Dead End: an end of a road or passage from which no exit is possible
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (Men in White) Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End was a Broadway triumph in 1935-37 seasons running for 687 performances. Producer Samuel Goldwyn paid $165,000 for the film rights and the screenplay was adapted by Lillian Hellman. There could only be one director for Goldwyn to bring so vividly to the screen the story of one day in a New York City slum when everything would change and everything would stay the same, William Wyler.
The distinguished Goldwyn-Wyler collaboration began the previous year with These Three, the adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour. No matter the legendary clashes between Goldwyn and Wyler of personality or vision, the independent producer was driven to the highest standards of quality and quality is the hallmark of a William Wyler film.
Early consideration was given to filming Dead End on location in New York and while that would have given audiences a most interesting time capsule of the moment, it would have denied us the exquisitely intricate set from Oscar winner (for Whoopee!, The Black Angel, Dodsworth, This Above Hall, How Green Was My Valley, A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront) Richard Day.
Among the narrow streets, sudden alleyways, rickety docks and grimy tenements huddled beside a gleaming, luxurious apartment complex lives are played out for us. Lives trapped in a dead end by circumstance, environment, and character. Wyler and his collaborator, the incomparable cinematographer Gregg Toland, take us to a dead end where darkness illuminates and sunshine is harsh.
Allen Jenkins, Charles Halton, Humphrey Bogart - waiting
“It’s 80% script and 20% you get great actors. There’s nothing else to it.” – William Wyler
Huntz Hall, Leo Gorcey, Gabe Dell - waiting
We get to know the kids on the street, the bad boys from destitute and abusive homes, the boys with no prospects, and poor role models. The youngsters are played by the original Broadway cast members and became known as the “Dead End Kids”. Many will remain familiar faces to audiences under different guises as The East Side Kids and The Bowery Boys. When they hit Hollywood with this film the out-of-control youths amused themselves in the boys will be boys vein which led Goldwyn to sell their contract to Warner Brothers.
After two years in the play, the young actors had honed their archetypal characters to their essence. The natural leader Tommy (Billy Halop), anxious to keep his position and about to outgrow his sister’s guidance. “T.B.” (Gabe Dell), who’s been to reform school and knows a thing or two. He has no fear. What does he have to be afraid of, he has tuberculosis. Sweet-faced Angel (Bobby Jordan) who already knows you have to look out for number one. Shifty “Spit” (Leo Gorcey) who talks a big game but is a frightened boy inside. “Dippy” (Huntz Hall) who survives with his own brand of humor and Milty, the new kid on the block who wants to fit in, who has to fit in.
Joel McCrea, Humphrey Bogart
The generation prior to this gang of kids is represented by Dave (Joel McCrea) and “Baby Face” Martin (Humphrey Bogart). Dave has struggled for years to become an architect thinking that education and a career are the way out, but there’s a Depression and jobs, even for the right kind of people are hard to come by. Yet it is not in Dave’s character to lose hope nor to give up on the neighborhood kids. Whether they know it or not, want it or not, he is their protector. McCrea plays Dave with a sincerity and an honest manliness that makes him believable in the midst of misery.
On the other hand, “Baby Face” is a success. He’s one of the most wanted gangsters in the country, known to have killed at least eight men. Martin found a way out so why is he back? The money and how he got it weighs on Martin. He’s looking for his innocence lost so long ago on this dead end. He won’t find it from his mother (Marjorie Main from the original Broadway cast) or from his first sweetheart (Clair Trevor). Each disappointment breaks Martin’s already mangled soul and makes him a meaner man. Heartbreak and bitter resolve are etched on his craggy face. Humphrey Bogart seemed to spend the 1930s proving his acting worth over and over again. “Baby Face” Martin is one of his greatest achievements.
Women live on this block. Tommy’s sister Drina (Sylvia Sidney) is here, but she’s not living as she wants. She’s working for a better, cleaner someday for herself and her brother. She’s on strike with fellow department store employees for better working conditions. We see the good girl that Drina works so hard to be crumble in the face of fear for her brother and her poignant gushing forth of a long held girlish daydream of someone to take her away from all this. Drina really wants Dave, but sadly sees his affection going toward Kay (Wendy Barrie).
Kay is part of the rich crowd that parties on their terraces that overlook the slums. Road repairs are forcing the classes to uncomfortably mingle. Kay already straddles both worlds as an attractive girl from humble circumstances who has accepted the protection of a wealthy man. Love doesn’t enter into the relationship, only a well-founded fear of poverty. Love, or something like it, is something Kay thinks she can have with Dave for a little while. Although they don’t know each other, Kay and Drina would understand each other as Drina is coming to realize maybe you only get happiness, if you get it, for a little while. Dave is still looking for always.
Humphrey Bogart, Claire Trevor
Francie thought she had found a way out or maybe she just gave in. “Baby Face’s” teenage sweetheart has had it rough since he left for the big time. She is a sick pathetic prostitute. Claire Trevor’s one scene in Dead End earned her a most deserved Oscar nomination in the supporting category. Unexpectedly face-to-face with her first love and his condemnation, we see the girl that was and the hustler she had to become, and we never forget Francie.
James Burke, Esther Dale
There are older women here on this block. Marjorie Main as Mrs. Martin carrying the burden of a son gone wrong like a ball and chain. Esther Dale as a slatternly busy-body not above stealing candy from a baby. Fast forward a few years and these ladies become perfect comic foils as Ma Kettle and Birdie Hicks in the popular Ma and Pa Kettle series. Dave’s mother played by Elisabeth Risdon retains a sweetness despite her surroundings. Caftan Woman favourite Esther Howard has a bit as a sassy tenement resident, although I like to think of it as a cameo.
Billy Halop - watching and waiting
There are other men here as well and we know them by the expertise of their players. Allen Jenkins is Martin’s loyal and pragmatic partner in crime. James Burke as the cop who is no brighter than he needs to be. Ward Bond as an officious doorman; a lackey to the rich who sees himself as someone with a position. Minor Watson as a monied man whose twit of a son was in more danger than just a beating by neighborhood toughs. A man who believes himself to be fair, but cannot see beyond theories on class to living and breathing humanity.
Humphrey Bogart, Thomas Jackson - life goes on
William Wyler was a director of great taste and judgment who appreciated the written word. However, he was not able to articulate to his actors precisely what he wanted from them in any given scene. Wyler’s “method” would be multiple takes until the actor was worn down to giving what the director felt was the reality in the scene.
Speaking about the legend of the takes, William Wyler laughed “I make maybe 6, 8 takes and it turns out to be 40. Ha! It’s true that I would make as many takes as were necessary to get the scene – to get it good”.
Mr. Wyler, you "system" worked.
R.D. Finch, The Movie Projector hosts the William Wyler Blogathon June 24 – June 29 where you will find many excellent articles on exceptional films.