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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.