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Dead End

Dead End
MGM Home Entertainment
1937 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 93 min. / Street Date 2005 / 14.95
Starring Sylvia Sidney, Joel McCrea, Humphrey Bogart, Wendy Barrie, Claire Trevor, Allen Jenkins, Marjorie Main, Billy Halop, Huntz Hall, Bobby Jordan, Leo Gorcey, Gabriel Dell, Bernard Punsly
Cinematography Gregg Toland
Art Direction Richard Day
Film Editor Daniel Mandell
Original Music Alfred Newman
Written by Lillian Hellman from the play by Sidney Kingsley
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn
Directed by William Wyler

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Dead End is probably ground zero for socially-conscious Hollywood filmmaking in the 1930s. Here's where the Great Depression, social discontent and gangsterism all come together. Sidney Kingley's play is ostensibly about a sick society as reflected in the juvenile delinquency spawned in hopelessness and despair. Lillian Hellman had to clean up some direct references to content unacceptable to the censors, but sneaked a few hot topics through to the screen.

Besides featuring a good Humphrey Bogart role when he was still hoping for a star breakout picture, Dead End has a good performance from Joel McCrea. It's also a key film for Sylvia Sydney, everyone's favorite victim of Depression-era injustice. And of course, the movie introduced a group of roughneck young actors who became known as the "Dead End" kids. They went on to make their own movies for almost twenty years.


The tenement neighborhood down by the river is a filthy place to live, while new construction has the noveau-rich taking over the choice views of the New York skyline. With most everyone out of work, architect Dave Connell (Joel McCrea) makes ends meet as a sign painter. Dave's girlfriend Drina Gordon, an overworked striker (Sylvia Sydney), can't keep her brother Tommy (Billy Halop) away from the criminal street gang, or Dave away from the rich girl on the block, Kay Burton (Wendy Barrie). Then Hugh 'Baby Face' Martin (Humphrey Bogart) shows up, with a new face altered by plastic surgery. He's looking to see how his old neighborhood is doing while avoiding the police who want him for multiple murders. He also wants to look up his mother (Marjorie Main) and his old girlfriend Francey (Claire Trevor). Martin is not pleased that Dave recognizes him from the old days, but Dave says he'll stay out of the gangster's business.

It's frequently reported that producer Sam Goldwyn made one major change to Dead End after wasking through the film's realistically-littered street set: He didn't care who wanted it that way, but he wasn't going to make any pictures where the streets looked so filthy. There are some shocking details in the set dressing - at one point Wendy Barrie is repulsed by a garbage can crawling with cockroaches - but otherwise things don't look all that terrible.

Dead End was a Broadway hit that probably inspired a hundred Barton Finks to write plays in which idealistic dreams are squashed by the weight of poverty and social injustice (whew!). The themes may have been softened a bit for the screen, but to millions in 1937 they played like gritty gospel. Poor Drina works like a slave and is demoralized by the need to go on strike for decent wages. Archtypal decent guy Dave Connell nobly keeps busy at menial jobs way below the level of work for which he was trained. And the kids in the street have degenerated into an amoral pack of animals. Their only activity is petty theft and their only ambition is to find ways into bigger crimes.

Baby Face Martin found a way out of the dead end street by becoming a notorious criminal, and he now comes skulking back with his henchman Hunk (Allen Jenkins) in search of the soul he's left behind. What he gets from his old mother (Marjorie Main, looking much thinner in these pre-MGM days) is complete rejection. When he finds his old girl Francey, it becomes obvious that she's not only a hooker (not stated directly) but suffering from venereal disease (very nimbly hinted at). Martin's reaction is to become even more bitter - the only success he seems to have achieved is the admiration of the street punks. They don't know his real identity, but they like his counsel in regard to dirty fighting and pulling off cheap crimes.

At one point the punks negotiate weapons and terms for a proposed rumble with a gang from the next block ... and we see exactly where Arthur Laurents got the Jets for his West Side Story. While Bogart has his own kidnapping plan in the works, the punks demonstrate how honor among thieves really works - anybody who gets caught ends up snitching, so there's always a snitch to punish. Leo Gorcey is terrific as a worthless punk who is a coward to boot.

Drina suffers because of her delinquent brother, but also wilts every time Dave looks in the direction of the rich Kay Burton. The dramatic subplots are compressed as neatly as the tiny street that dead-ends into the East River. When Dave Connell finally faces off with Baby Face Martin, the show ends in a bloody confrontation. This might be the movie John L. Sullivan admires so much in Sullivan's Travels

Dead End is overloaded with the kind of social criticism that became evidence of "anti-Americanism" in the later Red Scare years. The cops are loafers who only look out for the rich, and when they take action against a bad guy they shoot first and ask questions later. The response of the wealthy to the poor in their neighborhood is an unequivocal get-tough attitude. The well-off Kay may behave like a refined woman but she's actually an upscale prostitute, simply wanting to be kept in a style befitting her station. And poor Francey is a shunned outcast. Even a murderer rejects her for being a streetwalker and 'ruining' herself. She doesn't even bother to ask why Martin expects her to be the same as when he left ten years ago. What was she supposed to do? Claire Trevor is on screen about five minutes and sashayed away with a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

The sure hand of William Wyler made Dead End a big hit and a very influential movie. The set is a marvel of 'stylized stage naturalism' - it's fake but too elaborate to be discounted. The street set is compressed into a tight space but built three or four stories up in the air. The excuse is given that the rich folk have to use their back door on the unpleasant side of their property because of construction on the entrance - that's an important piece of information because without it the upscale swells would be coming and going in their tuxedoes past the same starving locals day in and day out! Wyler gives us a taste of the oppressive tenement hallways, and uses dramatic high angles in his conclusion. The rest of the time his actors frequent the waterfront viewpoint that we expect would have been 'stage front' on Broadway. The only time things get dicey is when we cut to reverse angles with the characters looking out over rear-projected views of the river. The images of the real city and the stylized set don't blend well.

I don't know if the original play ended with blood money being used to find a lawyer for Drina's brother. The implication is that Drina, Tommy and Dave will all escape the ghetto. The ending doesn't feel like a cop-out. The film was nominated for Best Picture.

MGM's DVD of Dead End is a very good-looking transfer and encoding of one of the more famous titles in the Goldwyn library. Sure, it's dated and some extras to explain the film's context would have been a big help to viewers unfamiliar with the era (the Depression? Was that Nixon or Carter?). But sometimes there's no sustitute for reading a book or two. There is a trailer in good shape.

MGM's packaging stresses Humphrey Bogart even though he's third billed. This is a drama with a gangster in it, as opposed to a gangster film. The packaging copy calls the millieu the 'mean streets' and tries to reduce the socially-fated themes of the story into a simple melodrama.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Dead End rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 17, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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