Thursday, January 9, 2020

Dead End (1937)

August 27, 1937, release date
Directed by William Wyler
Screenplay by Lillian Hellman
Based on the play Dead End by Sidney Kingsley, Norman Bel Geddes
Music by Alfred Newman
Edited by Daniel Mandell
Cinematography by Gregg Toland

Sylvia Sidney as Drina Gordon
Joel McCrea as Dave Connell
Humphrey Bogart as Joe “Baby Face” Martin
Wendy Barrie as Kay Burton
Claire Trevor as Francey
Allen Jenkins as Hunk
Marjorie Main as Mrs. Martin
Charles Peck as Philip Griswald
Minor Watson as Mr. Griswald
James Burke as Officer Mulligan
Ward Bond as the doorman
Elisabeth Risdon as Mrs. Connell
Esther Dale as Mrs. Fenner
George Humbert as Pascagli
Marcelle Corday as the governess
Charles Halton as Whitey
Billy Halop as Tommy Gordon
Huntz Hall as Dippy
Bobby Jordan as Angel
Leo B. Gorcey as Spit
Gabriel Dell as T. B.
Bernard Punsly as Milton, aka “Milty”

Distributed by United Artists
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn Productions

I remember watching reruns of the comedy show The Bowery Boys on television, and it wasn’t until recently that I learned that the show is actually a spin-off of a spin-off of a spin-off. The film Dead End marked the first appearance of the actors, the gang, on film, when they were called the Dead End Kids. Through loans of the actors in this group to other studios and remake after remake, the original members went through several transformations: from the Dead End Kids to the Little Tough Guys, to the East Side Kids, to the Bowery Boys.

By the time the Dead End Kids had become the Bowery Boys, they had moved from serious dramatic roles to slapstick comedy. The film Dead End contains some social commentary, which is very different from The Bowery Boys reruns that I watched on television, and social commentary is often a feature of film noir. I am calling Dead End an avant noir (the term I use to refer to proto-noir, a precursor to noir), but much of what I have read online about the film calls it a gangster film. Avant noir, gangster film, social commentary: All of it works for me. I’ve never been very strict about categories for film. And how can I not write, even indirectly, about a favorite show?

A website called the Age of Comedy offers a short synopsis, in two parts, of the gang: “From Kids to Boys: The Imprefect of the Bowery Boys.” I love the malapropism in the title of both, a nod to Slip Mahoney of the Bowery Boys, I imagine. Click on each list item below to get started:
The same website also provides more malapropisms and the following:

Wikipedia offers even more detail about the gang (kids, guys, boys). Click on each item in the list below to learn more:

The different lifestyles of the rich and the poor depicted in Dead End are the most obvious examples of social commentary, but the film also touches on reform school and the lack of reform that it offers, despite its name; tensions between neighborhood residents and law enforcement; and workers striking for better wages. Drina Gordon, one of the main characters, wants to leave the tenement neighborhood behind and take her brother Tommy with her. But she needs money, and she joins her fellow coworkers to strike for better pay; her exact job is never mentioned or described, maybe because the strike started before the time line in the film. The film never shows Drina on the picket line, but she and fellow coworkers are beaten by police because they are picketing. She shows the bruise on her forehead to Officer Mulligan when he complains that she won’t help him find the boy who stabbed Mr. Griswald outside his luxury apartment. Drina has personal reasons for hiding that information, and her experiences with law enforcement have made her wary. There is plenty of distrust in general between the neighborhood residents and police officers, and between the rich and the poor residents, too.

(This blog post about Dead End contains spoilers.)

The film has a rather odd start: Most of the opening credits appear on a rather cartoonish-looking street sign, starting with the film’s title, in close-up. After the opening credits, the film cuts to a shot of the New York City skyline in the background and the following written text:
Every street in New York ends in a river. For many years the dirty banks of the East River were lined with the tenements of the poor. Then the rich, discovering that the river traffic was picturesque, moved their houses eastward. And now the terraces of these great apartment houses look down into the windows of the poor.
Then the camera pans down to crowded alleys, dark buildings, laundry on clotheslines, people sleeping on fire escapes and benches. This is where the Dead End Kids live with their families and neighbors. The film then tells several intertwining stories.

