Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) is the great post-code gangster film. 

The fun truth that is constant about film noir, is that at its heart it does talk about morality. 

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) directed by Michael Curtiz for Warner Brothers, and starring James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, The Dead End Kids, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, and George Bancroft, makes at a stab at futurity and morality, the twin pins that the production is based on.

This is flat out morality with as much gangsterism as could be squeezed on to the screen, while Catholicism beckons from the sidelines, filtered through the rough-housing rough antics of a real juvenile delinquent squad of tearaways, who wreck the movie, much as the real life juvenile actors behaved true to type and wrecked the studio. 

This is an irony because film noir was brought about itself by the imposition of a moral code on cinema production, and film noir became an artistic way to discuss this code and frame its requirements in the most interesting ways possible.

Angels With Dirty Faces however does often come up in lists of greatest films of all time. It's interesting how many of the greatest films of all time were directed by Michael Curtis, who is anything but a household name. But there is also Casablanca, Mildred Pierce and White Christmas, entirely different bt equally revered and adored productions. He also directed Yankee Doodle Dandy, and King Creole, probably the smartest of all the Elvis movies ever made.

Ann Sheridan revs up for some proto-noir in
Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

During the period of 1935 to 1960, American cinema portrayed juvenile delinquency in various ways. Juvenile delinquency refers to criminal behaviour committed by minors or young people who are typically below 18 years of age. Like the Dead End Kids, who were expected to be a massive popular hit, but whose stars faded fast.

Montage of the Crazy Twenties

In the 1930s and 1940s, juvenile delinquency was depicted in films as a social problem that needed to be addressed. Films such as Dead End (1937) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) explored the root causes of delinquency and showed how poverty, neglect, and a lack of opportunity contributed to criminal behaviour. These films often portrayed juvenile delinquents as victims of their circumstances, and the focus was on rehabilitating them rather than punishing them.

Humphrey Bogart in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

In the 1950s, the tone of films about juvenile delinquency shifted. Films such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Blackboard Jungle (1955) portrayed delinquents as rebellious, violent, and dangerous. Now of course the Dead End Kids were all of these things and also annoying to go with it — but the Dead End Kids were in no way cool, by dint of their lack of props and clothing — no cigarettes and no motor bikes, these kids were adult mooks in the waiting, and turned redeemingly to comedy as something of an indicator of the fact that they were not a threat to America after all. 

These later films reflected the anxieties of post-World War II America and depicted juvenile delinquency as a threat to social order. They also reflected the rise of teenage culture and the growing generation gap between young people and their parents.

Ann Sheridan — motherly, wifely, sisterly, angelic and every woman going
Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

Other films of the 1950s, such as The Wild One (1953) and High School Confidential! (1958), glamorised juvenile delinquency and portrayed delinquents as cool, rebellious, and sexually adventurous. These films were controversial at the time and were criticised for promoting immoral behaviour.

A pack of street mooks contemplate a phone booth hit
Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

By the 1960s, the portrayal of juvenile delinquency in American cinema had become more complex. Films such as West Side Story (1961) and The Outsiders (1983) explored the social and cultural factors that contributed to delinquent behaviour while also depicting the emotional struggles of young people trying to find their place in society.

Pat O'Brien as the priest sent to clean up the city
Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

Overall, the portrayal of juvenile delinquency in American cinema during the period of 1935 to 1960 reflected the changing attitudes towards young people and the social, cultural, and political context of the time. These films contributed to public discourse on juvenile delinquency and influenced public policy on how to address this issue.

Chat GPT and most academics will tell you that in the 1940s, American cinema began to address the issue of juvenile delinquency in a more serious and socially conscious manner. 

This isn't entirely true, because in fact that same cinema industry was simultaneously creating the issue of juvenile delinquency, as fast as it was portraying it.

The portrayal of juvenile delinquency in films of this era reflected a growing concern about the problem and a desire to understand and address its root causes, but the root causes were also contained within the censorship that was emerging around the idea. 

The original case in point has to be The Dead End Boys as featured in the film Angels With Dirty Faces (1938). High on the promise of the Production Code, Hollywood created a blockbuster which placed the idea to the fore in the form of the object lesson that was this new group of young players, who style the entire film, and remain the only part of it which seems dated, and overacted.

