By Ed Garea
On Dress Parade (WB, 1939) – Directors: William Clemens, Noel M. Smith (uncredited). Writer: Tom Reed (original s/p). Stars: Billy Halop, Huntz Hall, Leo Gorcey, Bobby Jordan, Gabriel Dell, Bernard Punsly, John Litel, Frankie Thomas, Cecilia Loftus, Selmer Jackson, Aldrich Bowker, Douglas Meins, William Gould, & Donald Douglas. B&W, 62 minutes.
Since they were signed by Warner Bros. after the success of Dead End, the Dead End Kids appeared in five films of varying quality: Crime School and Angels with Dirty Faces (both in 1938), and They Made Me a Criminal, Hell's Kitchen, and Angels Wash Their Faces (all 1939). Although all the films save for Angels With Dirty Faces were B-productions, the films were popular with audiences. They were so popular that after the PTA complained to the studio about their being depicted as gangsters after Hell’s Kitchen opened, they were turned into good little Samaritans for Angels Wash Their Faces.
But they were coming to the end of the road at the studio. For one thing, their off-screen antics didn’t endear them to studio management. They terrorized the set of their movies, throwing the other actors off with their constant ad-libbing, which necessitated a large number of retakes and angered Warner Bros, cost-conscious management. During the filming of Angels With Dirty Faces, their ad-libbing so upset Jimmy Cagney that he hauled off and socked Leo Gorcey between the eyes, which put an end to the practice for the rest of shooting. They also pulled pranks, such as stealing Bogart’s trousers and tossing a firecracker into his dressing room while he was taking a nap. Among other things, they painted obscene pictures on the office walls, and set off fire sprinklers in the wardrobe department. It got so bad that the studio hired a former football player, Russ Saunders, to keep them in line. Ultimately, he had to use a fire hose to subdue them.
For another thing, the studio was running out of stories for them, especially now that they were turned from criminals to misunderstood good boys. It was decided this would be their last go-around at Warner’s, and what better way to end the series, other than putting them in prison, than to put them in military school?
The film also marked a departure from their earlier films in that they were split up. Before, they had always functioned as a unit. The studio may have done this to keep them from getting together to cause trouble, or perhaps it was being used as a test screening to see which of the Kids could succeed in a solo career. The only delinquent in the film was Slip Duncan, Leo Gorcey’s character. The others are all presented as normal well-behaved young men.
The film opens in World War I. Major William Duncan (Douglas) saves the life of Captain Michael Riker (Litel). Years later, Riker, now a colonel and headmaster of Washington Academy, a military school, receives a telegram informing him that Duncan is dying. He hurries to Duncan’s bedside at the hospital. Duncan’s last request to Riker is to take care of his son, whom he has never seen. He had been searching for a number of years and has finally found him. Riker agrees, and along with his adjutant, calls on Mrs. Neeley, who is in the living room with Father Ryan (Bowker). She has been the caretaker for Duncan’s son, named Shirley, but nicknamed “Slip” (Gorcey). When she tells Riker that Slip is a hellion who constantly gets into trouble, and is headed for reform school, Riker decides that his school, which is run by boys for boys, is just the place for the troubled young man.
At this point, Slip enters. Mrs. Neeley thought he was in bed, but Slip explains that he and his friend Dutch (Punsly) had to “straighten out” a guy named Nick. Riker pitches the idea of military school to Slip but, all things considered, he’d rather not.
The next day Slip’s at the pool hall when Dutch comes in to tell Slip that Nick has called the cops. Slip tells Dutch that he’s going to take it on the lam. But Dutch convinces him that taking up the military school offer is preferable to reform school, so Slip visits Riker and Lewis in their hotel room and agrees to attend. After he leaves, Father Ryan and the cop who was looking for Slip come out from another room and we learn it was all a ruse to get Slip into military school.
Slip’s stay at school gets off to the predictable rocky start, as Slip is determined to do as he pleases and resists discipline. But his cadet roommates, Ronny Morgan (Jordan), Johnny Cabot (Hall) and Georgie Warren (Dell), are equally determined to put him right. Slip’s behavior is so atrocious that Riker considers asking him to leave, but instead pleads with Slip to make something of himself in honor of his father.
Afterward, everything is fine until Dutch comes up for a visit. He tells Slip that the whole arrest was a trick to get him to sign up. Slip blows his top and begins to pack. When Cadet Major Rollins (Halop) comes into Slip’s room to stop him, a fight ensues with Slip pushing Rollins through a second story window. Feeling guilty over his deed, Slip visits Rollins in the hospital and promises him that he’ll repent. Even though the other cadets ostracize him, Slip works hard and gets top grades in every subject by the end of the term. The term’s end is also the end for Georgie Warren, who has flunked out. He joins the regular army in order to do well and hopefully win an appointment to West Point.
At summer camp, where the cadets have gone to learn directly from the army, they run into Georgie, who has done well. But a fire breaks out in a munitions store house where Georgie is working. Learning that Georgie is trapped inside, Slip braves the flames and smoke to rescue his friend. Both Slip and Georgie are hospitalized with serious burns. George recovers first and leaves for West Point. Slip also eventually recovers and returns to school a hero. In a ceremony where he is made cadet major, Riker presents him with his father’s Distinguished Service Cross.
Gorcey’s role in the film, that of a malcontent/gang leader, was a role he would carry over to his East Side Kids and Bowery Boys roles. Ironically, in the Bowery Boys series, he is nicknamed “Slip.” This also marks Bernard Punsly’s briefest appearance in any of their films.
Unlike their other films, On Dress Parade is devoid of life. The boys seem uncomfortable in their new roles, and the scene of Gorcey leading his class in calculus and tactics stretches credulity to the breaking point. New York Times critic Frank S. Nugent describes the film as “a mutually losing tussle between factual scenes of comparatively recent army games and a fictional plot of the type which is sometimes referred to as ‘the old army game.’ As entertainment, it is the kind of picture that is making it harder and harder for ‘Screeno.’” It is an apt description.