Director: William Wyler.
Writers: Sidney Kingsley, Lillian Hellman.
Dead End, a hard-hitting Depression-era play gave rise to a phenomenon which lasted for decades. Pulitzer Prize-winner Sidney Kingsley wrote the original in 1935; the tale of a poor neighborhood rubbing shoulders with one undergoing gentrification won rave reviews on Broadway. Softened somewhat for MGM's adaptation, the movie remains fairly hard-hitting for its time. A labyrinthine slum setting dominates the screen, and its adolescent supporting characters, recruited not, as urban legend has it, from the slums, but from the cast of the original stage production, took a lion's share of the praise.
The 1937 Hollywood adaptation casts Humphrey Bogart in the role of Baby Face Martin, a gangster. The movie, like the original play, has less of a plot than it does several intertwining subplots-- unusual for 1930s Hollywood. The action unfolds over twenty-four hours in an east side New York slum.
Baby Face returns to the street where he grew up. Few people are happy to see him, including his mother (Majorie Main). His one-time girlfriend Francey (Claire Trevor) has become a prostitute, dying from a veneral disease, while a former associate, Dave Conell (Joel McCrea) has gone straight and is struggling to make good. Baby Face tries to draw Conell into a new criminal plot, forcing him to make some serious choices.
And then there are the Kids. Their activities, at turns serious, funny, and touching, affect the events around them. We see a tough, but slightly romanticized version of streetlife. They have basically good hearts, but they've been warped by their circumstances and environment. More than anything, they contributed to the film's success, and soon everyone was talking about the Dead End Kids:
Huntz Hall (Dippy), Leo Gorcey (Spit), Bobby Jordan (Angel), Gabriel Dell (T.B.), Billy Halop (Tommy), and Bernard Punsley (Milty).
They would go on to star in many films under various identities, first as the Dead End Kids, then as the East Side Kids, and finally, as the Bowery Boys. Along the way, they would also be Little Tough Guys. Their distinct manner and bowlderized street argot would be borrowed and parodied, and they would become pop-culture references. Throughout their careers, they would star alongside such luminaries as James Cagney, Bela Lugosi, and Ronald Reagan; Hall would appear on the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper album cover, in a photo taken during his Dead End days.
See Next: Dead End Kids