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Thursday, June 17, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #18: Angels with Dirty Faces 1938

"Whaddya hear? Whaddya say?"

Angels with Dirty Faces 1938

Director: Michael Curtiz
Writer: John Wexley & Warren Duff, from a story by Rowland Brown
Cinematographer: Sol Polito
Produced by: Samuel Bischoff, Hal Wallis, and Jack Warner, for Warner Bros.
Starring: James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, Ann Sheridan, Humphrey Bogart, 'The Dead End Kids'

Why I chose it
I was hesitant at first to put this one on my shortlist, because I had just watched a Warner Bros. film (Draegerman Courage from 1937), but went ahead anyway because Cagney has been sorely absent from this series, and from this blog, except for his cameo in my post 'Six Decades of Film Jameses'. Both this one and Pygmalion, with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller, made it to the final Twitter poll, and Angels with Dirty Faces garnered the most votes. So here we are.

'No-spoiler' plot overview 
Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly are two rambunctious friends in the Lower East Side in NYC in the early 1920s. Rocky gets caught at a petty crime, is shuttled off to reform school, and continues his criminal exploits into adulthood. Meanwhile, Jerry becomes the neighborhood parish priest. When grown Rocky (James Cagney) gets out of jail in the late 1930s, he renews his friendship with Jerry (Pat O'Brien), but still pursues criminal activities, this time with a gangster outfit headed by Frazier (Humphrey Bogart) and Keefer (George Bancroft). A new generation of neighborhood 'toughs' begin to hang out with Rocky, idolize him, and even help him escape capture, which greatly concerns Father Jerry, who is working hard to keep them from going bad. Rocky is torn between his friendship with Jerry and his life of crime, as he is increasingly at odds with both the law and the mob. (The ending of this film has its most commented-upon scene, but in keeping with no spoilers, I won't discuss it here).

Production Background 
In 1938, Cagney was an established film gangster while Bogart had only been a minor villain for Warner Bros. In fact, the gangster drama had been out of fashion for the years since the enforcement of the Production Code had cracked down on the "glamorization" of criminals. But in Angels with Dirty Faces, Warners resurrected their best-loved gangster, paired him with his frequent screen partner, O'Brien, who served as the white knight to Cagney's tough guy. They also threw all their best contractors at the production, including director Curtiz, composer Max Steiner, and the 'Dead End Kids'. These kids were six young NYC actors who hit the big time as stars of the Broadway show 'Dead End.' Hollywood saw a good thing and imported the group for a series of films, mostly at Warners, during the 1930s. (The 'Kids' continued their run of stardom in the 1940s and beyond as the 'East Side Kids' and 'Bowery Boys').  The 'Kids' apparently were as rumbunctious on set as their characters; original tough guy Cagney, with his street cred, subdued them after getting physical with Leo Gorcey when the latter pulled one too many ad-libs during filming. 

As for Cagney, he famously fought with Warner Bros. around this time about his gangster typecasting and other things, but was drawn to Rocky as a more well-rounded character. According to his autobiography, Cagney drew inspiration for his character from a drug-addicted pimp he knew as a kid, who stood on a street corner all day hitching his trousers, twitching his neck, and repeating: "Whadda ya hear! Whadda ya say!" Cagney won his first Oscar nomination for the role.

Some other notable film-related events in 1938 (from

  • The first appearance of an early prototype of Bugs Bunny, possibly the greatest cartoon character of all time, was as Porky Pig's antagonist in Warners' Porky's Hare Hunt (1938). He would appear fully developed and in his first starring role in Tex Avery's Oscar-nominated A Wild Hare (1940).
  • Roy Rogers made his starring film debut in the Republic Studios' B-western Under Western Stars (1938), after which he became popularly known as the "King of the Cowboys".
  • MGM loaned actor Clark Gable to David O. Selznick for his production of Gone With the Wind (1939) for his most famous role as Rhett Butler, in exchange for the film's distribution rights and one-half of the profits (further reduced by Loew's Inc.'s 15% interest and a requirement to pay Gable's $4,500 per week salary and one-third of Gable's $50,000 loan-out bonus).
  • African-American leaders publically called on the Hays Office to make roles other than doormen, maids, and porters available to blacks.

