DEAD END still carries impressive dramatic heft more than eight decades after its release in 1937 when its craftsmanship earned strong reviews and secured Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Supporting Actress, Cinematography and Art Direction. Lillian Hellman wrote the script off Sidney Kingsley’s Broadway play which logged 687 performances and a Pulitzer Prize. Samuel Goldwyn produced, William Wyler directed.
New York City, the East River. Just below the Queensboro Bridge, ritzy high-rise apartments of the swells overlook teeming tenements. While the well-off party, shop and live literally “above it all”, the poor are locked in squalor and despair. Barely employed architect ‘Dave Connell’ (Joel McCrea), a product of the streets, went one way; his boyhood pal ‘Hugh Martin’ (Humphrey Bogart) took the easier route and is now a wanted hoodlum nicknamed “Baby Face”. When Martin returns to the neighborhood, his presence threatens to inspire a new generation of teenage delinquents, including the kid brother of Dave’s friend ‘Drina Gordon’ (Sylvia Sidney). An interlocking, continually reinforced web of class, crime and circumstance seems near-impossible to escape.
As the mouthy young punks destined for worse, the film served to introduce ‘The Dead End Kids’ (Billy Halop, Huntz Hall, Gabriel Dell, Leo Gorcey, Bernard Punsly, David Gorcey and Bobby Jordan), whose success in this led to steady employment over the next two decades, morphing into ‘The East Side Kids’ and then ‘The Bowery Boys’. They’re effective, if annoying (Leo Gorcey the best actor in the bunch), serving as a sort of clamorous Greek Chorus to the adult characters and established actors.
Besides solid McCrea, ethereal, first-billed Sidney and nervous Bogey, the grownup victims of society include Wendy Barrie (as the mistress of a rich man, she intrigues McCrea, who’s overlooking the sincere poor gal played by Sidney) and Claire Trevor, in a brief but telling spot as an old flame Bogart looks up, only to discover she’s become a venereal streetwalker: Trevor cinched the Supporting Actress nomination.
The underrated McCrea is very good, Sidney glows with wounded passion, Bogart shines in one of his best hoodlum essays. Also excellent is busy character pro Allen Jenkins as Bogart’s dour partner. Marjorie Main has a strong scene as Bogart’s distraught mother.
Shooting on location was nixed, so studio sets came into play; Richard Day’s superb art direction is a character in itself. Gregg Toland’s fine cinematography adds to the intensity. Sensitively directed by Wyler, this classic social issue picture is touching, funny, exciting, and sadly, not really all that dated. Placed 65th at ’37’s box office, grossing $3,400,000.
With Ward Bond, James Burke, Elisabeth Risdon, Minor Watson, Charles Peck, Charles Halton and Don Barry. 93 minutes.