THE SAGA OF AMERICA’S DIRTY FACED KIDS… AND THE BREAKS THAT LIFE WON’T GIVE THEM!
As the shooting of this classic began, James Cagney was about to do his first scene with the Dead End Kids. The rowdy group of teenaged boys playing the gang had reached a certain level of success with their first two movies (where Humphrey Bogart also had a co-starring role) and were used to actors and directors letting them run wild. Cagney, however, had grown up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and knew how to fend for himself. When one of the kids, Leo Gorcey, misbehaved Cagney stiff-armed him in a way that he would never forget (or forgive). Growing up on this set did have its similarities with the film’s story.
Trying to rob a railroad car
It begins in 1920, with two young men trying to rob a railroad car. They’re unsuccessful and one of them, Rocky, is caught and sentenced to reform school. The other one, Jerry, escapes. 15 years later we meet Rocky again. He’s now a professional criminal, who’s just been arrested again. His lawyer, Jim Frazier (Bogart), tells him that if he takes the blame for an armed robbery $100,000 await him on the day he’s released. Rocky agrees to do it; when he’s let out of prison three years later Frazier tells him that he’ll have the money ready soon.
Back in his old neighborhood, Rocky finds Jerry again and learns that he’s now a priest, trying to teach a gang of teenaged pickpockets to become better citizens. After an attempted murder, Rocky realizes that Frazier has no intention of paying him a dime…
One of Cagney’s best roles
The same year as director Michael Curtiz made the excellent Adventures of Robin Hood, he also delivered this gangster movie that provided Cagney with one of his best roles and the Dead End Kids with their most memorable outing. It was based upon a story by Rowland Brown, a writer who was rumored to be connected to legendary gangsters like Bugsy Siegel. Cagney realized that the part of Rocky had more complexity than some of the other tough guys he had played and he was inspired by his own upbringing and the death of a friend who had been executed in 1927 after a murder conviction. Cagney is terrific in his role, playing a bad guy but making it easy for us in the audience to sympathize with him, as he’s a decent man at heart; the real villain is Bogart’s character, a rat willing to double-cross his mother if there’s something to gain.
Much of the film is a moral battle between Rocky and Jerry, the latter played by O’Brien in a somber way; it may not be an exciting part, but crucial for the film. The rapport between Cagney and the Dead End Kids is another important aspect, and it’s fun watching them observe each other like animals in a cage, occasionally lashing out. Your personal tolerance for the loud teenagers in the supporting cast may affect your opinion on the movie as a whole; I found their presence a challenge at times. But a classic it remains, thanks to Cagney, a good story and well directed action sequences near the end as Rocky confronts Frazier and his gang.
The final scenes are tougher to watch than anything preceding it, because they’re raw and unexpected. There’s nothing that would unsettle a traditionally macho gangster more than the loss of courage in the face of death, either in himself or having to witness it happen to somebody he admires.
Angels With Dirty Faces 1938-U.S. 97 min. B/W. Produced by Samuel Bischoff. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Screenplay: John Wexley, Warren Duff. Story: Rowland Brown. Music: Max Steiner. Cast: James Cagney (William ”Rocky” Sullivan), Pat O’Brien (Jerry Connolly), Humphrey Bogart (Jim Frazier), Ann Sheridan, George Bancroft, Billy Halop.
Trivia: Mervyn LeRoy was reportedly considered as director. Remade in the Philippines in 1995.
Last word: “Rocky Sullivan was in part modeled on a fella I used to see when I was a kid. He was a hophead and a pimp… He worked out of a Hungarian rathskeller on First Avenue between Seventy-seventh and Seventy-eighth Streets… All day he would stand on that corner, hitch up his trousers, twist his neck and move his necktie, lift his shoulders, snap his fingers, then bring his hands together in a soft smack. His invariable greeting was ‘Whadda ya hear? Whadda ya say?’ The capacity for observation is something every actor must have to some degree, so I recalled this fella and his mannerisms, and gave them to Rocky Sullivan just to bring some modicum of difference to this roughneck. I did that gesturing maybe six times in the picture – that was over thirty years ago – and the impressionists are still doing me doing him.” (Cagney, “Cagney by Cagney”)