conflict, the average American did not grasp the magnitude of it (Novick 1999). Miller noted “the near absence among the men I worked with … of any comprehension of what Nazism meant—we were fighting Germany essentially because she had allied herself with the Japanese who had attacked us at Pearl Harbor” (Novick 1999, 26). But the evidence presented at the Nuremberg Trials could not be ignored: the tribunals revealed actual  documentation of inhuman medical experimentation—as well as U.S.-shot footage of the discovery of the Dachau concentration camp by Allied forces. This footage was shot by a team headed up by George Stevens, then a member of the U.S. Signal Corps, but later to become the director of A Place in the Sun (1951), Giant (1956) and The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), among others.[xiii] While Stevens’ footage was not widely seen until after his death in 1975 (Hartl 2004), the murky aesthetic of the documentary newsreels in rotation at cinemas combined with the traumatic experiences of returning vets[xiv] would affect the trajectory of what we now know as film noir, a darker, more morally ambiguous breed of film after the war.

Though the term, “film noir,” was coined in the late 1940s by French critics, it would not come into widespread use in the U.S.A. until the genre’s resurgence in the early 1970s.[xv]  While noir was emerging in the early 1940s with films like Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)and The Maltese Falcon (1941), late 1940s noir became much more influenced by the realism of documentary newsreels, as well as by the documentary-inspired aesthetic of Italian Neo Realist film (Luchino Visconi’s Ossessione, considered the first Neo Realist film in 1943, was itself an adaptation of James M. Cain’s pulp novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, whose 1946 adaptation would become a noir staple). The effects of wartime newsreel footage rippled out into the realm of seedy fiction, contributing to the paranoid tone of late 40s noir. In a 1946 essay, Siegfried Kracauer writes of the increasing realism in Hollywood thrillers post-war: “Nightmares are seen in bright daylight, murderous traps are sprung just around the corner…Thus, the weird, veiled insecurity of life under the Nazis is transferred to the American scene…that panic which in the anti-Nazi films was characterized as peculiar to life under Hitler now saturates the whole world” (1946, 105-6). Kracauer suggests that the war left the American cinema with “a sickness of the psyche” (1946, 108). This ‘sickness’ permeates the world of the film noir, with its chiaroscuro lighting, rain-slicked streets and characters, by turns anti-social, sociopathic and psychotic.[xvi] In a 1971 essay, Paul Schrader writes that “never before had films dared to take such a harsh, uncomplimentary look at American life, and they would not dare to do so again for twenty years” (1971, 2). It is hardly surprising that the critical reappraisal of film noir coincides with another psyche-crushing overseas conflict, the Vietnam War. Despite being positioned as ‘liberators’ in the arena of WWII, veterans of both conflicts shared a palpable post-war disillusionment, those of the latter returning to an especially volatile political climate in which America’s anger turned inward.

While The Bowery Boys would grab onto some of film noir’s more easily identifiable characteristics for parody in films like Spook Busters (William Beaudine, 1946), Hard Boiled Mahoney (William Beaudine, 1947) and Private Eyes (Edward Bernds, 1953), film noir was no place for kids. Those rare instances where kids did play a part showed that the genre played no favourites; even children could meet their doom at the hands of a sweaty, unsmiling villain. Reflecting the grim realities of the war, the film noir was a world of dehumanization and determinism (Bould 2005), where chances of survival were slim, and any kid unlucky enough to make it into the narrative would have to fend for themselves. But despite the noir world being almost completely devoid of children, the concept of ‘the child alone’ was too tempting for some of the genre’s filmmakers to ignore, creating especially fertile ground for the horror-noir hybrid film. Fritz Lang’s M (1931) can be seen as a clear precursor to this admittedly tiny sub-strand of horror-noir (while its LA-set remake by Joseph Losey in 1951 comes in at the heyday of noir). Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is related, though comparatively sunny, and its teenager in peril—who fancies herself the spiritual ‘twin’ of her serial-killer uncle—is positioned as a young woman more than a child.