One of the residents, Dave Collins, is in love with Kay Burton, who is a social climber. She isn’t unsympathetic, however: She has seen what poverty does to people, and she has seen what it did to her own family. But Dave realizes that she will never stay with him because all she wants is a year of happiness and she doesn’t care what happens after that. Dave wants more than that, and he returns to Drina Gordon, who has loved him from the start.

Joe “Baby Face” Martin returns to the neighborhood with his henchman, Hunk. Martin is on the run because he is wanted for eight murders. He went out west to Colorado and had plastic surgery to make himself unrecognizable and thus give himself a chance to return home. Dave Collins is the only one who recognizes him after the plastic surgery. Martin is back to see his mother and the love of his life, Francey. His mother doesn’t want to have anything to do with him, and Francey is now a prostitute. When Martin hears what Francey is doing for a living, he spurns her. He expects forgiveness from his mother and chasteness from Francey, but he has nothing admirable to offer them in return.

Dave Collins doesn’t like what Baby Face Martin represents, and he warns Martin that he is no longer wanted in his old neighborhood. Martin doesn’t care what Dave thinks and plans a kidnapping with someone named Whitey. That plan ends in a shootout between Dave and Martin, and Dave shoots and critically wounds Martin. Martin eventually shoots a pursuing police officer, and other police officers shoot Martin dead.

Tommy Gordon, one of the Dead End Kids, helps his gang beat up Philip Griswald, a rich kid living in the new apartment building towering over their street. They steal Philip’s clothes and his watch. The boy’s father is brother to Judge Griswald, and he wants the boys, especially the gang leader (Tommy Gordon) to be held responsible. Spit (Leo Dorcey) rats on Tommy when he is caught by one of the local police officers. Tommy is caught, but while the boy’s father struggles with Tommy, Tommy takes out a knife and stabs the man. Tommy gets away and goes into hiding, and his sister Drina plans to run away with him. Dave Connell steps in a couple of times to help Tommy. He convinces Tommy to give up his knife when he threatens Spit with “the mark of the squealer” (a knife cut deep enough to leave a scar across the cheek). Then he convinces Tommy to turn himself in and throw himself on the mercy of the court. Drina is anxious about Tommy going to reform school, but Dave promises to use the reward money that he will get for finding Baby Face Martin to hire a good lawyer for Tommy.

Dave Collins has the most important speech in the film, especially if you accept Dead End as social commentary. But Drina Gordon sees through his hypocrisy. Dave does care, but he has more than one reason for his concern:
Dave Collins: “What chance have they [the Dead End Kids] got against all this? They’ve gotta fight for a place to play, fight for a little something extra to eat, fight for everything. They get used to fighting. Enemies of society, it says in the papers. Why not? What have they got to be so friendly about?”
Drina Gordon: “It didn’t do those things to you.”
Dave: “Didn’t it? Well, it did enough to me, the other way. It made them accept it and get tough about it. It made me into a fool. I spent my life dreaming about tearing these places down. Well, I found out today. I saw myself and these rotten holes we live in through somebody else’s eyes. I wanted to tear them down with my fingers.”
Drina: “Yeah, you always talked about that—how you were going to tear all this down and all the other places like them. How you were going to build a decent world where people could live decent and be decent. But now you want them down just so she [Kay Burton] won’t see them ’cause they’re not pretty for her to see. All it means to you now is whether or not you get her. Well, go on and get her. And forget all this. And if you can forget, it’s all you were ever good for in the first place!”

I looked forward to seeing Dead End because it had an amazing list of actors. In addition, Lillian Helman, accomplished writer and Dashiell Hammiett’s partner, wrote the screenplay, which is based on a play by Sidney Kingsley and Norman Bel Geddes.

For more about Lillian Hellman, click on each item in the list below:

National Public Radio: Lillian Hellman: A “Difficult,” Vilified Woman

I have never seen the play or read the script, but I’m curious about it because it seems that the film is true to the original work. All of the action of a play would be limited by the stage; in Dead End, all of the action takes place at the end of one block, which also serves as the headquarters for the East 53rd Place gang. The gang members and their neighbors live in squalid tenements that abut the East River’s edge, but their neighborhood (and the gang’s territory) is being invaded, not by rival gangs but by the wealthy, who want views of the river and are willing to build luxurious apartment buildings next to tenements to claim the views as their own.

I wasn’t expecting comedy before I watched Dead End, but I was surprised at the complexity of the story and the themes that it presented. The Bowery Boys certainly traveled a long way from their first screen appearance in Dead End.

No comments:

Post a Comment