powered by AFI
The Angels Wash Their Faces, a lively 1939 comedy-drama directed by Ray Enright, features 28-year-old Ronald Reagan in the kind of second-banana part that Hollywood used to call a "juvenile" role. Instead of having a conventional top banana, the picture has no fewer than six collective stars: the Dead End Kids, a scruffy but lively group who made dozens of movies between 1937 and 1958. In his autobiography Where's the Rest of Me? the future president said working with them was like "going over Niagara Falls in a barrel the hard way-upstream." Maybe so, but their obstreperous antics energize the movie a lot more than Reagan's movie-style respectability does.
The story begins in a reformatory, where good-at-heart Gabe Ryan is ready for parole in the custody of Joy, his swell-looking big sister. Arriving in the new neighborhood where Joy has set up house for them, Gabe gets into a scrape with a gang of tough-talking street urchins, called the Termites and played by the Dead End Kids, natch. Gabe succeeds in beating up their leader, and the Termites instantly recruit him as a member, reasoning that if he's such a good fighter they want him on their side.
The plot thickens when Gabe and the gang get mixed up with two local mobsters whose evil activities (we later learn) include burning down buildings in an insurance-money scam. When an ill-fated Termite is killed in one of their fires, the crooks frame Gabe for the crime. The future looks grim until an enterprising Termite wins a Boys Week contest that makes him a temporary junior mayor-for just enough time to bring down the arson mob, helped by a deputy district attorney who just happens to be courting Gabe's swell-looking sister.
Reagan and Ann Sheridan, who did five pictures together between 1938 and 1942, make a nice couple as the deputy DA and Gabe's pretty sibling. The Angels Wash Their Faces was their third collaboration; the first was Naughty But Nice, also released in 1939 and directed by Enright, who had a good sense of the low-key chemistry they shared.
But how about Reagan and the Dead End Kids, who'd already teamed up for Hell's Kitchen earlier in the year? If nothing else, you have to get a kick from the contrast, which operated both in front of the camera and behind it, where the Dead Enders amused themselves by setting off giant firecrackers and releasing mice in women's dressing rooms. "Counting noses and getting them all in one scene was a major chore," Reagan wrote in his autobiography, adding that "sometimes it was a relief when they did take off and disappear for a few hours."
When they joined Reagan for Hell's Kitchen and The Angels Wash Their Faces, the Kids were only a few pictures into their amazingly long career. They'd first met when Sidney Kingsley cast them in his play Dead End, a corrosive urban melodrama that made a big Broadway splash in 1935 and did the same in movie theaters when the 1937 screen version arrived. Staying together as the Dead End Kids, they consolidated their group identity in three 1938 releases including Crime School, starring Humphrey Bogart, and Angels with Dirty Faces, starring James Cagney and Sheridan, and then five 1939 films including They Made Me a Criminal, with Sheridan and John Garfield under Busby Berkeley's direction. These established the Kids as a six-pack of stars with enough movie charisma to come off as basically decent lads who just happen to look, sound, and behave like juvenile delinquents.
In addition to the six Warner Bros. productions that gave momentum to their career, some of the Dead Enders went to Universal for a feature series called Dead End Kids and Little Tough Guys, plus some matinee serials, in the late 1930s. Members of the gang then moved to Monogram Pictures, where starting in 1940 they played the East Side Kids in a string of low-budget programmers with costars like Gale Storm and Bela Lugosi, titles such as Mr. Wise Guy (1942) and Spooks Run Wild (1941), and an increasing talent for ensemble acting. Their last incarnation began in 1946 when they became the Bowery Boys, led by Leo Gorcey, who'd been the troupe's de-facto star for years, and Huntz Hall, the second-most-famous member. In pictures like Angels' Alley and Jinx Money (both 1948) they combined broad comedy with crime-drama thrills; in 1950s entries like Feudin' Fools (1952) and Crazy Over Horses (1951) they went strictly for laughs. Gorcey quit the gang in 1956, and seven pictures later the others followed suit. The troupe reached its final fade-out in 1958 with the ironically titled In the Money.
Reagan had gotten wind of the Kids' shenanigans before he met them to film Hell's Kitchen, and the "lurid tales" about them made him nervous. But he calmed down after getting a tip from James Cagney, who'd starred with them in Angels with Dirty Faces, the memorable 1938 crime drama. "It's very simple," Cagney said. "Just tell them you look forward to working with them but you'll slap hell out of them if they do one thing out of line." This worked, Reagan later reported. In a production where fireworks routinely blew furnishings to smithereens, he had "the only unscorched chair on the set."
Reagan obviously made good in later years, and most of the original Dead Enders did too. Hall kept up his performing career, as did Gorcey until his death in 1969; Gabriel Dell became a regular on Steve Allen's hugely popular TV show; Billy Halop appeared frequently on All in the Family; and Bernard Punsly became a physician. The exception is Bobby Jordan, who failed to sustain his acting career after walking away from the Bowery Boys series because Gorcey and Hall were getting top billing.
The Angels Wash Their Faces doesn't nearly match the dramatic power of Angels with Dirty Faces, which inspired its rather odd title. But it's far from the worst movie in Reagan's filmography or that of the Dead End gang. The big fire scene, which takes the life of an innocent victim as the Kids look on in horror, is filmed with surprising realism and suspense. The lead performances are always likable, if rarely exciting. And there's a solid supporting cast including child star Bonita Granville as the Dead Enders' female wannabe, the delightfully prissy Grady Sutton as a secretary named Gildersleeve, witchy Margaret Hamilton as a stuffy schoolteacher, and stalwart Marjorie Main, a veteran of Dead End on stage and screen, as the fire victim's grieving mom. In all, the picture is a fine example of family filmmaking, late-1930s style.
Executive Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Director: Ray Enright
Screenplay: Michael Fessier, Niven Busch, Robert Buckner
Cinematography: Arthur L. Todd
Film Editing: James Gibbon
Art Direction: Ted Smith
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Ann Sheridan (Joy Ryan), Ronald Reagan (Pat Remson), Billy Halop (Billy Shafter), Bernard Punsley (Sleepy Arkelian), Leo Gorcey (Leo Finnegan), Huntz Hall (Huntz), Gabriel Dell (Luigi), Bobby Jordan (Bernie), Bonita Granville (Peggy Finnegan), Frankie Thomas (Gabe Ryan), Henry O'Neill (Remson, Sr.), Eduardo Ciannelli (Martino), Margaret Hamilton (Miss Hannaberry), Marjorie Main (Mrs. Arkelian), Grady Sutton (Gildersleeve).BW-86m.
by David Sterritt