Monday June 22, 2020
Movie Review: Dead End (1937)
According to AFI's film site, Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Administration, demanded the following changes to Lillian Hellman’s script of “Dead End,” which was already a neutered version of the hit 1935 play by Sidney Kingsley:
- Delete the line “All cats look alike in the dark”
- Delete the implied curses of “son of a—“ and “go to –”
- Delete the word “bum” from British versions, since it’s Brit slang for posterior
- No Bronx cheers
- No cockroaches
- Garbage might cause offense
- “Spit” shouldn’t spit
Apparently Mr. Breen was fine with the scene in which a Lower East Side gang, the Dead End kids, lure the local richie rich, Philip (Charles Peck), into a nearby basement and beat the shit out of him. Off camera we hear him cry out in pain and horror, and afterwards we see him run back to his high-rise in tattered rags while the Dead Enders parade around in whatever of his (jacket, necktie, pocket watch) they hadn’t destroyed.
I saw “Dead End” when I was a kid—it turned up on our local Friday night movie show, “Comedy and Classics,” hosted by John Gallos—and that scene freaked me out so much I turned off the TV. I was hardly a richie rich, but I was the furthest thing from a tough kid; so of the two, I identified with the former. What happened to him horrified me: that kids could be so cruel; that the world could be so lawless; that adults would care so little.
It’s more than that, though. It’s that the movie cares so little. It doesn’t give a shit about the rich kid with the French lessons and swim lessons. It only cares about his tormentors.
“Dead End,” the play, is what brought the Dead End kids (Billy Halop, Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, et al.) to Hollywood, and “Dead End,” the movie, is what sent them from the Goldwyn Studios over to Warner Bros. Apparently they raised such hell at Goldwyn that Sam didn’t want to deal with them anymore. Their “sez you” vibe was more in tune with Warners anyway. The surprise is they didn’t start there.
You can see in “Dead End” the outlines of a better movie Warners would make a year later: “Angels with Dirty Faces.” Gangster (Bogart/Cagney) returns to his old neighborhood, meets up with old pal (Joel McRea/Pat O’Brien), reconnects with old girl (Claire Trevor/Ann Sheridan), interacts with neighborhood punks (Dead End kids), dies. The ending of this movie even anticipates that one, since the kids exit stage right singing a song about angels, while William Wyler/Gregg Toland’s camera rises above the squalor with their voices:
If I had the wings of an angel
Over these prison walls I would fly
I would fly to the arms of my mother
And there I'd be willing to die
So why is “Angels,” the copy, so much better than “Dead End,” the original?
For one, “Dead End” feels like the play that it was. Apparently Wyler wanted to film on location in New York, which would’ve been amazing, but Goldwyn nixed it. Instead, Richard Day created an elobrate set that was much praised, and Oscar nominated, but to me still seems like a set. It also seems vaguely European? Particularly at the beginning? That slight hill and curve? Anyway, we barely move from this set. I suppose such stasis adds to the sense of how trapped everyone is, but it still makes it seem like a filmed play. That’s one.
Two, Rocky Sullivan has a reason to return to the neighborhood. He’s just out of prison and wants his dough, see? There’s something the guy wants. That’s rule No. 1 of drama. Father Connolly wants something, too: to make sure his old friend Rocky Sullivan doesn’t corrupt the Dead End kids. And the kids? They want to be Rocky Sullivan. It’s what you might call a Mexican standoff of raison d’etres. In comparison, “Baby Face” Martin is just kinda hanging out. He’s a Public Enemy No. 1 with a surgery-altered face, but he’d like to see his mom and maybe his old girl again. Neither reunion goes well. His mom curses him out and the girl, Francey, turns out to be a prostitute—vaguely, per the Production Code—and this hard-bitten gangster is shocked, shocked by it. (That said, Bogart, a late addition to the cast, is the best thing in the movie. He looks gut-punched in both scenes.)
Three, it’s the relationsips, stupid. All of Rocky’s relationships interact with and inform each other. They’re deeply felt. Rocky and Connolly were boyhood pals who went separate ways but still care about one another. Connolly is basically if Matt Doyle from “Public Enemy” found religion. In “Dead End,” “Baby Face” and Dave (McCrea) …. kinda sorta knew each other? Back in the day? There’s no there there. There’s very little there with McCrea, to be honest. In the play, the character was a crippled artist named Gimpty and Hollywood turned him into a handsome, broadshouldered architect who can’t find work and who mopes around after a rich dame, Kay (Wendy Barrie), even with Drina (Sylvia Sidney), right under his nose. His trajectory is to stand up to “Baby Face” and realize Drina is worth his time. Which is what happens. He winds up killing “Baby Face” on the rooftops and using the reward money to maybe start a life with Drina—whose kid brother, Tommy (Billy Halop), the leader of the Dead Enders, has just been sent to reform school.
By the way: Are we supposed to feel sad Tommy that was sent to reform school? It feels like the movie wants us to feel sad. But the kid’s a jerk. And it's not just Charles Peck. Milty (Bernard Punsly) wants to join the gang but only has three cents of the quarter it supposedly costs. Tommy takes it, won’t let him join, won’t give it back, and then they all beat him up. Drina has to arrive to admonish her brother for, whatever, the thousandth time. Later, the cops show up. “But please, officer, he’s a good kid!” Right.
Maybe most important? There’s a self-important vibe to “Dead End.” It’s from a hit play, with prestige filmmakers, a prestige actress, and it garnered four Oscar nominations: picture, supporting actress (Trevor), cinematography (Toland), art direction (Day). I guess “Angels” garnered three (actor, director, story), but the self-important vibe isn't there. Film historian David Thomson: "Warner Bros. had its share of trash, but few of its films were boring or pretentious.”
I’m curious if we owe Robert Moses for the conceit of “Dead End.” Here’s the opening title card:
Every street in New York ends in a river. For many years the dirty banks of the East River were lined with the tenements of the poor. Then the rich, discovering that the river traffic was picturesque, moved their houses eastward. And now the terraces of these great apartment houses look down into the windows of the tenement poor.
That’s why out-of-work architect + rich broad. That’s why Dead Enders + Richie Rich. This spot is where the classes clash. But is the conceit just a conceit or created from real-life East Side development pushed through by Moses? The original New York Times review of the play doesn't mention specifics; it simply passes it off as “one of those dramatic corners on which Manhattan advertises the distance that divides poverty from riches…”
This is the first of six “Dead End Kids” movies that often paired them with Bogart, Cagney or—would you believe—Ronald Reagan. They kept going into the 1940s as, alternatively, Little Tough Guys, East Side Kids and Bowery Boys—the last two without Hallop. Then it was bit parts, B movies, and TV walk-ons. (Halop, for example, played cabbie Bert Munson in 10 episodes of “All in the Family.”) Most of the kids aged fast and died young: Bobby Jordan at 42, Gorcey at 51, Halop at 56. Gabriel Dell held on until 68, Huntz Hall to 78. Bernard Punsley, the tubby Dead Ender with the three cents, got out first and lasted longest. He stopped making movies in 1942 to become an MD, and he's the only kid who saw the 21st century. He died in 2004 at the age of 80.