This week, in conjunction with our Writing New York class, Bryan and I are screening William Wyler’s 1937 film Dead End, starring the Bronx-born Sylvia Sidney and Humphrey Bogart, who had not yet become a screen icon. In fact, Sidney received top billing when the Dead End was released. The film also features the first screen appearance of the “Dead End Kids.”
Dead End is an adaptation of Sidney Kingsley’s 1934 play of the same name, which opened on Broadway in 1935 and ran for two years. Wyler and the movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn saw the production and decided to bring the play to the screen, hiring the writer Lillian Hellman to do the adaptation.
The play’s producers had hired fourteen local boys to appear in the production, and six of them (Gabriel Dell, Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, and Bernard Punsly) were eventually brought to Hollywood to appear in the film and given two-year studio contracts. They caused such a ruckus on the set, however, that Goldwyn sold their contracts to Warner Brothers. The Dead End Kids made six films with Warner Brothers, including two more with Bogart – Crime School (1938) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) – but misbehavior on the set led Warner to release them from their contracts. The Dead End Kids subsequently ended up working with various studios and spawned such ensembles as “The Little Tough Guys,” The East Side Kids,” and “The Bowery Boys.” All in all, the various iterations of the Dead End Kids starred in 89 films and three serials with four different studios.
Set in New York’s Lower East Side during a single day and night, Dead End focuses on a young woman named Drina Gordon (Sylvia Sidney), who is trying to keep her younger brother, Tommy (Billy Halop) from turning to a life of crime. She’s also in love with Dave Connell, a struggling architect played by Joel McCrea, who is, in turn, trying to woo the heiress Kay Burton (Wendie Barrie) in the hope that she can help him leave the slums behind. Into their lives steps Dave’s childhood pal, “Baby Face” Martin (Humphrey Bogart), a gangster who’s returning to the neighborhood of his youth after a ten-year crime spree and significant plastic surgery. When Martin begins to corrupt Tommy and then plots to kidnap the nephew of a judge, Dave is forced to reassess his priorities and his allegiances.
Although it’s set in a later time period, the film helps to illuminate the culture of the streets depicted in some of the texts we read, particularly Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick (1868), Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890), and Stephen Crane’s Maggie (1893). Although it might seem sentimental to a twenty-first century audience, Dead End was regarded as hard-hitting in its time and was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture. William Wyler would go on to direct Jezebel and Wuthering Heights during the next two years, and he would win directing Oscars for Mrs. Miniver (1942) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1947). In 1949, he served as the director for another, rather different, adaptation of a play about New York life. Focusing on the upper crust of New York society rather than its lower classes, The Heiress (1949) was adapted from Augustus Goetz’s stage version of Henry James’s novel Washington Square (1880).
We’ll be reading James’s novel and showing The Heiress next week.
Wyler went on to direct several other now-classic Hollywood films, including Roman Holiday (1953), Ben-Hur (1959), which earned him another directing Oscar, and Funny Girl (1968). In 1966, he won the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award given periodically by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to “Creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production.”
Dead End is currently available on DVD. Its running time is 92 minutes.