Feb. 29, 2008

Dead End (1937)
Grade: 85/100

Director: William Wyler
Stars: Joel McCrea, Humphrey Bogart, Sylvia Sidney

What it's about. A New York City slum surrounds a swanky apartment complex. Kay (Wendy Barrie), a blonde hottie from the ritzy apartments, begins a romance with Dave (Joel McCrea), a hunky would-be architect from the slums. This disappoints brunette hottie slum tenant Drina (Sylvia Sidney), who has her eyes on Dave. Drina lives with her younger brother Tommy (Billy Halop), one of a gang of idle youngsters that dominate the streets of the slum. The gang is the Dead End Kids, and consists of Halop plus Leo Gorcey, Bernard Punsley, Huntz Hall, Bobby Jordan and Gabe Dell.

These future juvenile delinquents amuse a visitor to the slums, Baby Face Martin (Humphrey Bogart). Martin is a notorious wanted gangster, who is visiting his old neighborhood to look up his mother (Marjorie Main) and former girlfriend Clare Trevor. Proof that you can't go home again is supplied when Martin's mother condemns him, while Trevor has become a sickly prostitute.

How others will see it. Bogart and McCrea are familiar faces to classic movie fans, as is Sylvia Sidney, to a lesser extent. They may also enjoy seeing the Dead End Kids at the beginning of their film glory, which gradually descended into B-movie Bowery Boys vehicles.

Dead End has several subplots. Two of these appeal to men: future hoodlums conspiring to beat up and rob a boy from a wealthy family, and Baby Face Martin haunting his hometown. Women are the target of the third subplot, which consists of Dave choosing between fun-loving rich girl Kay and troubled poor girl Drina. We know whom he'd choose in real life (if not both), but Hollywood compels a different selection.

How I felt about it. Humphrey Bogart is arguably the most famous classic film actor. This is primarily because the lasting appeal of Casablanca, although Bogart made numerous other good movies, from The Petrified Forest (1936) through The Caine Mutiny (1954). Bogart generally played tough guys, characters that suited his peculiar and much-imitated voice, which effectively combined a lisp and a rasp.

Bogart could play both heroes and villains, although he concentrated on the latter during the 1930s, and the former during the 1940s. In Dead End, Bogart's villainous character is secondary to that of the hero, Joel McCrea. But Bogart steals the movie anyway, and the final scenes seem anticlimactic without him. For such a presumed tough guy, Bogart seems genuinely depressed after his mother berates him. He also seems too eager to get back together with Trevor, at least until she spills the beans about her damaged goods status.

Even in the slums, there is hope, embodied by the romance between McCrea and Sidney. Both are beautiful, virtuous, hard-working, sacrificing people whose only fault comes from their slum origins. We want, or at least are supposed to want, McCrea and Sidney to succeed, and succeed together. But both are too good to be true, which explains why our focus is instead on the troublemakers, Humphrey Bogart and the Dead End Kids.