Saturday, May 14, 2016

Gangsters in Comedy 1940 - 1955

In 1940, one of my favorite of all film characters featured in comedy appeared on screen for the first time - the gangster goons - and for the next 15 years they would remain to get bumped, kicked, elbowed and knocked out by our bumbling comedian heroes.

These were no modern Disney villains who trip over their own shoelaces and could scarcely hold a gun. Nay, these were full-fledged “tough guys” of the meanest sort...ones who have earned their facial scars and busted noses. These were characters like Raspy Kelly, the strong silent type – “Moose Matson” a gourmet gangster - or “Left-eye Louie” who keeps you up nights wondering what happened to his right eye. And who can forget “Angel” from Shivering Sherlocks ( Three Stooges )?

Hardly the angelic sort!

The beginning of the era of comedy/villain films stems from Universal Studios in 1940 with the release of The Ghost Breakers starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. Whilst there were a few slapstick shorts that featured thugs prior to this, it was The Ghost Breakers that really triggered the comic-gets-mixed-up-with-gangsters theme that continued into the mid-1950s. These gangsters appeared in the form of bank robbers, mobsters, art thieves, foreign spies and various other private syndicates. In this particular film, Bob Hope fled from Frenchy Duval’s gang in the nick of time just to fall into the hands of another villain out to scare Paulette Goddard from her family’s estate of Black Island in deep fog-engulfed Cuba.
One year later, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were pitted against “Moose” Matson and his henchmen in the rollicking comedy Hold That Ghost ( 1941 ). Richard Carlson, Evelyn Ankers, and Joan Davis are stranded along with Abbott and Costello in a secluded roadhouse - during a thunderstorm, of course - where, unbeknownst to them, a gangster's fortune lay hiding within. 
That same year Red Skelton had to contend with one of the most notorious of filmdom’s vicious stereotyped actors – Conrad Veidt – in Whistling in the Dark ( 1941 ) when Veidt, as the leader of a swindling cult, need to hush up our hero from squawking about their criminal activity.
Throughout the 1940s, the Three Stooges were continually being thrown into the hot spot of gangster’s lairs as well. In Hold That Lion! they try to collect on their grandiose inheritance but come up against Ichabod Snipp, an underhanded broker. In Crime on their Hands ( 1948 ) they try to scoop a news story about a stolen diamond but Shemp almost gets cut in two by Dapper and his henchman Muscles when he accidentally swallows the rock instead. Ouch! Character actor Kenneth MacDonald often portrayed the villain in these Stooges shorts in spite of his gentlemanly appearance.
Even the four-footed equine Francis had to contend with a gang of art thieves for his final film…Francis in the Haunted House ( 1956 ). Donald O'Connor opted out of this entry and Mickey Rooney took his place in aiding Francis to save the hapless heroine of MacLeod castle from the so-called "ghost" of the estate. 
Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and other looney tunes poked fun of goony gangsters in such classics as “Bugs and Thugs” and “Catty Cornered” and “Rackateer Rabbit”. Big clunky Mugsy was the epitome of a henchman – clearly a former boxer who had his brains knocked out once too many times.
But King of all tough-talking, fast-acting, eye-glaring gangsters was Sheldon Leonard. This poor guy was stereotyped so badly that even when a role did not call for any skull-duggery he gave the appearance that he had a few tricks up his sleeve. Just look at those shifty eyes.
Mike Masurki and Mark Lawrence were popular con men of the 1940s too. Mark Lawrence played the mysterious “Charlie Smith” in Hold that Ghost and was bumped off faster than you can bat an eye by person or persons unknown. Alas, that’s often the fate for a scripted gangster.
In the 1950s comedians such as Abbott and Costello, The Three Stooges and Red Skelton were waning in popularity and so the studios turned to box-office draws such as Danny Kaye and Bob Hope and a duo which were the newest hit nightclub sensation of New York- Martin and Lewis.

These comedians fought crooked racing bookies, diamond thieves, murderers, international spies as fast as the screenwriters could churn out plots in such semi-classics as The Lemon Drop Kid, My Favorite Spy, My Favorite Brunette, The Secret of Walter Mitty, Knock on Wood, Paris Holiday and one of the last of the comedy-gangster films – You’re Never Too Young ( 1955 ). Raymond Burr played our baddie in this colorful remake of The Major and the Minor.
By the mid-1950s audiences were tired of seeing the same plot of mix-ups with thugs and goons…especially when films focusing on realistic teen crime were hitting the screen ( Blackboard Jungle, East of Eden ).