James Cagney and The Dead End Kids

Key indeed, is the fact that The Dead End Kids themselves were entirely delinquent on set. The Kids were all signed to two-year contracts, allowing for possible future films, and began working on the 1937 United Artists' film, Dead End. The actual name of the gang of boys in Dead End is written in chalk on the wall shown throughout the movie. It reads: "East 53rd Place Gang Members Only". During production, the boys ran wild around the studio, destroying property, including a truck that they crashed into a sound stage. Goldwyn chose not to use them again and sold their contract to Warner Bros

Warner Bros. had initially attempted to rename them the "Crime School Kids" through advertisements for their first two films produced there, starting with Crime School (1937), to disassociate them from their previous studio's film, and promote their own. In 1938, they made their only colour appearance in a short film, Swingtime in the Movies, and were referred to as that name. This was all in vain, though, as the name never caught on, and they remained the Dead End Kids.

Cheatin' no good Dead End Kids
Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

At Warner Bros., the Dead End Kids made six films, including Angels with Dirty Faces, with some of the top actors in Hollywood, including John Garfield and Ronald Reagan. The last one was in 1939, when they were released from their contracts owing to more antics on the studio lot.

In one sense we may be looking at a world in which social services does not exist, but for want of even knowing what social services are, this is maybe a historical lesson. The Dead End Kids, in this film and just about every other film they appeared in are just homeless kids who live in the streets without any supervision. They cause mischief of course, and are all boys, and they were used in gangster movies to show the kinds of kids gangsters were before they grew up and became criminals.

The story of the two childhood friends who grow up on opposite sides of the law, with one becoming a criminal, while the other becomes a priest, is deeper and more complex than might be imagined. Yes, bad behaviour is punished — but not always, when we dig deeper.

The film explores the social and economic factors that contribute to juvenile delinquency, and it portrays the delinquents as products of their environment rather than as inherently evil. But it also shows that because he can run faster, Pat O'Brien's character, the priest, manages to avoid being caught, which leaves his options way open.

Watching Humphrey Bogart smoke in 
Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

Another important film from this era was Dead End (1937), directed by William Wyler and starring Humphrey Bogart and Joel McCrea. The film shows a group of young boys growing up in poverty in New York City's slums. The film explores the impact of poverty and a lack of opportunity on the lives of these boys, and it suggests that these factors contribute to delinquent behaviour.

In addition to these films, other movies of the 1940s such as Boys Town (1938), The Human Comedy (1943), and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) dealt with the issue of juvenile delinquency in different ways. These films often depicted delinquents as troubled youth who need guidance and support, rather than as hardened criminals who need to be punished.

Overall, the portrayal of juvenile delinquency in American cinema in the 1940s reflected a growing awareness of the problem and a desire to understand and address its root causes. These films contributed to public discourse on the issue and helped shape public policy aimed at addressing juvenile delinquency.

News often travels fast in cinema, at least it did in the most exciting and informative trope to ever thrive, rise and demise in Hollywood — the newspaper device.

Here the newspapers — with an exciting cut to the newspaper offices themselves — tell the story of Pat O'Brien's priestly character tackling he underworld vice — surely a big shout out the amazingly socially useful Catholic Church and all it did for cinema.

Storytelling by headline in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

Showing the passage of time and the social impact of events newspaper headlines come emblazoned and in their more traditional form, spinning towards the camera before pausing and fading out. 

The effect is sometimes prefaced with either a newspaper boy yelling "Extra! Extra!" or a similar phrase, or some photography of a stack of newspapers being delivered. Here in Angels With Dirty Faces the backdrop is the newspaper office itself, where the deals are being done to gull the public, impressive for 1938 as this is nearly 15 years before Fritz Lang's film noir newspaper movies and media trio.

The spinning paper was so incredibly over-used in history and was a natural development of and variation of the caption from the silent film era, that now it is usually used only for comedic ends. It naturally became rarer overall as newspapers lost importance to television or online services

Some movie-makers would print custom faux-newspapers for a montage like this, while others would use stock layouts, with everything other than the massive main headline taken from other fake front pages. This could be why certain news articles like New Petitions Against Tax appear on unrelated front pages from time to time. 


The Hays Code, also known as the Motion Picture Production Code, was a set of moral guidelines that governed the content of Hollywood movies from 1930 to 1968. 

