End Credits

We are pleased that One Foot in Heaven brought in a large crowd for our final show!
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We would like to thank all our series regulars and semi-regulars who attended Cinema of Transcendence this spring. We averaged 54 patrons a week with the highest-attended film being One Foot in Heaven (71).

This season we had hoped to attract new audiences as well as the church-going crowd, but neither group attended. Despite presenting two of the finest family films ever made in our last two weeks, not one parent brought their child to either Stars in My Crown or One Foot in Heaven. The closest we came was a father who came down to the meeting room looking for a bookmark/schedule for his daughter who was with him. They didn’t stay for the movie. (We were out of the bookmarks since we had been offering them at the front desk for the past three months.) Other patrons who had never attended before asked about the series, but in the end, John Q was more interested in placing reserves on movies like Hot Tub Time Machine 2.

When only 50 (!) show up for a movie like Angels With Dirty Faces with Cagney and Bogart, it’s a clear indication that the problem is with the community at large and how they define entertainment– not with the theme/films we selected. Despite distributing our flyers to all the neighboring churches, we doubt a word was sent out to any congregation concerning our faith-based series. Ministerial cooperation would’ve energized the program.

Our faithful…
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Despite the disappointing turnout– our lowest average ever–Cinema of Transcendence became the most rewarding program we’ve presented. Those who made the effort to come out enjoyed this year’s subject. In fact, on our last two shows, patrons were actually in tears when the movies ended. There are few films today that can impact viewers to that extreme. They were moved to the core. Other patrons expressed the impact of certain movies in their lives. In this way, the embers of Transcendence will continue to glow. Throughout the series we received many positive comments after each screening:

“It took guts in our very secularized culture to put on a series of this subject matter, but I think it is important to continue to tap into people’s religious instincts and their desire to contemplate the big questions of life. Presenting these films in this context was an  excellent way to accomplish that task.” ~Joe P.

If nothing else, this theme made us appreciate even more the dedication and support of our regulars. As we said in our final benediction last Thursday night, God bless them all.

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The Park Ridge Public Library Classic Film Series will return…

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Faith in Action: The Value of Transcendence

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Of all the programs I’ve put together for the PRPL Classic Film Series, Cinema of Transcendence was the least popular. Nevertheless, it was the most rewarding one on a personal level. Exploring the role of faith in film was something I always wanted to do, and many who did attend appreciated what we had to offer. From Opening Night with Douglas Fairbanks to our finale last Thursday, this was the best collection of films we’ve ever presented. Even the rarities in the series– films like Gabriel Over the White House and Dante’s Inferno— were of great interest and added a unique dimension to the theme.

Dealing with such themes as redemption, sacrifice, and forgiveness, the films in the series reflected the best of human nature. They showed religion in a positive light. (For instance, the John Stahl version of Magnificent Obsession was more likely to be presented here than the Douglas Sirk one simply because of the sincerity of its message.) This was not a series about cynicism or challenging one’s beliefs. There were no black comedies, scathing indictments, or negative portrayals about religious fanaticism. We certainly see enough of that in the news and in popular culture.

It’s not surprising that church attendance is dropping now when there are so many scandals. No wonder people become disenchanted with those who lead the church as well as frustrated by the policies, which often change with the times. One church in Park Ridge is asking members of its congregation to “donate” exorbitant amounts of money for their renovations. Contrast those expectations with how William Spence went about building his church in One Foot in Heaven. Of course, church leaders in Park Ridge might’ve learned a few things from the likes of a William Spence or a Parson Gray from Stars in My Crown– if they had bothered to attend.

Cinema of Transcendence was our own revival meeting and we hope we revived peoples’ interest in these films if not their faith in a Hereafter. The films showed the value of faith and how it works in the community at large. The principles of Christianity were at work in every film screened even if the characters in the films did not profess to be religious. One great example comes in Stars in My Crown when Alan Hale’s Jed Isbell offers to rebuild Uncle Famous’ farm after it had been destroyed by the Klan-like “Night Riders.” That’s a wonderful moment that shows Christian charity at work, and that’s what this series was all about.


