The Gang’s All Here (1941)

+++ In an escalating crime spree, trucks are forced off the road and the cargo plundered. More often than not, the drivers get injured or killed. Faced with a shortage of drivers willing to take the risk, Mr Wallace is forced to hire two young men, Frankie and Jeff, who are happy to find any work at all. +++

As you can see from the premise, this is not, strictly speaking, a comedy. It is a crime-adventure story with some humorous situations as well as a comic relief character. Still, Mill Creek included it in one of its copyright-free comedy box-sets.

The Gang’s All Here (which apparently was titled In the Night in the UK) is one of the earliest feature-length films of director Jean Yarbrough, who would later direct some Abbott & Costello as well as Bowery Boys films, before transitioning into television when B-movies fell out of fashion.

The story is neither here nor there. It is a simple-yet-complicated crime plot, with some gaps and holes. What interested me more was the black comic relief character (played by Mantan Moreland). The role may suffer from some unfortunate stereotyping, but it is a more prominent role than I would have thought possible for a black actor in a 1941 film (even though Eddie Anderson’s appearance in Topper Returns (also 1941) comes close).
There is another black supporting character, played by Laurence Criner. And there is a Chinese-American character played by Keye Luke. So within this very small cast we somehow have more racial diversity than you might find in some modern productions.

This “poverty row” B-picture was produced by Monogram Pictures, who in 1939 had lined up Moreland as a sidekick to Frankie Darro and put them in a number of films. Darro, a former child actor, had reached some level of fame, but at 5’3’’ was considered too short to play male leads in films of the “big” Hollywood studios. After playing jockeys and the like for a while, he had joined Monogram in 1938.

With Darro and Moreland playing Frankie and Jeff, Mr Wallace is played by Robert Homans, his daughter by Marcia Mae Jones and their mechanic Chick by Jackie Moran. Apart from Luke and Criner, the other supporting actors are Irving Mitchell, Ed Cassidy, Pat Gleason, Jack Kenney, and Jack Ingram. Nobody here stands out, really. Darro and Moreland work very well together and are a good team-up. Homans has a nice screen-presence, Moran is very well chosen to play a likeable character such as Chick, and Jones plays well off of Moran. But nothing in this film offers anyone the chance for great acting.

According to Wikipedia, the series of films featuring Darro and Moreland was successful, and also gave Monogram the opportunity to “store” veteran actors whose own series of films had ended. Luke, Moran, and Jones are three actors who fall into that category.

So, weirdly, you have a “poverty row” studio as a place that could do what the big studios perhaps could not: a mixed-raced comedy pairing, and a racially diverse cast. You have a male lead (Darro) who was driven out of “big” Hollywood for being too short; and at the same time you have the Darro-Moreland pictures as a safety net for other actors. Which makes this feel a bit like a cast thrown together by adverse circumstances, trying to make the best of it.

In some ways, these Monogram films, simple as they were, were the final career highlights for Darro and Moreland. Darro joined the navy’s medical core in World War II and contracted Malaria, whose recurring bouts he could only suffer through with the help of alcohol. The inevitable addiction meant that he was regarded too unreliable to be cast in any major roles. Moreland suffered under the changing times. After the war, the prevailing mood towards black characters changed. Increasingly, the type of stereotypical roles Moreland had played were regarded as insulting and offensive. With these kind of roles being increasingly dropped from scripts, he found it much harder to find work.

On the whole, I cannot rate this film much higher than 4-out-of-10. It might be less disappointing than Monogram’s Money Means Nothing, but that film at least was somewhat ambitious (however misguided that ambition may have been). The Gang’s All Here on the other hand – while entertaining – feels a bit like shovelware.

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