This 1938 film release is the epitome of the Warner Bros. gangster-movie style. The story is hackneyed and the characters are stereotyped, but under the sure hand of Michael Curtiz (“Captain Blood,” “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Casablanca,” “Life With Father”) and featuring incandescent stars like James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, and the Dead End Kids, “Angels With Dirty Faces” is a quintessential thirties’ crime saga. It is entertaining from beginning to end.
By the time of this movie, Hollywood’s self-imposed set of censorship rules, the Motion Picture Production Code, was more rigidly enforced than ever. As a result, movies became more saccharine than they had ever been, with sex, nudity, immorality, violence, and the glorification of crime all major taboos. So Warner Bros.’ gangster films became more like sweet morality plays than the grittily realistic sagas they had been at start of the decade. Not only was crime not to pay, it wasn’t even to be tolerated as a temptation. This was ironic, of course, because by the late thirties real-life organized crime in America was flourishing, the Mafia on its way to becoming one of the biggest businesses in the country.
However, this didn’t mean that Hollywood couldn’t still produce a good, well-knit, and perfectly enjoyable morality play. Such is the case with “Angels With Dirty Faces.” It takes a standard setup for melodrama with routine characters and makes us care about every one of them. The story involves two best pals from childhood, William “Rocky” Sullivan (Cagney) and Jerome “Jerry” Connolly (O’Brien), who grow up together in the roughest part of town, stealing, fighting, and carrying on. But a fluke accident sends them on different paths in life. Running from the police after breaking into a boxcar, one of the boys, Jerry, is faster than his buddy. Rocky gets caught and sent to reform school. It’s the beginning of a life of prisons and crime for him, first as a juvenile delinquent and then as a full-fledged, and rather famous (or infamous), hoodlum. Jerry, on the other hand, turns to good, becoming a priest and returning to his old neighborhood to help the kids there. He doesn’t want any more youngsters to grow up like his friend Rocky.
After this back story, the film moves ahead to the present, the mid 1930s, where Rocky has just been released from maybe his umpteenth prison sentence. His last time in the pen, three years’ worth, was spent taking the rap for his corrupt lawyer partner, Jim Frazier (Bogart), with whom he made a deal for $100,000 when he got out. Well, he’s out. And he wants his hundred grand.
At this point, five things go on in Rocky’s life simultaneously. (1) He visits his former partner, Frazier, to pick up his money, and Frazier, naturally, stalls him; (2) he tries to get his old job back with the mob; (3) he renews his friendship with Father Jerry (“Whaddya hear, whaddya say?”); (4) he runs into a girl from the neighborhood, now grown into a beautiful young woman, Laury Ferguson (Ann Sheridan), with whom he begins a relationship; and (5) he becomes the object of hero worship among a group of local teens (Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Leo Gorcey, Gabriel Dell, Huntz Hall, and Bernard Punsly).
“Angels With Dirty Faces” is a prime example of Hollywood’s factory system at its best. The back lots of the Warner studio were used over and over again, this time replicating an inner city, filled with a multitude of cars and pedestrians and fruit wagons. The actors were all under contract to the studio, Cagney himself continuing to kick and scream about his pay and the quality of his scripts, but when he left WB in the forties, his films did poorly, and he soon returned to the system he so hated.
In “Angels With Dirty Faces” Cagney plays essentially the same character he made famous in “The Public Enemy,” the charismatic, cocksure, little tough guy, hitching up his shoulders, strutting like a dancer (as we know, he was a terrific dancer; it’s how he got his start in movies, and he would display it again in “Yankee Doodle Dandy”), and charming everyone in sight.
Conversely, Warners had not yet figured out what to do with Bogart. The guy had proven himself a star player in “The Petrified Forest” a couple of years earlier, but he was still thought to be suitable only for gangster roles. So up until “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), he kept getting gunned down in the last reel. He hasn’t much to do in “Angels,” unfortunately, except play the role of the crooked, weaselly attorney who’s trying to rub out Rocky rather than give him his rightfully ill-gotten gains.
The teenagers mentioned earlier had only been in a couple of movies together before this one, but they were already known by the title of their first project, the stage play and 1937 movie “Dead End.” They were the “Dead End” kids for now, later to evolve into the East Side Kids, and finally, with ever dwindling numbers, the Bowery Boys. The story goes that the youngsters tried to upstage Cagney at the beginning of the production, and he rather forcibly let them know that if they tried it again, he’d punch them out. Life imitating art? Perhaps, as that very circumstance occurs in the film. When the kids first meet Rocky, they don’t know who he is and try to steal his wallet. When he turns the tables on them, and they find out who he is, a gangster celebrity in the city, they come to idolize him, much to the chagrin of Father Jerry, who is trying to steer the kids into a decent life.