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One Foot in Heaven (1941) by matthew c. hoffman

“Without waiting for an answer, he began to play ‘The Church’s one foundation Is Jesus Christ our Lord.’ He could not have chosen a more difficult tune, for it used every bell in the tower. But he played without a fault. People came to their doors up and down the street. The crowd left the veranda of the hotel a block away and stood on the sidewalk. Few of his listeners had ever before heard a chime.” ~ Hartzell Spence, One Foot in Heaven

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Transcript from 6/4/15:

I think for this final sermon of the spring I’d like to say a few words of a more personal nature in regards to tonight’s film. In One Foot in Heaven, Fredric March’s character speaks about the moral value of a movie he had just seen, and in a way, that is exactly what I’m doing tonight.

One Foot in Heaven is the film that inspired Cinema of Transcendence. I last presented it in October of 2003 at the LaSalle Bank Theatre in Chicago. It was part of my last program at the bank before I moved on from my position as programmer/projectionist. Moving on to the next challenge is certainly a theme in tonight’s film as well. In my own case, in 2003 I had finally convinced the LaSalle Bank to invest in a 35mm projector. It was what the bank series needed after many years of playing movies on Saturday nights. It was not easy building the program up, but after four years, it was time to leave and begin anew. I left the theatre with the satisfaction of knowing I was able to present some really good films to the community. One Foot in Heaven was one of the most special.

For years it was unavailable on home entertainment. Occasionally Turner Classic Movies would broadcast it, but the only copy of it you were likely to find would be a “bootleg” copy. When I decided to do a series at the Library that explored the role of faith in classic film—Cinema of Transcendence became the more loftier name for it—I knew I wanted One Foot in Heaven to be part of it. Last year I asked members of my “Fredric March Film Society” on Facebook to write Warner Archive and let them know there was a demand for it, and I personally contacted that Warner division myself. I was able to reach the head of Warner Archive. His office relayed to me some good news. They were indeed planning on releasing it once the film elements were properly restored. They believed it would be available by the spring of 2015 in time for our program. As our deadline neared, however, I had given up hope that we would get it. But in March, it was finally released and we were able to add it at the last minute. This is why it doesn’t appear in our newsletter or on our bookmarks. There was no better film to end the program with than the one that inspired it in the first place.

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Like Jacques Tourneur’s  Stars in My Crown from last week, One Foot in Heaven is an episodic film about small-town America. It tells the true story of a Methodist minister named William Spence. It’s based on the best-selling book of the same name written by his son, Hartzell Spence. It’s a wonderful read and it inspired me to visit one of the parishes Spence had preached at in Dodge City, Iowa. The film is true to the spirit of the book as it details the life of a circuit preacher.

The story concerns the various problems that arise as Spence travels from one parish to another—from leaky holes in the parsonage roof to the gossiping society women who spread malicious lies. One Foot in Heaven takes an honest look at church politics and shows the hypocrisy that is as rampant today as it was back then. As Fredric March’s character says, “The real heathens are in the church.”

Throughout Cinema of Transcendence we’ve seen films that have a certain perspective in terms of religious denominations. The gangster genre with Angels with Dirty Faces had a distinctly Catholic viewpoint, whereas the quasi-Western Stars in My Crown was very much in the Protestant tradition. One Foot in Heaven examines another denomination of Protestantism. The Spence family is not like other families as so many of life’s enjoyments fall outside their Methodist Discipline, though Spence shows he is willing to listen to the younger generation. Initially motivated to point out the evils of the movie house to his son, William Spence’s trip to see a William S. Hart silent movie becomes a personal revelation as well as one of the highlights of the movie. One Foot in Heaven is composed of beautiful scenes such as this that deal honestly with the values of faith in a changing world.

