SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: KID SIDEKICKS DO HAVE THEIR USES
This is the seventh chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.
Kid sidekicks do have their uses
It is hard to remember, in these days when school life seems to stretch on till the crack of doom, that at least until the Second World War young boys were a common sight in the workplace — as messengers, tea-boys, hotel porters, lift attendants, paper-sellers, and obviously as trade apprentices. Their status in the workplace was scarcely any higher than it had been at school, but at least they were being paid for their pains, and acquiring valuable social skills in the process. They were mingling in adult society, not being excluded from it for their own “protection” the entire duration of their youth. Out of this phenomenon grew the early cinema convention of the “kid sidekick”, who assists the hero in routing out the Nazi spies or winning the Woman of his Dreams.
Many of the heroes of boys’ comic books had their trusty boy sidekicks — Batman did, Superman did, sleuth Sexton Blake had his “Tinker”, Western hero Red Ryder had his “Little Beaver” — and these were all genuine boys to start with, not the six-foot thyroid cases they would later become. Spielberg doffed his cap to that tradition by giving his whip-cracking 1930s archaeologist an Asiatic boy sidekick, Short Round, in “INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM” (1984), an affectionate and much-maligned tribute to the 30s matinee serials. The film even closes with Short Round shielding his eyes in horror from a hero/heroine kiss. Boys of the 1930s were famously disgusted by heterosexuality, averting their gaze from it. That was another of those universally-recognised attributes — real boys hate smoochy stuff. After one particularly gruesome interlude Spielberg has Short Round declare “I love you, Indy, you’re my best friend!”, and the he-man soberly ruffles his hair in reply. The verbal declaration rang false, but the reply was exactly on-key.
Some film examples of the working boy (and hero’s loyal aide) would include Yale Boss, 13, in “CURING THE OFFICE BOY” (1912), Junior Coghlan, 11, as the indomitable newsboy of “LET ‘ER GO GALLAGHER!” (27), Wesley Barry, 16, as “THE PRINTER’S DEVIL” (23), Johnny Singer, 11, as the perky bellboy in “SOMETHING ALWAYS HAPPENS” (34), Roddy McDowall, 13, as the office boy and ARP warden Albert in “CONFIRM OR DENY” (41), and Alain Dekock, 13, as “LE PETIT GARÇON DE L’ASCENSEUR” (61), a Monte Carlo pageboy who wins a weekend in the regal suite of his own hotel. Nor is the species quite yet extinct — the successful Dutch children’s film “ABELTJE” (98) concerned the global travels of a lift attendant aged 10 or so (Ricky van Gastel).
Boys at work were still very much boys, not “young men”, and if the factory floor or office did not furnish them with Mickey Mouse qualifications in “media studies”, such as they often trudge off to college for today, it perhaps acquainted them rather sooner with the compromises of real life, instead of consigning them until their mid-twenties to perpetual adolescence and economic dependency on their parents. The abolition of child labour, however faultless its political motivation, has not necessarily been a win/win scenario for kids themselves, and has indirectly helped create the bizarre apartheid system which holds sway today in most developed nations, whereby people under 16 have little direct contact with the adult world at all. Even the phantom world of the internet must be ritually purged and closely policed, now that housebound kids have discovered its potential as a meeting place. Slowly but surely, the protective noose draws ever tighter — like a dog collar. The railings around our schools get ever higher — keeping the inmates ‘safe’.
Sometimes the boy sidekick was a matter of strategic necessity. Tarzan’s famous “Boy” was not after all his son (the Catholic church was not happy with unsanctified treetop couplings, and Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan were both, I understand, good Catholics) but was precipitated from the sky into the jungle man’s waiting arms and — what is the word? — “adopted”. Johnny Sheffield was a traditional kid sidekick then, whose appearance in the jungle nest had to be organised without steamy loincloth goings on with Jane. Adoption is one of those socially permitted contexts — “father figure”, “role model”, “mentor” — that allow us to accept an otherwise (seemingly) incongruous man and boy comradeship. Lex Barker didn’t wait for a passing plane in “TARZAN’S SAVAGE FURY” (52), he grabbed a boy being used as crocodile-bait by river rascals, and “Joey” (Tommy Carlton, with impossibly well-groomed jungle hair) became his own “family values” credit. TV’s “Tarzan” (66) Ron Ely dispensed with Jane altogether, but held onto Boy in the shape of orphaned ‘Jai’ (Manuel Padilla Jr, 10), while “TARZAN AND THE JUNGLE BOY” (68) brought the two of them together more nonchalantly still, as fellow foundlings of the rainforest.
The kid sidekick was indispensible to the action hero of yore for the simple reason that his primary audience and following (before the perpetual juvenile minds of our own day) were young boys. Batman without a Robin was unthinkable — the kids reading those comics and crowding the matinee stalls needed a figure they could identify with personally, and he remained in place, albeit in the geriatric form of father-of-two Burt Ward, for TV’s 1966 camped-up mockery of the genre. But then some turnip in the academic world essayed the opinion that the entire Batman & Robin ménage à deux was a “homosexual wish dream” (meaning of course a pederastic one), and all subsequent outings of the Caped Crusader have given a wide berth to pubertal Boy Wonders in skimpy underwear. The Dynamic Duo had been ‘outed’.