It was named after Will H. Hays, the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), and Joseph Breen, the head of the Production Code Administration (PCA).

James Cagney in
Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

In terms of its impact on the film industry, the Hays Code can be considered both a success and a failure. On one hand, it achieved its goal of promoting "wholesome entertainment" and avoiding content that was deemed offensive or immoral.

The Code prohibited the depiction of explicit violence, drug use, nudity, and profanity, among other things. It also required that films promote "correct standards of life," including marriage, patriotism, and respect for authority. The Code in its unique way affected film noir, by providing directors with material to skirt, rub up against, and otherwise codify in another manner.

At its best and most effective, The Code produced moralisingly entertaining fare such as Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) 

The mob assembles at the close of
Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

On the other hand, the Hays Code was criticized for being overly restrictive and stifling creativity in the film industry. Some filmmakers and actors felt that the Code prevented them from exploring mature themes and creating more realistic portrayals of life. In the 1960s, the Code began to be challenged by the increasing social and cultural changes of the era, and it was ultimately replaced by a new rating system in 1968.

As he enters the death chamber, James Cagney as Rocky breaks down. Is he pretending or not? This question became one of the more immortal in all cinema and still worth asking. The backdrop to this question is film noir's sole guiding force: morality.

At the end Rocky is transformed into a screaming coward begging not to be killed. Terrible screams of pathetic cowardice fly from the death chamber, and this is seen only in classic noir-like shadows projected on the wall, and so Rocky's cowardice is never fully shown and we don't know if it is real or not, or if that matters.

It's a trick, it's all a trick. As if pie-in-the-sky were not enough in terms what religion can offer the criminal youth and professional career hoods, there needs to be some good examples set, and Rocky ios asked to lie:

You asking me to pull an act, turn yellow, so those kids will think I'm no good...You ask me to throw away the only thing I've got left...You ask me to crawl on my belly - the last thing I do in life...Nothing doing. You're asking too much...You want to help those kids, you got to think about some other way.

Rocky's shame brings tears to Father Connolly's eyes and his general all -round yellowness goes dead against all the tenets of criminal living in the cinema, and of course it serves to kill off the young men's unhealthy love of him and his tough and violent ways. Grateful adoration fills Jerry's face and another iconic image for the ages is created in the loveful heaven-wardly praise-face of Pat O'Brien.

The newspaper headline announces as follows:


With all the boy-gang members present in the old hide-out the newspaper account of Rocky's unheroic end is read out:

'At the fatal stroke of 11 pm, Rocky was led through the little green door of death. No sooner had he entered the death chamber than he tore himself from the guard's grasp and flung himself on the floor, screaming for mercy. Then, as they dragged him to the electric chair, he clawed wildly at the concrete floor with agonized shrieks. In contrast to his former heroics, Rocky Sullivan died a coward.'

Hoping that the newspaper reports are a lie, they ask Father Connelly to tell them what happened:

Did Rocky die as they said, like a yellow rat?

Casting his mind back to the boyhood crime that got Rocky in trouble to begin with, and sent him to prison, where of course he became the violent criminal the story is about, Jerry delivers the last line of the film to the kids.

It is as ambiguous as hell. This final line of seems to suggest that because Jerry could run faster, he could thus get away with his crimes, and his subsequent life of morality is in a dash premised on and supported by this:

It's true, boys. Every word of it. He died like they said. All right, fellas. Let's go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn't run as fast as I could.

Do the Dead End Kids ever find out that they are being lied to? Does the lie work and make them moral men as they grow older? Is there a sequel in which the Dead End Kids find out that Rocky faked it, and Jerry lied about it? Presumably this anarchist crime classic would be one of the most immoral revenge rampages ever produced.

As often, the death sentence and Death Row, as over-exemplified here by the mechanics of the electric chair in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), perhaps the most cinematic of deathly devices, is the ultimate end point of morality. The chair is the vanishing point where morality, bad behaviour and painful retributive death become one and the same item

Overall, the Hays Code can be seen as a mixed success. While it did achieve its goal of promoting wholesome entertainment and avoiding offensive content, it also limited artistic freedom and creativity in the film industry. Best of all however, it created in a matter of years everything explicit to classic film noir, by providing rules which had to be circumvented with play.

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) Wikipedia

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