And like Stars in My Crown, there is a conflict with science. Here it’s the town doctor played by Jerome Cowan who scoffs at religion during a drugstore debate. It was a major story thread through the Jacques Tourneur film, but here it is dealt with in one simple scene, although very well played.

Fredric March
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What makes the film work so well are the performances. Fredric March was, in my opinion, the most accomplished screen actor of his generation, and we’ve screened three of his films in this series alone. He conveys the convictions of a real man of God, infusing his character with humanity, humor, and a reverent strength.  The beautiful prayers that he speaks in the film are some of his finest moments. Hartzell Spence, who wrote the book, said his mother wanted Fredric March for the role of her husband. March’s last emotional scene in the film– showing both his character’s commitment to his calling and his disappointment at moving on yet again–is some of his best work as an actor.

Martha Scott, who had recently starred in Our Town with William Holden—a role for which she would be nominated for an Academy Award– was cast as March’s self-sacrificing wife, Hope. She would go on to play Charlton Heston’s mother in both The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur. Originally Olivia de Havilland was slated to play this role, but Warner Bros. decided to move her to the Errol Flynn movie They Died With Their Boots On. In addition to the two leads, there is great support from some of Hollywood’s best character actors. Besides the aforementioned Jerome Cowan, there’s Laura Hope Crews and Harry Davenport—both of whom audiences might recall from Gone With the Wind. Gene Lockhart plays an outspoken member of the congregation with his own ideas of how the new church should be built. In the scene in which William Spence is laying out his plans to the building committee, there are some familiar faces that the die-hard classic film buffs will recognize, including Frank Reicher and Hobart Bosworth.

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The film was directed by Irving Rapper who had previously been a dialogue director on films for Michael Curtiz. In a TCM article, Frank Miller writes, “Rapper prodded his cast to perform simply and naturalistically, using close-ups to discourage overacting. But his position as a tyro showed when he had to shoot a big action scene involving a raging fire that was shot on location in Los Angeles. He was so intrigued by the mechanics of staging the fire and the sheer spectacle of it all that when the cameras finally rolled and flames shot to the skies, he was so enthralled he temporarily forgot to call action, despite the fact that he had rehearsed the scene effectively during numerous dry runs.” Rapper’s direction gave the film a warm and gentle tone.

Max Steiner did the wonderful film score which adds considerable depth to the film. As with Stars in Crown, One Foot in Heaven relies heavily on the musical motifs of a particular song. The Church’s One Foundation, which is sung in the final scene, was a Christian hymn written in the 1860s by Samuel John Stone, inspired by the Apostles’ Creed. As an aside, I had asked the Park Ridge Community Church to play this piece today at noon on their bells. I recall hearing this hymn played before at the church. However, the songs that you hear ringing out every day at lunchtime are played on a loop and they can’t control which song will be played on what day.

As with all the films in this program, One Foot in Heaven offers a positive image of religion. It is an uplifting film that leaves one feeling good inside—a transcendence of spirit. The film presents us with a vision of community and how faith is interwoven in it. One Foot in Heaven recreates a time that seems all the more distant, a place where old-fashioned morality and family values were the high standard. It’s a film that is honest, true, and good.

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Addendum: We had 71 in attendance on 6/4/15, making One Foot in Heaven the best-attended film of the series.

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Recommended Reading

Here are two books we’d suggest for additional information on our subject. The Roy Kinnard and Tim Davis book is highly recommended.

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Stars in My Crown (1950) by matthew c. hoffman

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Winner of the prestigious Freedom Foundation Award, this episodic Western is a supreme entertainment that is thoroughly refreshing in today’s cynical times. Set in the years after the Civil War, it’s the story of a small Southern town, Walesburg, as remembered by the narrator of the film, John Kenyon. It’s more than nostalgia for childhood but rather a longing for a special time and place. It’s a portrait of America long gone in which the traditional teachings were the best values one could have. There were problems to be sure—town bullies, typhoid fever, racial intolerance—but there was the parson who guided the community through the hardships while revealing his own self-doubt in the darkest hours.

