Some movies hold up well over time. This one doesn’t.
We wanted to like Angels with Dirty Faces as much as we did the first time we saw it. But it just wasn’t happening. Maybe some movies play better in our memories than they do on DVD.
It is still worth watching, however, mostly due to the acting. As protagonist Rocky Sullivan, James Cagney delivers one of his great tough-guy performances. His classic shoulder roll and “whaddaya hear, whaddaya say” line has probably been mimicked more than any other, and his final scene still resonates.
Pat O’Brien, as Father Jerry Connolly, does the goodly Catholic priest thing to cinematic perfection. It’s a role that he and Bing Crosby (remember Father O’Malley in Going My Way?) should have had patented. Humphrey Bogart is good as corrupt lawyer Jim Frazier. And Ann Sheridan has her moments as Laury Ferguson, the would-be moll who knows better.
But the storyline in this Warner Brothers gangland melodrama seems contrived and overly moralistic. And the Dead End Kids (remembered as humorous) are six annoying, overacting caricatures—the Three Stooges times two.
Cagney got a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for this performance, which is understandable. However, the film’s two other nominations—for Best Director and Best Writing, Original Story—are hard to believe. But then maybe we’re unfairly applying 21st-century sensibilities to 1938 cinema.
Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly are boyhood friends growing up in the slums of New York City. As teenagers, they hang on fire escape landings, harass cute neighborhood girls and look for ways to get into trouble.
A plan to steal boxes of fountain pens from a freight car at a train loading dock leads to a police chase and Rocky saving Jerry’s life by pulling him off the tracks after he slips and falls in front of an approaching steam engine. It ends with Rocky being captured and Jerry, the faster runner, getting away.
Rocky takes the rap, never gives up his friend Jerry to “the coppers” and heads off to reform school. Flashing newspaper headlines chronicle the highlights of the era (“Harding Nominated for President” screams one; “Flier Circles the World” hollers another) and track the next 15 years of Rocky’s criminal life. When he finally returns to the old neighborhood after a series of arrests for more serious crimes, Rocky has become a renowned gangster.
In the meantime, his childhood friend and juvenile crime partner Jerry has become the parish priest. He works to set the teenage boys in the ‘hood on the straight and narrow. And Laury, whose first husband was killed in an underworld dispute, is now into social work and setting things right.
But both still love Rocky. And he loves them back.
“Somehow I feel Rocky could be straightened out,” the good priest tells Laury after Rocky gets the Dead End Kids to come to the gym to play basketball—something the priest had failed to get them to do.
Rocky falls for Laury, even though an associate warns, “That dame’s a jinx.”
Against her better judgment, Laury returns his affection and takes a job as a hostess at a nightclub/casino in which Rocky has an interest.
But this is a crime-doesn’t-pay tale, so it’s not going to end well.
Rocky is double-crossed by Bogart’s sleazy lawyer character, Frazier, who has become a mover and shaker in the corrupt world of politicians and gangsters—the people who really run the city. At first, demonstrating the bravado and street savvy on which his underworld reputation has been built, Rocky gets the upper hand on the lawyer and his business partner Mac Keefer (George Bancroft).
Unfortunately, his old pal Jerry, out to expose the evildoers, launches a crusade to clean up the city, warning Rocky that he will take him down as well if he is involved.
“Priest Declares War on Underworld Vice” screams another flashing headline.
Rocky spreads his cash around, giving a wad to the Dead End Kids, who use it to buy zoot suits, gamble and drink beer at a pool hall instead of showing up at the gym. He also sends an anonymous $10,000 donation to Father Connolly for the youth center he wants to build. But the priest turns down the cash and turns up the heat, joining forces with a newspaper to publicize the city’s corruption.
“Don’t be a sucker,” Rocky tells Connolly when he returns the cash.
But the good Father won’t take the money and instead asks Rocky to stop associating with the neighborhood kids.
“Don’t encourage them to admire you,” he implores.
Rocky saves Connolly’s life one more time, bumping off Frazier and Keefer after learning they intend to put a hit out on the priest. But those murders lead to yet another police chase—bringing the story full circle—that ends with several dead cops and Rocky’s arrest.
Facing the electric chair on death row, Rocky gets an 11th-hour visit from Father Connolly, who has one last favor to ask.
Given that Rocky has saved his life twice and is in jail in part because of the priest’s moral crusade, this seems a bit much.
But this is a morality play as much as it is a gangster movie.
The beauty is: we never really know if Rocky grants the favor.
HIT: The cramped, desperate and dirty life of the 1930s in New York City’s tenements is captured perfectly.
MISS: Father Connolly’s moral crusade comes out of nowhere. It feels like a forced plot device.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Should do fair business, but the picture itself is no bonfire. . . . In at least one instance, the same set is used for two supposedly different locales.” —Variety
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: When Rocky slaps around the Dead End Kids during the raucous basketball game—which is more like a rugby match—the action strays beyond the script. Apparently the Kids were running wild on the set and Cagney, returning to his own New York roots, set them straight. He wasn’t afraid to get physical and continued while the cameras were rolling.
BEST LINE: “What we don’t take, we ain’t got,” a teenaged Rocky says to Jerry, who at first is reluctant to go down to the freight yards and look for swag.
REALITY CHECK: The mob hit in the pharmacy phone booth was modeled after the murder of mobster Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll, who was targeted by Dutch Schultz during a New York gang war. Coll hid out in an apartment that was over top of a pharmacy. But he would use the phone booth in the pharmacy each day to call his girlfriend. Schultz learned of this and sent two hit men to snuff him.
CASTING CALL: Frankie Burke, the teenage actor who portrayed the young Rocky Sullivan, looked, sounded and moved like Cagney. He had the actor’s speaking cadence down perfectly and his “whaddaya hear, whaddaya say” is hardly distinguishable from Cagney’s. Burke, born Francis Aiello in Brooklyn, had minor roles, many uncredited, in about 15 other movies, including Shadow of the Thin Man in 1941, before dropping out of the business.
GOOF: One of the newspaper headlines after Sullivan kidnaps Frazier misspells the word “kidnapper,” dropping a “p.” Where’s the copy editor when you need him? (Back then it was almost certain that the editor was a he, and that he was wearing a green eye visor.)
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Cagney, in his biography Cagney by Cagney, said he grew up in a New York tenement neighborhood where a local pimp and hustler used to hang out on the corner, greeting everyone with “whaddaya hear, whaddaya say.” Cagney said he stole the line and the shoulder roll/neck twitch from that neighborhood corner boy. “I did those gestures maybe six times in the picture,” he wrote. “Impressionists have been doing me doing him ever since.”
BODY COUNT: Six.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”