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A Bogart double bill: 'Dead End' and 'Angels With Dirty Faces'

Joel McCrea and Humphrey Bogart in "Dead End."
United Artists
Joel McCrea and Humphrey Bogart in "Dead End."

If there is anyplace to watch Bogart, it is the Heights Theater. It is, after all, a sumptuous old Beaux Arts cinema, a single-box theater that was the sort you would originally have seen a Humphrey Bogart movie in, but don't much exist anymore. Sure, there's the Parkway, but, despite dating back to 1931, it looks very mid-century — a giant bug film from the '50s would be just right there. And the Parkway is gorgeous, and neither "Dial M for Murder" nor "Creature From the Black Lagoon" felt out of place there when the theater played them in 3-D. But I also saw a series of Mexican wrestling films there, and, more than any other film, those felt right at home.

So it's The Heights for Bogie, thanks to Take-Up Productions, which is offering a series called "Hard-Boiled Bogart Noir." They started last week with "The Maltese Falcon," which may be the definitive Bogie noir. But tonight they're offering a really interesting pairing of films, "Dead End" from 1937 and "Angels With Dirty Faces" from 1938, which feel as though they should always be shown one after the other. Both feature Bogart in a supporting role as a hood, both are showcases for Irish-American lead actors (Joel McCrea in the first, James Cagney in the second), and both are built around a collection of street-tough kids from Manhattan's tenements who collectively were known as the Dead End Kids, and later transitioned into The Bowery Boys.
This group, especially led by the pug-faced Leo Gorcey and the lean and hangdog Huntz Hall, would go on to do an astonishing 89 films and three serials together. In their Bowery Boys years, they were mostly a sort of cheap knock-off of Abbott and Costello, aping whatever the comedy team had most recently produced and coupling it with Three Stooges-style knockabout comedy.
But here we are at their start — sort of. By the time Samuel Goldwyn brought the kids out to Hollywood, they were two-year-long veterans of Broadway, having appeared in the original stage production of "Dead End," written by Group Theatre veteran Sidney Kingsley, for an astonishing 684 performances. "Dead End" is a great piece of theater, set on New York's 53rd Street where the street meets the East River. At the time of the play, the neighborhood is what we now politely call "transitional," and it's an especially rocky transition — a lavish high-rise apartment building has sprung up next to decaying tenements, and sumptuous parties can be heard from a high floor while filthy children swim in the filthy river or cook themselves potatoes over burning steel oil drums below.
It is the story of the kids that the play, and the film, primarily concern themselves with, and it was the Dead End Kids who played them. Although they played convincing street urchins, almost all of them came from theatrical backgrounds — Leo Gorcey's parents were vaudevillians, while Billy Halop, who "Dead End" focuses on, was a product of Yiddish theater. Both Kingsley's play and the screenplay, by Lillian Hellman, offer a study in contrasting wealth, with poverty presented as embarrassing and deplorable. Joel McCrea, a handsome actor who tended to play lightly comic crabapples, is especially strong. He paid his own way through six years of college to become an architect, but, in the waning years of the Depression, instead paints signs for pocket change. It's humiliating for him, and his humiliation turns violent when a childhood friend, played by Bogart, comes back to town.
Bogart had spent his first years in Hollywood playing wealthy gadabouts — before he was famous for saying "Play it again, Sam," which he never said, he was famous for saying "Anyone for tennis?" which he also never said. And this was close to Bogart's actual upbringing, which included an Upper West Side apartment and modeling, as a baby, for a famous advertising campaign for Mellins Baby Food. But in 1934, Hollywood figured out that Bogart made a superlative tough guy, and it was off to the races.

And so Bogie's character in "Dead End" is a hood named "Baby Face" Martin, whose baby face, thanks to plastic surgery, has been converted into Bogart's trademark snarl. He has returned to his childhood home for a series of disappointments — his mother savagely rebuffs him, and his childhood sweetheart is a prostitute in the late stages of syphilis. He vaguely takes the local ragamuffins under his wing, dispensing terrible tough guy advice and hatching a plan to kidnap a child from the tony high rise.
As youth-in-jeapody films go, this is one of the best. I mentioned that playwright Sidney Kingsley was a product of the Group Theatre, which specialized in realistic and naturalistic plays that often focused on social issues, and screenwriter Lillian Hellman was likewise known as a playwright who created tough, unusually intelligent scripts. While "Dead End" ends on a vaguely positive note, it's an enormously ambivalent one, bought through blood and undoubtedly short-lived. The specter of poverty still looms over everybody, and, for the kids, the likelihood that they will end up a brutal murderer, like Bogart. What is the option? An embarrassed but noble failure like McCrea?

Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney in "Angels With Dirty Faces."
Warner Bros. Pictures
Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney in "Angels With Dirty Faces."

"Angels With Dirty Faces" is awfully similar, except that James Cagney plays the returning gangster and the action takes place in Hell's Kitchen. And there is a hopefulness in the film that is nonexistent in "Dead End," in that the Catholic Church offers an alternative to the world of crime that Cagney represents.
The play has an ingenious set-up, telling of two boys who rob a railroad car. One is caught and grows up to be Cagney; the other escapes and grows up to be Pat O'Brien, playing a role he would return to again and again: a street-smart but enormously compassionate priest. For most of the film, they join forces to attempt to help the Dead End Kids, pushing them into various afterschool programs. But Cagney's underworld connections, especially represented by Bogie as a crooked lawyer, come back to haunt him.

It's pure Hollywood melodrama, replacing "Dead End's" cautious naturalism with an overwrought moralism, but it's also a showcase for Cagney. He was at least as good a tough guy as Bogie, and he practically dances through every scene in this film, bouncing on his toes and rattling off his dialogue like a machine gun in what may be the definitive New York Irish accent.
He also has the appealing habit of slapping the Dead End Kids whenever they get lippy with him. They adore him anyway, or, perhaps, because of it — these are kids who mostly communicate through threats of violence, and they've grown up the respect the person who wields it most capably. The climax of the film hangs on whether Cagney will be willing to feign cowardice, which he must do in order to undermine his status as a hero to the kids. And Cagney is so appealing as a criminal, it's hard not to hope he won't do it. The world of full of dull do-gooders; we're desperately lacking villains with the appeal of Bogie and Cagney just now.

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Comments (1)

Agree, Bunny, the Heights is the perfect venue for these films. I'm going to see "Key Largo" with Mrs. Lungs -- it's one of her favs.

Saw "Day the Earth Stood Still" there (the original, of course) last year. The joint was packed. People clapped at end of film.