Movie Review By Monica Sullivan
It was the summer of 1937 and happy days weren't here again. It would take a second world war to end the international depression. Sidney Kingsley ("Men In White," "The Patriots," "Detective Story") had won a Pulitzer Prize for the original play "Dead End" in 1935, when he was only 29. Lillian Hellman (1905-84) was on Samuel Goldwyn's payroll, so she wrote the screenplay. Director William Wyler wanted to film the picture on the sidewalks of New York, but Goldwyn, like so many Hollywood producers, insisted that his Oscar-winning art director (Richard Day, 1896-1972) could transform the back lot into an East Side neighborhood. Well, you never forget it's a set, but what a set, filled with nooks & crannies & back alleys & dark stairs & a sharp contrast between the poverty line & the exterior of a luxury apartment building.
"Dead End" wasn't a bromide for those 20th century blues, it was a hard-hitting look at how the Depression affected everyone. Drina Gordon (Sylvia Sidney) is the sole source of support for her teenage brother Tommy (Billy Halop), but she's currently picketing her place of work. (Check out other films of the thirties to see how often members of picket lines are shown in such a compassionate light, if at all.) Drina's in love with architect Dave Connell (Joel McCrea), but he's between jobs & lusting after gangland moll Kay Burton (Wendy Barrie, who had a reputation for socializing with gangsters in real life). Tommy & the other Dead End Kids, Dippy, Angel, T.B., Spit & Milty, worship their gangland ideal, Baby Face Martin (Humphrey Bogart): He got out. But Martin is back (with Allen Jenkins as a thug named Hunk) to pay a call on his girlfriend, Francey (Claire Trevor) & to see his mother (Marjorie Main).
Despite Goldwyn's clout as an independent producer & Wyler's sensitivity as a director, this stage to screen transfer had to get past the Hays Office, & that meant that Kay Burton's status & Francey's syphilis could be suggested obliquely, but not mentioned out loud. But all the other theatrical elements remain intact, including the corrosive effect of slum life on children, as well as adults. The Dead End Kids evolved into the Bowery Boys, giving several of the kids here a regular paycheck well into middle age. They became a comic distortion of their desperate "Dead End" characters, all of whom seemed destined to wisecrack their way into early graves.
© 2001 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 1/23/02
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