Lew Landers’ 1948 Inner Sanctum (produced by the independent M.R.S. pictures, and not to be confused with the Universal series, although based on the same radio show)[xvii] is a key horror-noir crossover that features child actor Dale Belding as Michael Bennett the sole witness to a murder. It takes the dopey kid half the movie to realize that the man staying in his mother’s small-town boarding house is the murderer.  At first the kid takes a shine to the mysterious stranger, as he has no father-figure (the only men at the boarding house are the elderly local doctor and the town drunk), and even once he susses out the killer’s identity, he is reluctant to tattle since he witnessed the murder as a result of disobeying his mother’s orders to stay away from the railyard. Immediately we can see a shift in how the child is presented; as with many noir protagonists, Michael is hesitant, unconfident, emasculated. Unlike his East Side Kids counterparts who negotiate their world with full agency, he is afraid of authority figures—so much so that he is more terrified of his own mother than he is of the murderer sleeping in the next bed. The child sees, but is marginalized by his size and age, forced to witness traumatic events and to live in fear of the encroaching danger to which he has been left vulnerable.  

In Ted Tetzlaff’s under-appreciated horror-noir The Window—a film that deserves a reappraisal by horror scholars—Bobby Driscoll’s character Tommy has this precise problem. It is not just that someone wants to kill him, but that, as a child, he has no credibility, a situation that is exacerbated by the fact that he’s a known teller of tall tales. “Noir, which is so often about powerlessness, is the perfect vehicle for this story” (2012, 42), writes Jake Hinkson in his article “Children of the Night: Noir and the Loss of Innocence. Based on the story “The Boy Cried Murder” (1947; a.k.a., “Fire Escape”) by noir staple Cornell Woolrich—whose books were adapted for Jacques Tourneur’s The Leopard Man (1943), Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944), and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, (1954) among others—The Window is incredibly bleak, and is one of several stories Woolrich wrote from a child’s perspective.[xviii]

Lead child actor Driscoll was becoming a hot youth property at the time, on loan here from Walt Disney Pictures, who had featured him in Song of the South in 1946. He would go on to be the model for Disney’s animated Peter Pan (1953), as well as providing the winsome character’s voice, which creates a poignant counterpoint for his terrorized turn in The Window. While horror-noir would not typically be targeted to young audiences, Driscoll’s presence ensured that certain kids would seek out the film, and The Film Noir Foundation has a letter posted on their website from a man who remembers seeing The Window in a small-town Kansas cinema as a child. “I idolized Bobby Driscoll,” he writes, “I identified with this child star as he avoided the killer’s schemes. I wondered what I would do in the same situation. My heart raced. My eyes were glued to the screen and [I] wanted somebody to believe him before it was too late.” [xix]

Like Peter Pan, Tommy (named Buddy in the original story) is a boy with a boundless imagination, and spends his days wandering through the rubble of crumbling tenements—filmed on location (a staple characteristic of noir, especially in the latter half of the forties) in New York’s Lower East Side, home of The Dead End Kids and their ilk—making up stories for a gaggle of unimpressed post-war waifs. As Woolrich writes in the original text:

He lived in two worlds at once. One of them was a small, drab, confined world; just two squalid rooms, in the rear of a 6-story tenement, 20 Holt Street; stifling in summer, freezing in winter…the other world had no boundaries, no limits. You could do anything in it. You could go anywhere. All you had to do was sit still and think hard. Make it up as you went along. The world of the imagination. He did a lot of that. But he was learning to keep it to himself  (144).

