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.
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 Lefty.....you 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.