My Random Observations

  • If I were making movie taglines, this one would get 'The Public Enemy Goes to Boys Town." (Boys Town was a highly successful picture with Spencer Tracy playing the real-life priest who reforms young hoodlums, made at MGM also in 1938). There were scenes focused on both Jerry and Rocky working with the kids to get them out of trouble, and ones bordering on religious intensity. On the opposite side were shoot-outs and suspenseful scenes straight out of Warner's The Public Enemy, which apparently served as a source of some shots in this. Despite the moralizing and sentimentality, I loved how we could both root for Rocky and against him, hoping that the angels with the dirty faces wouldn't end up like him.
  • Speaking of faces, this film had 'em! Can you beat the quartet of Cagney, Bogart, O'Brien, and Bancroft for downright fascinating male visages? Matching them were the Dead End Kids, who all were interesting to look at. And what fun these kids must have had in their young lives doing these movie roles! (Despite that, most of them ended their careers in relative obscurity, and did not live much past their 50s).

    The 'Dead End Kids' publicity image.
  • I loved Cagney before, but now I downright adore him. He richly deserved his Oscar nomination for the range of emotions he covered here. But above all I was impressed with his physicality, how he used his body, leaning in and out, pivoting quickly on his heels, to add to his character's charisma. 
  • Sadly, Ann Sheridan's character Laury was underwritten and underused in the film. Laury was a tough young woman who seems to exist only to be the audience surrogate as another falling under Rocky's spell; she does nothing to move the story along. According to historian Dana Polan, who provided commentary on the DVD, Sheridan's role was bigger in the original script, with a stronger love story, but was cut down in the interest of economy.
  • The film gets my vote for one of the most evocative and provocative film titles of all time.

The original 'angels with dirty faces,' a young Jerry (William Tracy)
and Rocky (Frankie Burke) watch girls from their tenement perch.

Rocky has the bad fortune to get caught by police after his
and Jerry's latest escapade.

Rocky has outsized influence in the city.

Bogart and Cagney on together for the first time - yowza!

Jerry (Pat O'Brien), now ordained, directs a boychoir
in his parish church.

Rocky and Laury (Ann Sheridan) spar as Rocky 
wants to rent a room in Laury's boarding house.

The 'Dead End Kids'

Rocky descending the stairs into the Kids hideout, 
faking a heater.

Rocky and the kids are all friends now, eating lunch in his place.

Laury and Jerry look on as Rocky tames the kids in a 
friendly game of basketball.

Rocky and his 'concerned' face as he prepares to evade gunmen.

Rocky has to put one of the kids in his place ("Bim", Leo Gorcey).

Jerry finds the kids in a local gambling joint and tries to 
convince them that playing basketball would be a better activity.

With a tiger image behind them, Keefer and Frazier's
relationship with Rocky turns rocky.

Police prepare to take Rocky down.

Rocky looking unusually unkempt as Jerry rescues him from
a room filled with tear gas.

Jerry attempts to lead the kids up and into the light.

Where to Watch
The film is on DVD from Warner Home Video, but I also found it online at (with Portuguese subtitles) here.

Further Reading
A fellow CMBA blogger 'Down These Mean Streets" does justice to the film in this essay (spoiler alert).
TCM captures Cagney quotes about this film in an article here.


  1. I saw this years and years ago on VHS, as a teen, and only liked it okay, but I suspect I was going through a Humphrey Bogart phase at the time and was annoyed that he was playing a bad guy. I should watch it again sometime! I'm sure I'd appreciate it more now.

    1. Yes, if you were watching for Bogart you'd be disappointed here in his 'bad guy' and minimal screen time. He's good, but really this is Cagney all the way. I hope you get to watch it again!