As the camera pans over the bleak urban landscape of his neighbourhood in Ted Tetzlaff’s film adaptation, we can see why Tommy likes to tell stories. Even before the film noir elements of the story set in, Tommy’s world is a dangerous one, which he navigates without trepidation precisely because he has that wild imagination to keep him safe. Thus, the grim horror-noir context is disempowering to children like Tommy only in a traditional sense. As Tyrus Miller asserts in his investigation into childhood memory and trauma in his essay, “The Burning Babe: Children, Film Narrative and the Figures of Historical Witness” (2013), there are different types of agency, and a retreat into imagination is itself a wilful act of self-preservation that cannot be discounted. Miller writes that “the intensification of sensory experience that compensates for the loss of active agency and the dream-like indiscernibility of subjective and objective dimensions of the experience point beyond passive witnessing towards a new domain of agency residing in imaginative processes”(2003: 213). Tommy’s imagination frequently gets him into trouble perhaps because of the subversive potential that others realize in it. He doesn’t understand why his parents are no longer charmed by his stories, and instead call him a liar, shaming him. In other cases, his stories, true or not, carry potential for disruption and change. When he tells some neighbourhood boys that his family will be moving away to their big ranch in the country, his parents are beset upon by other tenants wanting their soon-to-be vacated apartment.

The story of The Window takes place in the middle of a particularly sticky summer, and when Tommy goes out onto the fire escape to sleep in the cooler night air, he witnesses his upstairs neighbours murdering a man. Tommy frantically wakes his mother up and tells her everything. Convinced he is just overreacting to a nightmare, she tells him to stop it before she “takes a hairbrush to him.” As with Dale Belding’s character in Inner Sanctum, telling the truth holds the threat of punishment. And if physical punishment doesn’t work, there’s always guilt. “You don’t want me ever to be ashamed of you, do you?” his father asks. “People are gonna say that Ed Woodry’s son doesn’t know the difference between what’s real and what isn’t.” The unfair pressure these parents place on Tommy regarding their own social standing once again suggests fear of the potential power of the child as an agent of change.

Tommy goes through a series of attempts to report the crime—including a trip to the local police station—all of which are met with outright dismissal because of his age. Tommy’s is a world in which no adult is on his side: strangers, police, even his own parents. In fact these figures of official authority all seem to be corrupt allies against childhood itself. As his counterpart says in Woolrich’s text: “Wasn’t there anyone in the whole grown-up world believed you? Did you have to be grown up yourself before anyone would believe you, stop you from being murdered?” (184). However, some people do believe the boy: those who have the most to lose if his story is believed. When his mother takes him upstairs to apologize to his neighbours, the Kellersons, for spreading malicious lies about them, Tommy’s cover is blown. That night, with his mother called away to visit a sick relative, and dad working the night shift, Tommy is locked in his room, left alone to wait out his own murder. In Cornell Woolrich: From Pulp Noir to Film Noir, author Thomas C. Renzi has pointed out that the Kellersons act as doubles to Tommy’s parents (2006, 312)—a point illustrated nicely when the Kellersons abduct Tommy and posit themselves as his parents to a probing policeman (312).  One of the reasons the film’s suspense is so taut and unnerving is that the distinction between the ‘good’ parents’ and the ‘bad’ parents in such an analogy is shattered by the fact that both are equally horrid to Tommy. The Kellersons want to kill him, but his real parents may as well want the same thing for all the support they give him.

Tommy’s knack for make-believe momentarily saves him; while he pretends to be asleep, his assailants let their guard down just long enough for him to dart up the fire escape to the abandoned tenement next door, where the Kellersons have stashed their previous victim’s body. As Tommy is pursued by the Kellersons through the ruined domestic spaces and corridors of the tenement (a dark double of his own building), the whole structure starts to crumble under him, which not only provides the film with a fantastic spectacle, but also offers up a great metaphor for all of Tommy’s fictions falling away, until he’s left on a single precariously creaking beam, hanging over a gaping precipice. If he makes the choice to jump into the safety net down below, where his parents await alongside the policemen and firemen, he will be making another kind of choice as well. Tommy’s big lesson is to give up his imagination. “I’ll never tell a story again!” he promises, to which his parents respond with pride and affection. After the resolve this brave and resourceful child has shown throughout the film, this is the most cynical and heartbreaking denouement possible. Just who owes who an apology here? His neglectful parents are able to deny their guilt and convince the child that his imperilment was his own fault. The viewer is left only with the lingering memory of the release Tommy felt earlier in the film when escaping into his imagination. But this downbeat ending was only the beginning of the real Bobby Driscoll’s heartbreak.