Joel McCrea as Parson Josiah Gray is a man of integrity and inspiration. In turn, others have faith in him and in what he has to say. McCrea biographer Tony Thomas wrote, “Stars in My Crown is one of the stars in the crown of Joel McCrea. The role of the strong, likeable pastor fits him like a glove. It is quintessential McCrea, thoroughly American and straight as an arrow. This pastor is no mere Holy Joe; when he strides into a saloon and slams a pistol on the bar the patrons pay attention. And when he faces down the Klanners there is no doubt that this is the man who could do it. He knows about prejudice and greed and ignorance, and how to do something about it. Josiah Doziah Gray is Joel McCrea at his best.”

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Also in the cast is Ellen Drew as Harriet Gray, child actor Dean Stockwell as John Kenyon, James Mitchell as Dr. Harris, the practical doctor with more faith in medicine than in prayer, Amanda Blake as the schoolteacher, Alan Hale in his last film, Lewis Stone, and Juano Hernandez as Uncle Famous. Hernandez had appeared in Intruder in the Dust the previous year, which also dealt with lynch mobs. Also in the cast, though uncredited, is James Arness. He and Amanda Blake would go on to star in the long-running television series “Gunsmoke.”

Stars in My Crown was based on the book of the same name by Joe David Brown with an adaptation by Margaret Fitts. The book and film take their title from a Protestant hymn, Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown, which was originally composed in the 19th century.

Stars in My Crown was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who was best known for the film noir Out of the Past as well as the atmospheric horror films he made with Val Lewton at RKO including Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie. But the darkness of those earlier films has been replaced by hope and optimism. In a style that recalls the best of John Ford, Tourneur’s artful hand and rural compositions make this American tale one of the best films of the 1950s. Tourneur reportedly waived his normal salary demands in order to make the film his own way without any studio interference. As a result, he made a film which he believed was his best.

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There’s a wonderful introduction of the film on an online site called True Film in which the moderator writes, “Tourneur conjures the palpable aura of one era giving way to another, with an emphasis on growth, renewal and healing—both spiritual and physical. Pastor’s Gray’s fight on behalf of Famous Prell for the community’s soul is paralleled with the story of a young, idealistic atheist doctor fighting a typhoid outbreak. As we transition from one era to another, the characters learn to see themselves not as divided polarities (young and old, black and white, men of faith and men of science), but as forces of complementary balance, inextricably linked together, each with inherent worth and dignity.”

Stars in My Crown received a “Critic’s Choice” review from the Chicago Reader when I screened it at the LaSalle Bank Theatre as part of a 29 film series devoted to Our Cinema Heritage. It’s a great film that is not only one of the best examples of faith in film, but it’s one of the best films I’ve presented at the Park Ridge Public Library. In a society that is ever-changing, Stars in My Crown is a reminder of a time when religion still mattered to the majority. America at the time of this story had a deeper sense of community and a stronger spiritual identity. Stars in My Crown plays out like a glowing memory of America.

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Strange Cargo (1940) by matthew c. hoffman

“Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.” ~Hebrews 13:2

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With her acting—and his presence—Joan Crawford and Clark Gable were two of Hollywood’s biggest heavyweights. Strange Cargo was their eighth, last, and most unusual teaming. Under the direction of Frank Borzage, it became something more than another star vehicle. It’s the story of several convicts who try to escape Devil’s Island with the aid of a mysterious stranger. The film’s theme of spiritual regeneration was an offbeat topic for a mainstream studio like MGM, which was better known for their romantic dramas set in upscale, urban settings. Gable & Crawford are a long way from that here. Strange Cargo is a fascinating deviation from the packaged entertainments of the time.

