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A harsh, pessimistic portrait of life in a big city ghetto, the film version of the acclaimed Broadway play Dead End (1937) remains one of the more relevant social dramas to emerge from Hollywood in the late thirties. Not only was it prescient in its observation that poverty breeds crime but it also spawned a series of films about juvenile delinquents and slum life like Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and Juvenile Court (1938). And, of course, it intruced to moviegoers The Dead End Kids, who took their name from the original play's title. Contrary to stories by the studio publicists, The Kids were not discovered on the streets. The six member gang - Billy Halop, Huntz Hall, Leo Gorcey, Gabe Dell, Bernard Punsly and Bobby Jordan - were professional actors and had already appeared in the Pulitzer Prize winning play upon which the movie was based. So when Samuel Goldwyn decided to turn Sidney Kingsley's stage hit into a movie, with a screenplay by Lillian Hellman, the boys packed up and headed West to recreate their roles. Director William Wyler wanted to shoot it on location in the New York slums. But Goldwyn convinced him that award winning Art Director Richard Day could just as easily build the tenements on a soundstage - and do it more cheaply.
Kingsley wrote Dead End when he was only 29 years of age. It's a classic New York story, capturing the city's social dichotomy where poverty lives under the shadow of wealth and power; an environment where the distance separating the social stratum spans wider than the Brooklyn Bridge, but is separated by only one block. The Dead End Kids are pructs of this urban ghetto and, though only supporting characters in the movie, are clearly representative of the next generation of inner city slum dwellers who remain trapped in an endless cycle of poverty and crime.
The main storyline of Dead End concerns Drina (Sylvia Sydney), a young woman walking the picket line at work and trying to keep brother Tommy (Billy Halop, the only Dead End Kid with a prominent role in the film) out of trouble. She's also in love with Dave (Joel McCrea), an idealistic but unemployed boy from the neighborhood, who has set his sights on a penthouse view complete with a sexy mistress (Wendy Barrie). The real trouble begins when gangster Baby Face Martin (Humphrey Bogart) returns home to visit his mom (Marjorie Main) who wants nothing to do with him. Martin is a bad influence on Dave and has already ruined the life of his ex-girlfriend Francie (Claire Trevor), who is now a prostitute and slowly dying from consumption.
Bogart had originated the Baby Face Martin role on stage. His silk shirt wearing ho-from-the-streets-who-made-go is in stark contrast to McCrea's can't-get-a-break straight shooter. Martin and Dave are the older generation of Dead End Kids, both representing possible outcomes for the youngsters. Bogart would go on to play in two more Dead End Kids movies: Crime School (1938) and Angels With Dirty Faces. There would be seven films in the Warner Bros.' Dead End series total; all featuring big stars like James Cagney and Ronald Reagan with the Kids taking secondary billing.
After Warner was finished with them, the Dead End Kids took up residence at "Poverty Row" studio Monogram as the East Side Kids. Here they made 21 more movies. At the same time, four of the boys (Halop, Hall, Dell and Punsly) ventured over to Universal for 12 Little Tough Guy movies. Finally, it all culminated in what were probably the boys' best features since the original Warner pictures - The Bowery Boys series; 48 movies in all, with Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall taking over gang command from the departing Billy Halop. By the end of the series, Gorcey and Hall's slapstick comedy shtick had become the focus of their movies, which had little in common with the gritty social realism of their debut feature, Dead End.
Still, even after 80 movies, the Kids were still right there on the East Side of New York. And Dead End, nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Supporting Actress (Claire Trevor), Art Direction and Cinematography (Gregg Toland), would be remembered as the one that started it all.
Prucer: Samuel Goldwyn
Director: William Wyler
Screenplay: Lillian Hellman; based on the play by Sidney Kingsley
Art Direction: Richard Day
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Editing: Dan Mandell
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Sylvia Sidney (Drina), Joel McCrea (Dave Connell), Humphrey Bogart (Baby Face Martin), Wendy Barrie (Kay), Claire Trevor (Francie), Allen Jenkins (Hunk), Marjorie Main (Mrs. Martin), Billy Halop (Tommy Gordon), Huntz Hall (Dippy 'Dip'), Bobby Jordan (Angel), Leo Gorcey (Spit), Minor Watson (Mr. Griswald).
BW-92m. Closed captioning.
by Stephanie Thames