But Jerry has high hopes of straightening out Rocky, too. He’s never given up on his oldest friend and sees only the good in him. The plot thickens, though, when Father Jerry goes on a crusade against crime in the city, and not even his old pal Rocky is about to stand in his way of doing right.
The movie gets preachy, as the Production Code demanded, but, hey, Jerry’s a priest. He’s got a right to be preachy. Then, the climax comes in a hail of bullets, and Rocky is taken away, this time to the chair. Yet, it provides another one of WB’s great, unforgettable gangster-movie endings as Rocky does one last and highly unexpected good deed for Jerry and the kids.
“I think that in order to be afraid,” says Rocky to Jerry at the end of the film, “you gotta have a heart. I don’t think I got one. Had that cut out of me a long time ago.” Yeah, but this film has a heart a mile wide, and the final scene proves it: A guaranteed, old-fashioned heartbreaker.
The first reel of the film starts out looking pretty ordinary for an old movie, a little light and faded and slightly rough, with the occasional age fleck here and there. But as the film goes along, its appearance improves considerably, the print looking almost ageless. No scratches, no lines, hardly any flecks, and a black-and-white contrast that is sometimes crystalline, interspersed with a few fuzzy edges. The screen size approximates the Academy Standard 1.37:1 ratio of the day, here rendered at 1.33:1. When this picture looks good, which is most of the time, it’s as good as any B&W film ever.
The monaural audio of the times is reproduced via Dolby Digital 1.0, and it, too, is as about as good as can be expected of it. The sound is clear and clean, with nary a trace of background noise unless cranked up way past the threshold of pain. It’s limited sound, of course, limited in frequency and dynamics and bass, but it’s probably better sounding on this disc than it ever was in a movie house of 1938.
As with all the discs in the “WB Gangsters” series, this one has Leonard Maltin hosting a Warner Night at the Movies,” 1938. It includes a nineteen-minute mini-musical, “Out Where the Stars Begin,” that takes us into the Warner studio and introduces us to some of the studio’s stars; a seven-minute, black-and-white Looney Tunes cartoon, “Porky and Daffy,” with an early Daffy you’d hardly recognize today; a trailer for a contemporary film, “Boy Meets Girl,” with Cagney, O’Brien, and Marie Wilson; and a vintage newsreel.
After that is a newly made featurette, “Angels With Dirty Faces: Whaddya Hear? Whaddya Say?” It’s twenty-two minutes long and includes observations on the film from film historian Rudy Behlmer, author Mark Vieira, and film professors Lincoln Hurst, UC Davis, and Drew Casper, USC. As usual, the combination of the background documentary plus a helpful and informative audio commentary by film historian Dana Polan give us a fascinating glimpse into the film, its stars, and its significance in the annals of moviemaking. The extras continue with an audio-only bonus, the May 22, 1939, Lux Radio Theater broadcast of “Angels,” with the film’s two stars, Cagney and O’Brien; it’s fifty-nine minutes long and divided into twenty-one chapters. The extras conclude with a theatrical trailer for “Angels with Dirty Faces” and twenty-three scene selections. English and French are provided as spoken languages, with English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Today, a person can look at “Angels With Dirty Faces” any number of ways. It’s a sociological drama, providing us with a glimpse at the ways society creates criminals. It’s an action adventure, with plenty of gun play, fights, and chases. It’s a story of human relationships, of friendships lost and won. And it’s a melodrama in the best sense, the kind where everything ends up the way we think life should always end up. But most of all, it’s Cagney: At the top of his game, the bad guy we have to love. He makes it all happen.
“Angels With Dirty Faces” is available separately or in a six-disc box set, the “Warner Bros. Pictures Gangsters Collection.” The other five discs, listed chronologically, are “Little Caesar” (1930) with Edward G. Robinson and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.; “The Public Enemy (1931) with James Cagney, Jean Harlow, and Joan Blondell; “The Petrified Forest” (1936) with Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, and Humphrey Bogart; “The Roaring Twenties” (1939) with Cagney, Bogart, and Priscilla Lane; and “White Heat” (1949) with Cagney and Virginia Mayo.