Clark Gable is Verne, a tough-talking, smug convict determined to escape a French penal colony. While on a work detail along the waterfront, he meets Joan Crawford’s Julie, a café entertainer with a questionable past. Verne takes a shine to her and eventually involves her in his escape. There are several prisoners with Verne—thieves, murderers, and men with dark pasts. But there is one man among them who doesn’t quite fit in, a stranger by the name of Cambreau. He will lead the men through the jungle and out of the darkness of their souls.

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The catalyst for the story is the character of Cambreau. Unlike the films that will follow in Cinema of Transcendence, he is not a minister, yet he is able to lead others to self-discovery. As in our own world, there are many who are embittered and warped by circumstance–people in need of a self-inventory. Strange Cargo deals with this without sermonizing or judging. Moralizing, afterall, tends to steer people in the opposite direction. But by making the convicts look at themselves, Cambreau gives them the opportunity to cleanse themselves of the dirt. To the film’s credit, not every character is transformed by Cambreau’s sense of faith. As in life, not every person finds peace or attempts to seek it.

Strange Cargo was based on a novel by Richard Sale called Not Too Narrow… Not Too Deep. The screenplay emphasized the allegorical aspects whereby characters attain a symbolic meaning. This is most obvious in the intellectual confrontation between the atheist Hessler and Cambreau, who becomes the conscience of the men. When they square off, we forget this is a Gable-Crawford movie. There is a metaphysical quality that hovers over the proceedings—a fantasy dimension that recalls other films like Destination Unknown (1933) and the British production, The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935).

Ian Hunter as Cambreau
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In order for this story to work on the screen, Strange Cargo needed an extraordinary cast. This was Clark Gable’s first film after Gone With the Wind, so he was at the height of his popularity at this time. Joan Crawford had recently made a comeback of sorts with 1939’s The Women. Her star appeared to be rising again. Though Strange Cargo has the star power, it’s the supporting actors who really make the production as interesting as it is. Peter Lorre has a small role as Monsieur Pig, the stool pigeon who lusts after Julie. The convicts are made up of an all-star team of great character actors including Ian Hunter as Cambreau. Hunter was a British actor whose career alternated between the stage and motion pictures. He starred in many films at Warner Brothers and is probably best known for his role as King Richard in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).

Paul Lukas, who would later win an Oscar for Watch On the Rhine (1943), plays the murderer, Hessler. The other notable performances include Albert Dekker as Moll, J. Edward Bromberg as Flaubert, and Eduardo Ciannelli as Tellez. Strange Cargo is remembered today, if at all, for the byplay between Gable and a decidedly unglamorous Crawford. Here, she gets stripped away of makeup and her $40,000 Adrian gowns. However, the film really belongs to the one with the last line in the movie.

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Strange Cargo was directed by the often overlooked Frank Borzage. Anyone not familiar with him needs to see films like 7th Heaven (1927) and The Mortal Storm (1940). One of his better-known works is the film noir Moonrise (1948). Borzage’s films, especially those made during the silent era, often featured a visual romanticism heavily influenced by the German director F.W. Murnau. A recurring theme in his best films dealt with love’s transcendence over adversity. Borzage was one of the most evocative filmmakers when dealing with this type of subject matter. Borzage had mixed melodrama and religion earlier with 1937’s The Green Light, which starred Errol Flynn. Borzage’s final film, The Big Fisherman (1959), was a biblical epic that told the story of Saint Peter. Strange Cargo would deal overtly with Christian themes, but there would be no saints in this one.

Writer John Belton wrote of Borzage’s characters, “Verne’s discovery of a need for something outside of himself, though centrally at issue in his relationship with Cambreau and his spiritual system, leads him to a deeper love of and need for Julie. What is great about Strange Cargo is the interdependence of these two threads. Borzage’s demand that his characters attain a spiritual awareness that goes beyond an immediate love relationship to a sympathy with and need for the world around them marks a significant expansion of the director’s concerns and a deepening of the beauty of his art.”