Irwin Allen’s equally camped-up sci-fi series “Lost In Space” (65) gave us another discreet man-boy pact in the shape of fearless Will Robinson and the perfidious Dr Zachary Smith, but what was intriguing about their compact was that the boy was clearly the more mature personality of the two, a straight arrow Kid Explorer who quickly saw through the schemes of would-be Machiavelli Smith but indulged him out of a touching Boy Scout faith that the rogue would blossom into a hero one day. The same switch was used in the 80s television time travel series “Voyagers!” — dumb adult hero with smart boy sidekick (Meeno Peluce) — and the private eye series “Stick With Me Kid” — boy sleuth (Kristopher Milnes) pairs up with has-been TV actor to serve as his “front man”. It was the perpetual bane of a kid sidekick’s life that he was rarely permitted to roll up his sleeves and pitch into the heat of the action. Like Johnny Sheffield, he would have to hover on the sidelines of the fray, endlessly getting kidnapped, trussed up, menaced by giant spiders, Big Game hunters or Oriental masterminds, requiring the hero to rescue him just in the nick of time. No such nonsense for Will Robinson; he was often the one to bail Dr Smith out of danger, a pleasing reversal for intrepid boys everywhere.
A lesser form of the kid sidekick, if you will, but still a recognisable stock character in a certain kind of action film, was the boy mascot, for example Curtis Arden’s “Lope”, ±10, in “THE VALLEY OF GWANGI” (69). There isn’t a close enough pairing with the hero – in this case James Franciscus – to call him a true kid sidekick, but he provides the same point of identification for kids in the audience, and has various icky plot devices to serve, such as putting himself in jeopardy through a show of boyish bravado and obliging the hero to charge to his rescue. Lope also nudges the hero and heroine back together when greed threatens to separate them. Boy mascots are mere hangers-on or camp followers, their presence accepted by the adult leads with a soupçon of benign condescension, whereas the true kid sidekick is given greater prominence in the script. Lope does not get “adopted” by Franciscus when the clumsy stop-motion dinosaur is finally returned to its plasticine drawer.
Hollywood used to be known as “the dream factory”, and there was indeed a crude production line automation about its storytelling processes, so that stock characters such as these would be tossed into the mix like so many ingredients at a fast food outlet: Maria Ouspenskaya-like gypsy wise women; comic relief poltroons; diminutive henpecked husbands; inept and credulous street cops; craven commanding officers; unscrupulous bankers and businessmen. Already by the 1930s audiences would recognise these lazy contrivances and know just what to expect from each of them. The boy mascot and kid sidekick were among these, familiar seasoning to the staple fare of cinema’s menu.
Stephen King gave the boy sidekick an odd twist (or rather the screenwriters did) in the bookend sections of his “SALEM’S LOT” (79). Local-author-turned-vampire-killer David Soul is shown escorted on his lonely crusade by schoolboy Lance Kerwin, so that a man/boy duo were sharpening their nocturnal stakes long before “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” became a TV cult. King wrote in his meta-analysis “Danse Macabre” that “SALEM’S LOT” was on the whole the most faithful adaptation of his works, and it has the added piquancy that before his cadaverous vampire Mr Barlow begins to feast on the general townsfolk his first nocturnal snack, his hors d’oeuvre, is a small boy, Ronnie Scribner. Scribner’s older brother Brad Savage is then nibbled in turn at his bedroom window by the floating boy vampire (mysteriously having acquired undead pyjamas for the visit) and a few nights later he materialises at the bedroom window of school-friend Lance Kerwin, a horror film junkie. Given the long established conventions of vampire cinema and its strong sexual undercurrent, it was rather mischievous to set young boys prowling the night in search of other boys. Of course the principal joy of “SALEM’S LOT” was a deliciously silken performance from James Mason as the antique dealer Straker, but boy sidekicks, as we see, do crop up in the most unexpected places. There were several pretty young boys on the menu in “INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE” (94) for that matter, but the key special friendship in that film was a man/girl one, also legitimised as a vague form of “adoption”.
The species Boy has mutated, sadly, over the latter decades of the twentieth century, so that it seems almost beneath his dignity now to take second billing to an adult hero. So far from being sidekicks, more often today kids will be seen to kick the living daylights out of grown men — “3 NINJA KIDS”, “HOME ALONE” — (ah, but never women! Some of the more useful conventions of Bad Old Patriarchy remain cosily in place, do they not?), and while they may permit an adult mentor to lurk approvingly in the background — Mr Miyagi in “THE KARATE KID” — there is no question who has taken centre stage. Harry Potter may be a pupil, a novice of the wand-wiggling arts, but we sense from the get-go he has nothing to learn from mere teachers. Sorcerors’ apprentices don’t screw up these days. They win.
