‘Angels With Dirty Faces’ helped Warner Bros. close out ’30s in style (Warner gangsters, Part IV)

(Continuing Reveal Shot’s examination of 1930s gangster movies, particularly those made by Warner Bros. Inspired by viewings from Warner Home Video’s four-volume DVD series, “The Warner Bros. Pictures Gangsters Collection.” )

Warner Bros. closed out the 1930s with two pretty amazing gangster films, and one more effective variation on the prison subgenre.

The studio released “Angels With Dirty Faces” in 1938, starring James Cagney and Pat O’Brien as boyhood pals Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly, whose paths dramatically diverge when Rocky is sent to reform school. Jerry goes on to become a priest, while Rocky, who was always the more aggressive of the two boys when they engaged in petty crimes, becomes a hardened criminal during several stints in jail.

Humphrey Bogart stars as Rocky’s crooked lawyer, Frazier, who promises to keep and invest $100,000 due to Rocky when he is released from jail for a crime that involved both men. When Frazier double crosses Rocky, we know this will not stand, and that it will be exciting to see just how the score is settled.

I’ve always thought that “Dirty Faces” might have been the masterpiece of the post-Code era if not for two problems, both imposed by that Code.

First, the Dead End Kids, who were fine in themselves, were used as one of the key points in the plot as the tough, impressionable youths that O’Brien’s Father Jerry character is trying to steer toward righteousness. They are convincingly enamored with the charismatic Rocky, so the film spends lots of screen time showing us a sort of tug-of-war for the kids’ souls.1

Secondly, as part of his attempt to help the boys, O’Brien launches an all-out media crusade to stop Rocky and the other gangland elements in the city.

The result is that as the film speeds toward its most exciting payoff — a final showdown between Rocky and Frazier — the action is sidetracked for scenes showing O’Brien trying to relate to the Dead End Kids, or O’Brien making speeches over the radio, or O’Brien discussing the Rocky Problem with Laury Martin (Ann Sheridan), a woman who knew Rocky and Jerry as kids and is now in love with the Cagney character.

So I had put off my latest screening of “Angels With Dirty Faces” for a while, dreading the O’Brien/Dead End Kids intrusions.

As it turned out, the movie seemed more enjoyable than I remembered. First and foremost, Cagney’s Oscar-nominated performance is mesmerizing. For someone who tired of playing gangsters early, he was always able to bring a dynamic credibility to these roles. In “Dirty Faces,” he finds just the right note opposite every character: uncompromising toughness in his scenes with Bogart and fellow villain Barton MacLane; an easy rapport with O’Brien, spiced with just enough defiance when asked to do things he doesn’t want to do; bravado and understanding in dealing with the Dead End Kids; and tenderness in the brief romantic interludes with Sheridan.

Bogart is also very good, conveying the keen intelligence that he brought to his heavies in other Warner films of this period, including “Bullets Or Ballots,” “Kid Galahad” and “The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse” (all starring Edward G. Robinson).

Once you accept their presence in a film that didn’t really need them, The Dead End Kids are fine, too, especially ringleader Billy Halop, troublemaker Leo Gorcey2 and funny Bobby Jordan.

*** SPOILER ***

And finally, when it does come, the climactic action sequence in which Cagney dispatches Bogart and MacLane is very well-staged by director Michael Curtiz, whose direction is typically brilliant throughout. This scene leads directly into the storied warehouse stand-off against the police, one in which Cagney kills at least one officer and sets the stage for his own execution.

As film historian Dana Polan points out in his justly celebrated commentary track for the film3, the much-discussed question of whether or not Rocky actually turns cowardly when he goes to the electric chair is a pointless one. After everything we’ve learned about Rocky in “Angels With Dirty Faces”, right up to the final moments as he walks to his death,  the only reasonable conclusion is that he shrieks and asks for mercy only in response to Jerry’s request that he make himself look bad in the eyes of the kids.

I don’t doubt Cagney’s famous answer that he played the scene ambiguously so that the viewer would have to decide for himself. But there is a grim smile that comes over his face just before he takes the last few steps, a look that to me, and Polan, signified that courage was still there at the end.

“Angels With Dirty Faces” succeeds in spite of the plot lines that threaten to derail it. Cagney, Bogart and Curtiz assured its greatness.

— David B. Wilkerson

 Part V: “The Roaring Twenties”: Unforgettable action overshadows plot trouble in ’39 Warner Bros. saga

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  1. Though I could have done without this plot point, it does provide echoes of “The Public Enemy,” in which Cagney’s Tom Powers kills Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell) for leading he and his buddy into a life of crime. See Part I of our gangster series.  
  2. On the featurette included in Warner Bros. DVD of “Angels With Dirty Faces,” there is an amusing anecdote about how Gorcey kept trying to steal scenes — until Cagney asserted himself as the real-life tough guy he was, and put a stop to it. The incident prevented similar problems with the rest of the teenagers. “Angels with Dirty Faces: Whaddya Hear? Whaddya Say?”, featurette, included on DVD release of “Angels With Dirty Faces” (1938). Issued 2005, separately or with box set, Warner Bros. Pictures Gangster Collection, Vol. 1.  
  3. One fascinating thread that runs through Polan’s commentary is the way in which media are spotlighted in “Dirty Faces.” Every time a crime is committed, there is either a newspaper headline that spins out of the air to tell us about it, or there is some report on the radio. This occurs in other films from the studio during this period, suggesting a sense of awe and wonder about how quickly information could be disseminated during the 1930s.  Included on DVD release of “Angels With Dirty Faces” (1938). Issued 2005, separately or with box set, Warner Bros. Pictures Gangster Collection, Vol. 1.  

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