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Mainstream Hollywood rarely dealt with such issues, but instead of being commended, the film was condemned by the Catholic Church and their Legion of Decency because it presented a “naturalistic concept of religion contrary to the teachings of Christ and the Catholic Church,” as opposed to an evangelical understanding of God. But Strange Cargo is not to be condemned. It suggests that God dwells in all of us and is among us. Even in the most hellish places on Earth, we are not alone. Some of the more pious audiences back then may have been offended that God’s spirit would manifest in a penal colony housing every form of social degenerate. They may have forgotten the words of Jesus when the Pharisees questioned why He would eat with sinners: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.” (Matthew 9:12)

Audiences in 1940 weren’t interested in seeing Clark Gable find salvation. They stayed away. Strange Cargo made a profit of only $21,000 at the box office. The film’s producer, Joseph Mankiewicz, reportedly said, “It was almost a good film. I wish it could have been made later. It was tough doing any kind of film that even approached reality in any way.”

Strange Cargo is not for everyone. There will come a moment in the story when you will wonder what exactly is going on—or it may come as a complete revelation. Irrespective of one’s interpretation, Strange Cargo is a beautifully-made film about redemption—a theme we’ve been dealing with in this series since the first week with The Gaucho.

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Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) by matthew c. hoffman

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Angels With Dirty Faces is the quintessential gangster movie featuring James Cagney at his most charismatic. It’s one of his finest performances and it would earn him his first Oscar Nomination. (He would lose to Spencer Tracy’s Father Flanagan in Boys Town.) Though the film displays Cagney’s dynamic force of personality, the greatness of the film does not rest solely on his shoulders but on the talents of many. The studio system of filmmaking was a collaborative effort that incorporated the best talents in front of and behind the motion picture camera. Angels shows the craft of the studio system at its zenith. It’s a truly great film that has lost none of its emotional impact.

Angels With Dirty Faces is the story of two boyhood friends from the slums of the Lower East Side who take different paths in life– if only because one can run faster than the other. One is Rocky Sullivan, as played by James Cagney, a gangster who thumbs his nose at the law and is idolized by the neighborhood Dead End Kids. The other is Jerry Connelly (Pat O’Brien), a priest who believes his boys can be saved– if not Rocky himself. Sullivan enters an uneasy partnership with crooked lawyer Humphrey Bogart and deals with a criminal organization ingrained in society. Rocky Sullivan is a throwback to the old-time gangsters who must now adapt to the larger, criminal system around him. As his fortunes change—from rundown tenements to ritzy nightclubs– his stock rises in the eyes of the impressionable. The stakes are high, and it’s up to Father Jerry to win back his kids. Angels features one of the most powerful endings in 1930s cinema. Some modern critics over the years have reinterpreted the ending, but there’s only one plausible interpretation that remains in keeping with the character of Rocky Sullivan.

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Angels With Dirty Faces was part of the second wave of ‘30s gangster movies. It’s a genre that thrived in the early ‘30s with films like Public Enemy, Little Caesar and Scarface. But unlike those films which glamorized hopeless criminals, Angels offered something different. It presented a character who had the potential to be redeemed. It’s this layer that separates him from the earlier criminals who died on the street or in the gutter, unrepentant to the end. Rocky Sullivan isn’t all bad. There is a spirit of goodness underlying the tough exterior, and this is conveyed through his friendship with Father Jerry. The audience is drawn to him much the same way the Dead End Kids are. Angels offered the possibility of spiritual redemption for the gangster.

