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Thursday, August 6, 2015

DEAD END (1937)

When producer Samuel Goldwyn bought Sidney Kingsley’s social(ist) drama for Hollywood, he insisted on keeping the two sensational elements that made it such a hit at the Belasco Theatre: the teenage Dead End Kid delinquents, and the show’s ultra-realistic city street set. Together, they pretty much stop the film in its tracks. Director William Wyler lost his battle to shoot on location, but does manages to vivify action whenever he detours off that big set. Along with lenser Gregg Toland, some tenement interiors really make their mark. But much of the dramaturgy is turgid & dated: the Dead Enders over-rehearsed; Humphrey Bogart’s killer-come-home stagy, with Marjorie Main’s Ma turning away & ex-gal Claire Trevor now a diseased prostie. Allen Jenkins does better as Bogie’s gangster pal; so too Joel McCrea’s struggling architect, torn between rich gal Wendy Barrie and tough-luck union waïf Sylvia Sidney. There’s nothing wrong, or even untrue, about having NYC ‘Haves’ bump up against ‘Have-Nots’ (it’s Proletariat Agit-Prop drama 101), but this guided tour of a play feels like it’s been on the road too long.

DOUBLE-BILL: It was DEAD END’s bad luck to fall between two superior cinematic stools. Specifically, King Vidor’s early Talkie STREET SCENE/’31 (also from Goldwyn, also with Sylvia Sidney), a little stiff in places, but capturing something fresh & vital out of similar urban slum environmental drama; and the sheer Hollywood virtuosity of Michael Curtiz’s ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES/’38 (with the Dead End Kids caught between neighborhood pals Killer James Cagney’s & Father Pat O’Brien).

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Goldwyn hated all the atmospheric dirt on his big, beautiful city street set. Late at night, you’d find him with a broom, sweeping it clean.

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