THE SAGA OF AMERICA'S DIRTY FACED KIDS... AND THE BREAKS THAT LIFE WON'T GIVE THEM!
Coppers and crooks. Sweet angels and dirty rats. Dames, wise-guys, guns that never need reloading and crime waves signified by spinning newspaper headlines. Welcome to the era of the classic gangster picture. Along with westerns, these were morality tales set to show right from wrong, and they were the bread and butter of the moviegoer of the 30s and 40s. From these films, we got some of the greats, like Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and, of course, James Cagney. Cagney would achieve great success and acclaim in these kind of pictures, with one of his most enduring pictures being today’s film, Angels with Dirty Faces.
Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) and Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien) were two tough kids who grew up together in the toughest part of New York before each of them goes their separate ways: Rocky gets sent to reform school, where he learns how to be a first class criminal; Jerry goes straight and becomes a priest, working with kids who, like he and Rocky, could end up on either side of the law. Years later, a fresh out of jail Rocky is looking for a safe place to stay until he can resume his old criminal career, which Jerry, for the sake of the boys, would rather he didn’t do.
As I said before, these kinds of films were meant as simple morality tales, whereby the bad guy says bad things, commits crimes and gets gunned down for it in the final reel. This was largely because of the Motion Picture Production Code of the time, known more colloquially as the Hays Code, named for Hollywood’s chief censor, Will Hays. According to this code, amongst many other rules dictating the morals of film, criminals could not be seen to profit or get away with any crimes. It was pretty much part of the dictate that they had to die. What really separates Angels with Dirty Faces from the other gangster pictures of the time is that the script actually takes a look at the reason for this rule: the influence of the wealthy gangster on the impoverished and impressionable youth. The film actually considers the tough reality of getting kids to play by the rules when they’re shown that not doing so will yield better results. This is the dilemma that gets openly addressed in the film, like so:
Jerry: What earthly good is it for me to teach that honesty is the best policy
when all around they see that dishonesty is a better policy? That the hoodlum
and the gangster is looked up to with the same respect as the successful
businessman or the popular hero? You and the Fraziers and the Keefers and all
the rest of those rotten politicians you’ve got in the palm of your hand. Yes,
and you’ve got my boys, too. Whatever I teach them, you... you show me up.
You show them the easiest way - the quickest way is with a racket or a gun.
Rocky: Well, it’s so, ain’t it?
Jerry: Yes, it’s so... God help us.
Therein lies the heart of the whole film. Considering the typical tactic of the day was to simply say ‘if you keep committing crimes, someone’s going to put a stop to you’, this is a far more eloquent and lasting consideration of the difficulty of trying to be moral in an admittedly amoral world. It also knows the importance of a man’s reputation as something of significant value. Rocky gets to be who is because people have heard of him, the things he’s done. It’s exactly why the kids look up to him, his reputation always precedes him. So, it knows full well the sheer magnitude of Jerry’s last request of Rocky, before he gets led to the electric chair, is that Rocky break down and go out like a coward, screaming and crying. It’s the only way Jerry can look out for the kid’s in his care, though it clearly kills him to ask it. Rocky flat out refuses to do so, since his last moments will be what define him. He doesn’t want to cheapen his reputation at the last hurdle. He wants to make those boys proud of him. It’s a genuinely tough decision for him to make.
Michael Curtiz does give some solid direction in the film, with the tone slowly and steadily becoming genuinely darker and more serious in the closing moments. It takes real skill to be able to have such deliberate control over proceedings like this, and Curtiz definitely has it. Also, the manner in which they convey Rocky’s criminal rise from his reform school beginnings to the man he becomes, through a montage of prison enlistment forms and criminal deeds, is very well handled, economical and articulate. Depending on your viewpoint, he may occasionally oversell some moments, like the final shot of the boys in the hideout and the music in the background. It’s not exactly subtle, but I think it still works. Also, the sense of space is somewhat thrown off at the beginning of Rocky’s last big shootout, but you get over it quickly.