The ‘30s crime genre had always been about how the role of the gangster could be a seductive force, both within the context of the movie but also without– how movie audiences were drawn to these colorful characters (to the consternation of the Production Code). Angels is all about this attraction. This is most evident through the media, specifically the use of the newspaper headline. Certainly a parallel can be drawn to today, although headlines have been replaced by the Internet and real-time coverage in which events unfold instantaneously. What is interesting in Angels With Dirty Faces is that almost every action stirs a headline. It’s a recurring visual motif, and it’s used to show the impact of the gangster in the lives of those who worship him.

What makes Rocky Sullivan so attractive is the fact that he is played by James Cagney. He was one of the great stars of Hollywood. Cagney’s first big break came with 1931’s The Public Enemy. Throughout the ‘30s he appeared in many star vehicles that Warner Brothers ground out like sausages, movies like Taxi!, The Crowd Roars, Winner Take All, Hard to Handle, Picture Snatcher, The Mayor of Hell, and so on. These were entertaining movies but not necessarily ones that would endure in our consciousness. There were occasional films during this period that did stand out more than others. Footlight Parade, which showed Cagney’s great versatility as a song-and-dance man, and the artistic A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was one of the most beautiful films of the decade, remain two of his best films from the era. Angels With Dirty Faces would likewise become something more than just another star vehicle.

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With the possible exception of White Heat, it’s Cagney’s best film. Rocky Sullivan is certainly one of Cagney’s most memorable portrayals. Movie buffs remember his physical characteristics—the famous shoulder roll and neck twitch. We get insight into the actor’s process in Doug Warren’s 1983 biography on James Cagney. In it, Cagney said he modeled the character of Rocky Sullivan on a hophead-pimp he had known growing up in his old neighborhood in New York. “He wore an expensive straw hat and an electric blue suit, and all day he would stand on that corner. He would hitch up his trousers, twist his neck and move his necktie, lift his shoulders, snap his fingers, then bring his palms together in a soft smack. His invariable greeting was ‘Whaddya hear? Whaddya say?’ I did those gestures maybe six times in the picture, and the impressionists have been doing me doing him ever since.”

Unlike other movie stars who played tough onscreen, Cagney was tough, having grown up on the streets in the kind of environment depicted in the movie. One of the most memorable sequences in Angels is the chaotic basketball game in the parish gym that Sullivan referees. Cagney was always in control onscreen—as well as off. In Cagney, author Doug Warren writes that in one scene, Leo Gorcey of the Dead End Kids kept ad-libbing phrases that broke the continuity. Cagney wasn’t going to tolerate it. “When Gorcey interjected an ad-lib, Jimmy gave him a stiff-arm above the nose, snapping his head back sharply. ‘Now listen,’ he said, poking a finger into Gorcey’s chest. ‘We’ve got work to do, and there’ll be no more of this goddamn nonsense. We’re going to do it the way we were told to do it… understand?’ Gorcey understood. It was a language familiar to him.”

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Pat O’Brien was a very good friend of Cagney in real life, and with fellow actors Spencer Tracy and Frank McHugh, they were known as “The Irish Mafia” of Hollywood. In fact, O’Brien was often referred to as “Hollywood’s Irishman in Residence.” He had originally come from Broadway and had found great success beginning with 1931’s The Front Page. From the mid-1930s on, O’Brien would co-star with Cagney in several films, including Here Comes the Navy, Devil Dogs of the Air, The Irish in Us, and others. These were early forerunners of the “buddy film,” with the two usually cast as a team. O’Brien’s most memorable role, however, came in 1941 when he portrayed the famous Notre Dame football coach, Knute Rockne. He often played tough cops, fast-talking reporters, or authority figures. Angels With Dirty Faces presents one of his best roles as Father Connolly. This was the type of characterization Hollywood at that time excelled in with similar movie priests like Spencer Tracy in Boys Town and Bing Crosby in Going My Way. Like them, Father Jerry represents the best of the Catholic faith. Connolly is a streetwise priest who counteracts the pull of Rocky using calmness and wisdom. O’Brien’s style of acting is in direct contrast to Cagney’s, which further delineates him onscreen.

