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DEAD END (director: William Wyler; screenwriters: Lillian Hellman/based on the play by Sidney Kingsley; cinematographer: Gregg Toland; editor: Daniel Mandel; music: Alfred Newman; cast: Sylvia Sidney (Drina), Joel McCrea (Dave Connell), Humphrey Bogart (Baby Face Martin), Wendy Barrie (Kay Burton), Claire Trevor (Francie), Allen Jenkins (Hunk), Marjorie Main (Mrs. Martin), Billy Halop (Tommy Gordon), Huntz Hall (Dippy ‘Dip’), Bobby Jordan (Angel), Leo Gorcey (Spit), Gabriel Dell (T.B.), Bernard Punsly (Milty), Minor Watson (Mr. Griswald), Charles Peck (Philip Griswald), James Burke (Officer Mulligan), Charles Halton (Whitey), Al Bridge (Detective), George Humbert (Pascagli); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Samuel Goldwyn; MGM; 1937)
“Couldn’t be more outdated.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The grim b/w social drama, over-valued as a great social problem film, is based on the 1935 Broadway play by Sidney Kingsley and scripted by Lillian Hellman and directed by William Wyler (“Come and Get It”/”Jezebel”/”The Heiress”). Though well-meaning it couldn’t be more outdated and its take on juvenile delinquency more risible. Its liberal plea that a poor environment alone breeds criminals doesn’t pass the giggle test.

It now is best known as the launching pad for the street tough Dead End Kids (Billy Halop, Huntz Hall, Leo Gorcey, Gabe Dell, Bernard Punsly and Bobby Jordan), in their initial film, who reprise their stage roles and later played the same role for some twenty years or so as the Bowery Boys.

In this early juvenile delinquent movie, Wyler tells the struggle many immigrants have in the big city of raising their kids in the slums– living in poverty, facing poor living conditions and faced with street crime. Since the period is the Great Depression, the slice of life drama points out how scarce jobs were and how difficult it was for most just to get by. In a highly theatrical way it’s pounded into us that urban slum life traps many dwellers into an endless cycle of despair and crime, and that there’s no help for the poor from the government institutions. The mawkish drama depicts a wide gulf between the classes even if they live close together. Because the rich cherish a river view they move into hi-rise luxury doorman buildings with terraces (in Sutton Place, the East 50s ) that just happen to look down on their pitiful lower-class tenement neighbors. Instead of shooting on location, art director Richard Day built the tenement set on a sound-stage and made the production studio-bound. This only added to the limitations already caused by the conventional script.

The film centers on two vastly different characters: the one a picket line, honest, impoverished, hard working, young woman named Drina (Sylvia Sydney). She has her hands full raising her rebellious teenager Dead End Kid brother Tommy (Billy Halop) and keeping him from going wrong. She’s also in love with the nice guy architect from the neighborhood Dave Connell (Joel McCrea), who can’t get work and foolishly craves the blonde beauty from the luxury building, Kay Burton (Wendy Barrie), who is the mistress of one of the wealthy residents. The other character is Baby Face Martin (Humphrey Bogart, played the same role onstage), the kid from the slums who returns with a new plastic surgery face to the old neighborhood after becoming a wanted big-time gangster and killer. His flunky henchman, Hunk (Allen Jenkins), is always by his side. The gangster returns so he can see mom (Marjorie Main) for one last time and see his old flame Francie (Claire Trevor). Only to have mom tell him “you’re a no good tramp,” and slap him in the kisser while telling him to get lost. While Francie turns him off because she became a sickly looking cheap streetwalker. The gangster, while hanging around the ‘hood, takes a liking to the Dead End Kids and mentors them in knife fighting and criminal activities, but is recognized by Dave and told to leave or be turned in. The gangster plans on leaving, but not before he pulls off one more job.

The drama tells us that the slums can raise a gangster or an architect, but if you want more educated good citizens you better have programs in place to support the disadvantaged.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”