There are some performances worth talking about in the film, before we get to the might of James Cagney. Frankie Burke, who plays Rocky as a young boy, does very well effectively playing a young Cagney. Humphrey Bogart, here as Frazier, is on decent form. It’s far removed from the likes of his more famous tough-guy personas, like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe and Rick Blaine. He’s a shifty, cowardly swine. It’s actually a little disconcerting to watch him like this after seeing how great he was in The Maltese Falcon, but that role wouldn’t come until three years after Angels with Dirty Faces, so it worked a bit better then. Pat O’Brien is solid as Jerry. Even though he’s now a priest trying to set a good example for the kids and protect them from bad, you still see the love he has for his old friend Rocky. O’Brien’s face shows Jerry’s conflict well, always catching himself somewhere between a disapproving frown and the warm smile. The finely underplayed moment as he watches his friend walk towards the chair is really quite affecting. Ann Sheridan is pretty and does well for herself, but the role isn’t terribly well handled in the script. She serves to be the one who ends up being taken in by Rocky’s charms and then she’s just forgotten about. After a single scene of teary-eyed pleading with Jerry, she……
Let’s talk about the Dead End Kids, the gaggle of cherub-faced little goons that the title refers to. These were a young bunch of actors from New York that got their name when they appeared in a play called Dead End, cast because they were able to bring that street-wise attitude to the show. Amongst the many that saw the play were producer Samuel Goldwyn and director William Wyler, who decided to turn the play into a film and keep the same cast. The Dead End Kids were flown to Hollywood and signed to two-year contracts, with the film being released in 1937. Goldwyn clearly regretted his decision, because the Dead End Kids were monsters who ran riot around the studio destroying property and messing with other actors constantly. Goldwyn sold their contract to Warner Brothers, which is how they ended up in Angels with Dirty Faces. The change in studio did nothing to change their ways. They continued to cause mayhem, breaking things and throwing other actors off by constantly ad-libbing. There’s even a story where they backed Humphrey Bogart into a corner and stole his trousers. They stole Humphrey Bogart's trousers! However, it was James Cagney that set them straight, in a typically Cagney fashion. The first time one of the kids threw an ad-lib at him, Cagney broke character and hit the kid square in the face. They behaved themselves from then on. That’s kind of what makes the basketball scene so great. The way Rocky kept a lid on the gang’s bad play was pretty much how Cagney kept a lid on the gang’s offscreen antics. God, James Cagney was awesome.
In this film, James Cagney is superb. It’s actually kind of difficult to appreciate just how good Cagney really is as Rocky Sullivan nowadays. People haven’t really seen his films, like ‘G’ Men or The Roaring Twenties or Yankee Doodle Dandy or Love Me or Leave Me or the superb White Heat. All people have to go on now is the impressions and imitations of Cagney that others have been doing for years, mainly based on his performance in Angels with Dirty Faces, so the power has been somewhat diluted. It's seen more as a thing of comedy now. This is a real shame, because it makes me think that Cagney is already starting to be lost to the world, which I find very disheartening. However, believe you me, Cagney is incredible in this film. It’s in the way he talks through viciously bared teeth, how he stares harshly at whoever he’s talking to, how he holds his whole body as forward as possible. This guy seems physically incapable backing down. All through the film, he’s not someone to be messed with. Despite this, Rocky does have some charm to him. Like most career criminals, he can be a friendly face to people he liked, but you’d still rather not go near him. There’s even times when you like him, like when he’s teaching the kids to play basketball by the rules, but he’s still the same fierce individual he’s always been. Cagney captures all of this wonderfully, setting up a character so solid, but so utterly rotten that you hope that he changes, but can’t ever fully believe that he will.
Angels with Dirty Faces is a great picture and still packs an emotional punch to its ending. The script is great and Curtiz’s direction is well controlled, allowing the film to go from being something relatively light to become something darker and with real weight behind it. Performances are good throughout, with a good deal of credit going to Pat O’Brien, but it’s Cagney’s film here, showing exactly why he was such a draw back in the day and why more people should see his movies.