Just as his character would find the murder victim’s body in an abandoned tenement, this is how Driscoll himself would be found years later. His body was discovered by two children playing in a dilapidated Greenwich Village tenement in 1968, dead from hardened arteries following nearly a decade of intravenous drug use. Attempts to identify him turned up nothing, and it wouldn’t be until two years later that his mother came searching for him, and a fingerprint match gave that John Doe a name. But it was too late; Driscoll had gone from being the voice of Peter Pan—the little boy who refuses to grow up—to his very own Neverland: an unmarked pauper’s grave on New York’s Hart Island.

While it remains a little-known component of the horror-noir canon, The Window left an imprint: John Hough remade it in 1970 as Eyewitness, starring Oliver!’s Mark Lester; and Australian director Richard Franklin remade it in 1984 as Cloak and Dagger with E.T.’s Henry Thomas. In both cases the story’s claustrophobic domestic microcosm is given a makeover, strewn across a wider canvas to be reshaped into a tale of international intrigue. There would be a few subsequent examples of kid-noir in the 1950s (e.g., Shadow on the Wall [1950], Talk about a Stranger [1952]), but only Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955) compares to The Window for its atmospheric crossover with the horror genre. As Hinkson points out, both of these films hark back to much older stories, ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ and ‘Hansel and Gretel’, respectively. “These origins point to a certain severity regarding childhood that existed prior to the Hollywood model of the cheerful American youngster,” he writes, “and it also points to the modern whitewashing of those gruesome old fairy tales” (2012, 43). Indeed, the film noir showed that things were rough all over, even—and sometimes especially—if you were a kid.


Conclusion

As an era that was divided between wartime neglect and post-war trauma, the 1940s were daunting psychological terrain for kids. A key semantic element of the East Side Kids and Bowery Boys cycles, as well as those rare examples of kid-centric horror-noir, is the protagonists’ ability to master his or her environment on their own terms, even (and often) with adults acting as roadblocks. The trajectory from the horror-comedy of Boys of the City to the devastating horror-noir of The Window can be likened to a coming-of-age, an intertextual map of obstacles and how to get around them, either with laughter or ingenuity.

Significantly, the horror-comedies of the 1940s—from the East Side Kids to Abbott and Costello and the “monster rally” films (those which pit several classic Universal monsters against each other)—would become staples of the Saturday matinees in the 1950s, kicking off the “monster kid” craze that was bolstered further by the release of the Universal horror back-catalogue on television later that decade. Despite the dismissal of 1940s horror in much popular genre film criticism—criticism that is often specifically targeted at horror-comedy—these films were hugely influential, and the cinema culture surrounding them was a vibrant one that allowed children to investigate questions concerning identity, agency and safety.


Notes

[i] The Window was shot in 1947, but only released by RKO in 1949.

[ii] Latchkey kids were also prominent in the 1970s after second-wave feminism resulted in more mothers working outside of the home.

[iii] Virginia Rappe was an emerging silent film actress who died following complications from an alleged violent sexual assault perpetrated by popular comedic actor Fatty Arbuckle at a party in 1921. It was a media sensation, and although Arbuckle was later exonerated, it effectively halted his career.

[iv] The Production Code of the Motion Picture Industry, 1930-1967. Accessed online March 1, 2014. http://productioncode.dhwritings.com/multipleframes_productioncode.php

[v] Editor’s note: See also the essay in this collection by Gary Rhodes, which discusses late-forties theatrical reception and promotion geared towards children, particularly through redistribution of “classic” films for children’s matinees.

[vi] Monogram’s 1939 film East Side Kids features a largely different cast and is thus not considered part of the canon, despite the title.

[vii] Early Old Dark House films include Haunted Spooks (1920), The Ghost Breaker (1922, now lost), Midnight Faces (1926), The Bat (1926), the aforementioned The Cat and the Canary (1927), The Phantom of Crestwood (1932), Murder at Dawn (1932) and The Secret of the Blue Room (1933), not to mention James Whale’s star-studded trope-naming film The Old Dark House (1932).