The Dead End Kids had started out in a successful Broadway play called Dead End which was later turned into a 1937 movie of the same name. Their destructive antics on the set of that film led Samuel Goldwyn to sell their contact to Warner Brothers. After a successful tryout in a B film called Crime School, they were cast in Angels With Dirty Faces. They would follow this will a sequel, Angels Wash Their Faces, starring Ann Sheridan and Ronald Reagan, which was more a comedy than a drama. It would anticipate the comedic antics that would become part and parcel of the series. The kids would appear in six films for Warners. At Universal, they became the Little Tough Guys for a series of movies including no less than three movie serials. Then at the low-budget Monogram studio they were retitled the East Side Kids. In their last incarnation they were the Bowery Boys. Though their films were at best average programmers, they elicit a nostalgic charm that has resonated with classic film lovers. Altogether, the Dead End Kids made 89 films over the course of a career that spanned just over 20 years.

Ann Sheridan was the prototypical Warner girl who could be as tough as her leading men. The Texas-born Sheridan broke into the movies in 1934 at the age of 19 with Paramount and later signed with Warner Bros. two years later. Nicknamed the “Oomph Girl,” Sheridan was a popular pin-up in the 1940s and starred in many classic films during her career including Dodge City (1939), Kings Row (1942), and Nora Prentiss (1947). In Angels, she plays the pretty snappy-looking social worker who falls for Sullivan. This would be her first starring role in an “A” picture.

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Humphrey Bogart is the crooked lawyer Jim Frazier. This was the first of three films in which Bogart would star opposite Cagney, and in every one Cagney would get the upper hand. In 1938, Bogart was still three years away from becoming a major star with the studio, so in Angels he has the secondary role of the heavy. But he plays it well, convincingly projecting fear and apprehension in the presence of Sullivan.

One other casting choice of note is that of Frankie Burke as the young Rocky Sullivan in the film’s prologue. It’s the greatest impersonation of Jimmy Cagney ever seen. Frankie Burke didn’t have much of a film career and only appeared in about 15 films—one of which was another film with the Dead End Kids called Hell’s Kitchen—but he does a brilliant job here. Unfortunately, the filmmakers couldn’t find anyone who could play a convincing Pat O’Brien at that age.

Angels was directed by Michael Curtiz–the ultimate studio contract director behind Warners’ biggest productions. In 1938 alone he directed four films including The Adventure of Robin Hood. He would later direct Cagney in his first Oscar win with Yankee Doodle Dandy. Curtiz would be nominated for Best Director for Angels With Dirty Faces. The film represents not only some of his best work but also the studio’s.

Like other films at Warners, Angels is a social commentary film that draws a parallel between the environment and the development of the criminal. To create this sense of place, director Curtiz evokes the street life of the lower classes with an eye towards detail. He creates an authentic world that appears worn-out and lived in, and it is peopled by characters we believe in. Curtiz’s visual imagery presents us with the world of the New York tenement. This is all conveyed with the opening shot. In this manner, the story is put forth with a narrative economy that removes the extraneous.

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The screenplay was written by Rowland Brown, Warren Duff and John Wexley, the latter having done a successful play called The Last Mile, which dealt with prison life on death row. But Pat O’Brien said that it was Brown who contributed most of the script ideas—Brown having previously penned 1930’s Doorway to Hell. The writers would be rewarded with a nomination for Best Original Story. Though a gangster drama, the Angels storyline offers something much more than the usual “crime does not pay” message. It presents a moral battle between two opposing forces.

Angels With Dirty Faces is a film that reveals how figures of authority can guide and misguide us– and how the media can influence our perception of them. Angels resonated with audiences of the 1930s and it resonates today. It has all the traits of the gangster genre that one would expect, but there’s also a depth– both in its themes and in its characters. It’s a film with a belief in its convictions and a honesty in its vision. Therein rests its power and impact.

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