Nevertheless, in the 1960s there was a brief return to making films with a light-hearted approach to catching spies after the James Bond spy mania swept the world. As a mild-mannered archeology professor with a magical amulet, Tom Poston was fleeing from Russian agents as early as 1962 in Zotz!
Today, this genre of film no longer exists. While Walt Disney continues to make a handful of kiddie capers with bungling crooks, we no longer have full-fledged comedians fleeing from rough and tough gangsters who want their diamonds back, or bank robbers trying to silence their only eye-witness. 

Too bad really...they were such enjoyable films. 
"Alright got us beat now. But beware, we'll be back!"

This post is our contribution to The Great Villain Blogathon being hosted by Speakeasy, Silver Screenings, and Shadows and Satin. Be sure to check out the complete roster for more great posts about gangsters, goons, and other grimly characters of the silver screen. 


  1. Terrific article that dredged up many wonderful memories, and even Kenneth MacDonald's voice.

    If you can work up a good Sheldon Leonard impersonation, you too could be a zany movie mobster!

  2. Yes, I agree with Caftan Woman. You'd go far with a good Sheldon Leonard impersonation.

    Thanks for joining the Villain Blogathon with a look at all these fabulous comedic gangsters. You've included some movies I haven't yet seen, which is always a good thing. :)

  3. Awww right, youse guys. Dis here post done cut the rope. We'se gwin ta haff to rub youse out fa makin' fun of us. Sinsearlee, Lefty Fritzel, Righty Rongy, No Nose Calhoun and Billy.

    Good review.

  4. So many classics here! The Ghost Breakers is a classic and I often think it doesn't get the credit it deserves. In my opinion (!) it's so good because it manages to balance comedy and horror without shorting either genre. Look forward to re-watching some of the other films you mentioned too!

  5. I'm 40 years old female I tested genital herpes (HSV1-2) positive in 2016. I was having bad outbreaks. EXTREMELY PAINFUL. I have try different kinds of drugs and treatment by the medical doctors all to know was avail. Six months ago I was desperately online searching for a helpful remedies for genital herpes (HSV1-2) cure, which I come across some helpful remedies on how Dr OYAGU have help so many people in curing genital herpes (HSV1-2) with the help of herbal treatment because I too believe there is someone somewhere in the world who can cure herpes completely. At of the past 2 months, however, I've been following his herpes protocol Via or +2348101755322 and it stopped all outbreaks completely! To my greatest surprise I was cured completely by following the protocol of his herbal medicine . Don't be discouraged by the medical doctors. There is a cure for HSV with the help of herbs and roots by a herbalist Dr call Dr OYAGU he is so kind and truthful with his herbal treatment, kindly contact him for more information Via or WhatsApp DR on +2348101755322 or visit his website you will be lucky as I am today

  6. Hello Am From The UK , I want to write a little testimony about the good work of doctor Oyagu who cured me from Hsv 1 and 2 for just 2 weeks with his herbal medicine, I never believe I can be normal again and have a good life like others I always regretted the day I got diagnose with the virus, I was lost of hope when my doctor told me there is no cure for it but I keep thinking and thinking about my future, if I can have kids of my own well I am so grateful for my helper who get me cured with his herbal medicine, I go online in search of anything that can help me because I can’t deal with it forever so I found this doc Oyagu email on a blog of someone who was cured by him I quickly contact him for help and explain all my pain to him, he told me not to worry about it there is cure for real, I never believe until he send me the herbal medicine when I order for it and I have it within 4 days that is how I took the medicine for 2 week and the following week I go for test just to confirm I was 100% cured from this sickness what a miracle in my life I am so happy right now, you can also get in contact with him if you have such sickness through email address or text him on what's app, phone number +2348101755322 or visit his website Dr Oyagu also has remedy to others disease like COLD SORES,HIV/AIDS,DIABETES.CANCER,HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE AND MANY MORE. I oblige everyone to contact this powerful herbalist Dr Oyagu and be free from suffering.