Some films from yesteryear just seem to play better to today’s modern audiences and I would number Dead End among them thanks to the strong direction of William Wyler and the acting chops of the legendary Humphrey Bogart as a gangster who discovers you can’t go home and hope to turn the clock back to simpler times. As tightly knit as this story unfolds in a claustrophobic New York City setting I’m reminded very much of the feel of Hitchcock’s Rear Window .
This being a Samuel Goldwyn Picture (we’re reminded of the fact 4 times in the opening credits) great care has been taken to bring this story to the screen with an ensemble cast led by headliners Joel McCrea and Sylvia Sydney. McCrea is a dreamer who wants to live a respectable life and help those around him who live in amongst the slums of New York. He’s got two girls taking an interest him. The wealthy Wendy Barrie and the poverty stricken Miss Sydney who also has a rebellious brother she looks after played by Billy Halop. Halop along with Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Gabriel Dell, Bobby Jordan and Bernard Punsley make up the Dead End Kids. Gorcey and Hall would lead these youngsters on a film career of their own winding down as The Bowery Boys into the 1950’s.
This is a character driven piece and each actor will have the opportunity to shine as the day in the life styled story unfolds. Halop and the boys will run afoul of the local law enforcement and a doorman to the apartment that houses the wealthy, Ward Bond. Sylvia will do her best to keep Halop out of trouble to no avail which turns loose the flood gates that she was famous for. So much so that the director Richard Fleischer titled his must read autobiography after a statement she made to him on the set of Violent Saturday, “Just tell me when to cry.” Not only is she losing Halop to crime in the streets but she thinks she’s losing the man she longs for to the wealthy Miss Barrie.
Into the story comes Humphrey Bogart and Allen Jenkins. Bogie has undergone plastic surgery to hide his identity though McCrea knows him on sight. The two grew up on the streets together and Bogie has returned to see his mother for the first time in ten years and the one girl he’s always loved. Marjorie Main is cast as Bogie’s mother. She’s been beaten down by a life of loss and looks withered and old beyond her years. Frail and cheated by life. She’ll not accept Bogie’s return and in a torturous scene for both, she slaps him. Disowns him. He’s shocked and for the first time in his life doesn’t raise a fist or a gun to strike back. Bogie’s lot in life will only get worse when he finds his lost love Claire Trevor in a knockout performance that only lasts mere moments on the screen.
Her dreams of happiness are long lost and she’s turned to prostitution as a means of supporting herself. This might be the highlight scene of the film. Bogie’s realization of her fall combined with her admittance to a life on the streets. Bogie’s last chance for some semblance of a normal life are shattered. It only serves to bring out the nasty side of his character, Baby Face Martin. A quick comment here on the obvious being that Claire has descended into the sex trade. Though it’s never uttered on screen it’s about as close an admittance that we’re likely to see during this era of the Hays Code.
There are plenty more stories evolving alongside McCrea, Sydney and Bogart that I’ll let you discover for yourself in this Oscar nominated Best Picture of 1937. Claire Trevor also scored a much deserved nomination for her short appearance but I’m baffled as to why Bogie never secured one. Just another gangster role I suppose mixed with studio politics of the times. The violence is explosive and abrupt under Wyler’s guidance when it does surface towards the end between McCrea and Bogie. If you’ve seen plenty of Warner Brother gangster flicks, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that there’s a realism to the violence here when compared to the average shoot’em up of the day. Even the camera angles Wyler employed behind Gregg Toland’s Oscar nominated cinematography are in many cases years ahead of other 1937 releases.
Lillian Hellman penned the script from a play by Sidney Kingsley. Kinglsey also wrote Detective Story (filmed in 1951) while Miss Hellman would pen The Little Foxes which featured Bette Davis in top form.
A spot of trivia for the Marjorie Main fans? How about Main, better known as Ma Kettle in some circles appearing here opposite Esther Dale who would go on to play Birdie Hicks in the Kettle films. Always as an adversary of Main’s Ma and Percy Kilbride’s Pa. Dead End also serves as a window to the past for those who like the slang terminology of the times, listen in to Bogie as he gives us plenty of lines to listen in on.
“Go on beat it.”
“Dough. I got mine.”
Yes sir, I can just hear Bogie spitting these lines out as he gives us mere mortals a mean disgusted look.
Not interested in films of the 1930’s? Take a look at this one. It’s not flashy but it is a credit to those who appeared in it or those who worked on it.