06 May 2009

The Best of the Dead End Kids

Last week I noted in passing that Angels with Dirty Faces was the Dead End Kids' finest film. That deserves some elaboration.

The Dead End Kids were young actors assembled for the 1935 Broadway play Dead End. Samuel Goldwyn hired them to play the same characters in his movie version of 1937, and they stayed in Hollywood for decades. The group was billed under a variety of names, depending on the studio where they had a contract: Dead End Kids, Crime School Kids, Little Tough Guys, East Side Kids, Bowery Boys. The core ended up being Huntz Hall and Leo Gorcey (top and left in the photo above).

The group's best films came early in their career:

1) Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). James Cagney plays a gangster the teens admire, Pat O'Brien his childhood friend who's become a priest, and Humphrey Bogart a lawyer who's cheated Cagney out of his take. It's a moralistic melodrama with fast wisecracks, but Cagney's final scene jolts the whole experience to another level.

2) Dead End (1937). Slice of life in a New York slum, with Joel McCrea and Sylvia Sidney as noble lovers trying to get out. This time the gangster returning to his old neighborhood is played by Humphrey Bogart, and he grabs the movie in a scene when he meets his ex. Another moralistic melodrama, fewer wisecracks. Watch the whole thing at Hulu.com.

3) They Made Me a Criminal (1939). John Garfield plays a boxer fleeing a murder charge who ends up at a ranch for juvenile delinquents. Claude Rains is Garfield's Javert. You can take the kids out of the city, but you can't take the city out of the kids.

In the 1940s the young actors started making quickie formula comedies, like Abbott and Costello but less lovable. Some ended up in the stereotypical child-star cycle: typecast, turning to alcohol or drugs, dying or getting sober, and scrounging out character work in middle age. But one of the six guys above got out of show biz and became a happy and successful California physician.

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