[viii] Rebecca was released April 12 1940, Boys of the City was released July 15, 1940. Given Monogram’s tight shooting schedules of 5-7 days, it is quite possible that Boys of the City is directly referencing Hitchcock’s film.

[ix] Mantan Moreland’s most notable Monogram pictures were the horror comedies King of the Zombies (Jean Yarbrough, 1941) and its semi-sequel Revenge of the Zombies (Steve Sekely, 1944). His final role would be in Jack Hill’s Spider Baby (1968), a tribute to 1940s Poverty Row horror.

[x] As audience reviews online tend to remark, and as Joe Dante admits in a Trailers From Hell commentary on the Hold That Ghost trailer.

[xi] The OWI was created by Roosevelt on June 13, 1942 and “instructed the organization to “undertake campaigns to enhance under-standing of the war at home and abroad; to coordinate government information activities; and to handle liaison with the press, radio, and motion pictures” (Worland, 1997: 50).

[xii] See Paul Corupe’s essay on the films of Paul Newfield in this volume, which he says “directly reference real-life atrocities taking place behind Nazi lines, with recurring images of mad scientists torturing subjects.”

[xiii] Billy Wilder, Sam Fuller and Alfred Hitchcock also shot concentration camp footage, the latter’s film currently being restored for a 2015 release (Child, 2014).

[xiv] Despite the propagation of ‘national pride’ following WWII, the war left a psychological scar on its vets. A 1955 National Research Council study counted 1.2 million active-duty troops admitted to military hospitals during the war itself for psychiatric and neurological damage – compared with 680,000 for battle injuries – resulting in thousands of lobotomies. (Phillips, 2013)

[xv] Whether Film Noir is a genre, a style, a cycle or a theme is still debated (Copjec, 1993; Naremore 1995, 12; Bould 2005: 6, 12).

[xvi] See Kristopher Woofter’s essay in this collection for a discussion of Kracauer’s commentary on forties realism in the context of the American Gothic tradition.

[xvii] See the essay by Charlie Ellbé in this collection for more on the Inner Sanctum series.

[xviii] Others include If I Should Die before I Wake (1946, writing as William Irish) and Through a Dead Man’s Eye (1939) (See Renzi 2006).

[xix] Joe Pierce, letter to the Film Noir Foundation, August 23, 2006: http://www.filmnoirfoundation.org/thewindow.html  Accessed March 1, 2014.

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About the author:

Kier-La Janisse

Kier-La Janisse is a film writer and programmer, founder of Spectacular Optical Publications and The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies. She has been a programmer for the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, co-founded Montreal microcinema Blue Sunshine, founded the CineMuerte Horror Film Festival (1999-2005) in Vancouver, was the Festival Director of Monster Fest in Melbourne, Australia and was the subject of the documentary Celluloid Horror (2005). She is the author of A Violent Professional: The Films of Luciano Rossi (FAB Press, 2007) and House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press, 2012) and contributed to Destroy All Movies!! The Complete Guide to Punks on Film (Fantagraphics, 2011), Recovering 1940s Horror: Traces of a Lost Decade (Lexington, 2014) The Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul (University of Toronto Press, 2015) and We Are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale (PS Press, 2017). She co-edited (with Paul Corupe) and published the anthology books KID POWER! (2014), Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s (2015), Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin (2017) and Yuletide Terror: Christmas Horror on Film and Television (2017). She edited the book Warped & Faded: Weird Wednesday and the Birth of the American Genre Film Archive (forthcoming), and is currently co-authoring (with Amy Searles) the book ‘Unhealthy and Aberrant’: Depictions of Horror Fandom in Film and Television and co-curating (with Clint Enns) an anthology book on the films of Robert Downey, Sr., as well as writing a monograph about Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter. She was a producer on Mike Malloy’s Eurocrime: the Italian Cop and Gangster Films That Ruled the ’70s and Sean Hogan’s We Always Find Ourselves in the Sea and her first film as director/producer, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is due out from Severin Films in 2020.

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