It was very much counter to this trend then, that Hollywood brought us “LAST ACTION HERO” (93), one of several misguided efforts to revivify and broaden the repertoire of macho man Arnold Schwarzenegger. In that film Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien) was literally catapulted from his cinema seat into the thick of the action and found himself escorting screen hero Jack Slater through yet another of his preposterous action adventures. The film was a smörgåsbord of conscious self-guying, genre in-jokes and minor American celebs clamouring for their walk-on appearance. In one scene the exasperated boy, determined to prove to Schwarzenegger they’re trapped in a fantasy movie, writes a short word on a card and holds it up for the man to read aloud, and when the man won’t do so he declares triumphantly that heroes in general certificate movies can’t say that word.
“LAST ACTION HERO” was far from the worst of Schwarzenegger’s later vehicles and had its righteous little homily about the difference between screen violence and the real thing, but it was a box office catastrophe. Audiences of the 90s didn’t want their noisy blockbusters descending into self-parody, didn’t want their macho men teaming up with wiseacre young boys, and weren’t interested in discovering the ‘vulnerable side’ of their screen heroes. Audiences of the 90s preferred their heroes lean, mean and borderline psychotic. It’s something to the credit of Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood and their kind that they usually tire of their psychopath hero personas a lot sooner than their fan base do. In any case, as an incidental rediscovery of the Hollywood boy sidekick, it failed dismally. Men are supposed to play the sidekick role these days and leave kids to the good offices of women. It was disastrously off message.
“KIM” (50) was an amusing crossover between the true kid sidekick adventure and the special friendship, or demure love story, as I’ve defined it above. Dean Stockwell did not set foot outside the US for the duration of principal shooting, so it’s a studio-bound affair lacking the colour and vibrancy of a film shot in India, but it plays well enough as a rollicking Kipling boys’ yarn, and with Errol Flynn as his co-star it was certainly no B movie. At 14, Stockwell was just a tad past his luscious, smouldering Hollywood cherub deluxe prime, and in any case too all-American by far to fit snugly in the role of a Victorian British boy mistaken by Indians for an Indian. His ‘little friend of all the world’ Kim displays more haughtiness than street cunning, but what makes the film amusing is that the two pillars of orphan Kim’s life are the rakish, womanising horse trader Mahbub Ali (Flynn), a spy for the British, and the sainted venerable lama Paul Lukas, to whom the boy attaches himself as chela, or disciple.
An Artful Dodger in loincloth and turban, Kim flits and dances nimbly between these two men, admiring and wishing to model himself on the first, loving and wishing to honour the second, who shows his solicitude by packing the boy off to a sahib’s boarding school, much to Kim’s epic disgust. MGM resolved this awkward man/boy/man triangle by allowing Paul Lukas to expire saint-wise in the Hindu Kush (painful), allowing the boy to ride off, bouncing meatily into the sunset on the saddle of Errol Flynn. A TV remake appeared in 1984 with Peter O’Toole and Ravi Sheth, doubtless more faithful to Kipling but, like most remakes, not worth the celluloid it was printed on. It forgot to rollick.
Comments of general interest will be collected at Letters To The Editor (some editing may be involved)
ANON 49 08 July 2021
Was a physical copy of this book ever published?
Editor 09 July 2021
No, sadly not. Publication was intended and was discussed by the author with his friends, but never quite happened. Besides its intrinsic value, the posting of it here is an attempt to fulfill his wishes.
* * *
Last Action Hero met the fate it deserved. It was a stinker. Criminally so, because it was a fine idea with a perfectly cast boy but a totally botched script and non-existent direction. The movie within the movie needed to be neat and simple, allowing a realisation of the comic potential of magic boy invading and, as unintending Lord of Misrule, upending a clean and neatly scripted action world. Instead the movie within the movie was a parodic hodgepodge unto itself, one moment playing it for cheap laughs, the next trying to get us to invest. Hopeless. There was no discernible story or character arcs at work. Throwaway jokes were tossed in only to remain limply on screen as half-baked plot points. Something went seriously wrong in the making of this dud.
I suspect the problems may well have flowed from the central irreducible problem: Arnie. The big lunk can play it for laughs, sure--made a couple of fun ones with Danny DeVito--but only as a lunk. This movie called for some subtle and sophisticated comic acting from the lead. Think Bill Murray, or even, at a pinch, Tom Hanks. Actually, I'd love to have seen Clint Eastwood have a crack at this role. He had a naturally subversive undercurrent of humour in even his most gung-ho moments. At least then young Danny's adoration wouldn't have been left stranded like a tin trophy on Arnie's lacquered mantelpiece shoulders.
And, for crying out loud, you can't expect a boy actor--even one as enthusiastic and winning as Austin O'Brien--to carry a man-boy duo. The friendship remained as flat and dull as Arnie's gubernatorial career. The tragedy of all this was highlighted by the final scene of parting between Arnie and Danny. Danny saves his wounded hero by carrying him across the threshold of the movie screen, back to the safety of his celluloid home. In tears, the boy tells Arnie he can't bear to leave him, wants to stay right there with him. Arnie delivers his one convincing line when he softly but robotically says, "But I'm imaginary."
Could have built a movie round that.