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Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

What goes around comes around. James Cagney was originally touted to play second-lead in The Public Enemy (1931) but his performance proved so electric he took over the starring role from his taller, dark-haired peer, Edward Woods, who was relegated to the supporting part. Of course the childhood scenes had already been filmed, but no matter. The film simply shows the tall, dark-haired boy growing into Cagney while the light-haired pug becomes Edward Woods. Why not? What's a little incongruity in a Hollywood film? They probably didn't think we'd still be talking about the picture 70 years later.

Written by:
Rowland Brown
John Wexley
Warren Duff

Directed by:
Michael Curtiz

Starring:
James Cagney
Pat O'Brien
Humphrey Bogart
Ann Sheridan
The Dead End Kids

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actor (Cagney)
Best Director
Best Original Story (Brown)

Quote:
“Say, you turned into a pretty snappy-looking dish.”

Reason to See Film:
Cagney, of course. The final scene is a masterpiece.

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) makes up for this earlier incongruity by casting Frankie Burke as the young Cagney. Burke has Cagney down: He talks like him, walks like him, hunches his shoulders like him. He even says "Shaddap" like Cagney. It's an indication of how quickly the Cagney persona seeped into the national consciousness. Only seven years after Public Enemy (during which time Cagney made an astounding 28 movies!), people were already imitating him to a "T".

The film begins in 1920 ("Harding Nominated for President" reads one newspaper headline), as two lower east-side kids, Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly, attempt to steal some pens from a train. Fleeing, Connolly falls on the tracks, but Sullivan returns to help him back up. In the end, though, it's Sullivan who's caught by the cops and sent to reform school, where he becomes a life-long criminal. Connolly, perhaps to atone for his ill-spent youth, becomes a priest (Pat O'Brien).

The two meet up again after the adult Rocky, now James Cagney, gets out of jail and returns to his old digs. He's expecting a big pay-off from his lawyer, James Frazier (Humphrey Bogart), but Frazier and new mob-boss Mac Keefer (George Bancroft) are starting to renege on the deal. Rocky tries to stay one step ahead of them while renewing an acquaintance with neighborhood girl Laury Ferguson (Ann Sheridan). He also becomes mentor to the dead-end kids that leads to a struggle with Father Connolly.

"What earthly good is it for me to teach them that honesty is the best policy," Connolly asks Rocky, "when all around they see that dishonesty is the better policy?" Rocky tries to help out by steering the kids in the right direction, but he uses them occasionally in his struggle with Frazier and Keefer. Monetarily rewarded, they turn their back on Connolly and his boy's club. Eventually Father Connolly decides to start a campaign against the hoodlums of the city. This puts him in the direct line of fire (sap!) and it's up to Rocky to save him again.

Up to this point, the film is fine: a star vehicle for a star who deserves it. Cagney crackles with energy in every scene. He moves with a joie de vivre. He laughs when dames get the better of him and greets everyone with the phrase "Whaddaya hear, whaddaya say?" One can certainly understand why the dead-end kids would prefer the finger-snappin' Rocky Sullivan to the sad, limp wisdom of Father Connolly.

But the ending is so good it elevates the film to classic status. On death row, Rocky is visited by Father Connolly, who has one final request. In death, Rocky will become a martyr to the kids, more powerful than ever. But if he acts yellow on the way to the electric chair... Rocky is taken aback and refuses. "You're asking me to throw away the only thing I got left!" he says. During his dead man's walk, the camera focuses repeatedly on Rocky's face, set in a sneer; but once he turns "yellow," we only see the shadows on the wall, for that's all this Rocky is: a shadow of his real, tougher self.

The director of the film, by the way, was Michael Curtiz, who would go on to direct both Cagney and Bogart in their best-known roles: Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), and Bogart in Casablanca (1943). Not a bad five years work.

—June 16, 2000

© 2000 Erik Lundegaard