Like Doris Day with our look at Lullaby Of Broadway (1951) earlier this month, we’ve been a little overdue for another James Cagney film. And what better way to come back to him than with one of his more famous gangster films, Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), also starring Pat O’Brien!
Coming Up Shorts! with… Teacher’s Beau (1935)
(available on Blu-ray as part of The Little Rascals: The ClassicFlix Restorations, Volume 5 (1935-1936) from ClassicFlix)
(Length: 19 minutes, 3 seconds)
The Gang’s teacher, Miss Jones (Arletta Duncan) announces that she will get married, and that they will have a new teacher for their next year, Mrs. Wilson. Not wanting a new teacher, the Gang try to find ways to break up the engagement. This was yet another hilarious short. Most of the fun stems from the ways that Spanky (George McFarland) tries to interfere, only for his plans to backfire. In particular, him and Alfalfa (Carl Switzer) trying to dress up as a “rival” (who doesn’t fool the fiancé for one minute) really left a strong impression on me. To a large degree, this one feels fairly similar to the earlier talkie School’s Out (1930), but it still feels fresh enough (and funny enough) that I would gladly watch it again!
Coming Up Shorts! with… Out Where The Stars Begin (1938)
(Available as an extra on the Angels With Dirty Faces Blu-ray from Warner Archive Collection)
(Length: 19 minutes, 15 seconds)
A Broadway dancer (Evelyn Thawl) has come out to Hollywood to get into the movies. With the help of a makeup man (Jeffrey Lynn) and the director’s assistant (Charley Foy), she becomes the movie’s prima ballerina. This was a fun little musical short. The music itself is fun (although not exactly memorable), with a dance sequence that takes up the majority of the short. Mostly, it’s entertaining seeing some of the various stars and movie sets of big 1938 films in 3-strip Technicolor. I know I enjoyed it enough to see it here and there!
Coming Up Shorts! with… Porky And Daffy (1938)
(Available as an extra on the Angels With Dirty Faces Blu-ray from Warner Archive Collection)
(Length: 7 minutes, 32 seconds)
Daffy Duck is a boxer being managed by Porky Pig. When Porky sees an ad offering money to somebody who can beat the champion rooster, Porky immediately gets Daffy in the ring! This rather fun short was from the era when Daffy was still relatively new, and very, very zany. In this short, most of the humor is derived from the wacky ways that Daffy tries to fight with the rooster. That’s not a problem for me, as I always enjoyed Daffy, regardless of how screwy he could be (and here, he IS screwy), so I don’t mind coming back around to this one as well!
And Now For The Main Feature…
Two young kids, William “Rocky” Sullivan and Jerry Connolly, try to steal some fountain pens from a train car, but Rocky is caught when they try to evade the police. Jerry wants to come forward to help Rocky out, but Rocky insists that Jerry should clam up. Fast forward nearly fifteen years, and Rocky has been through reform school and spent several years behind bars. Upon being released from prison, Rocky (James Cagney) returns to his old neighborhood, where his friend Jerry (Pat O’Brien) is now a priest and trying to keep the local kids out of trouble. At Jerry’s insistence, Rocky finds a place to stay in a boarding house, where he runs into another old friend, Laury Martin (Ann Sheridan), whom he takes an interest in. Rocky’s next order of business is to see his lawyer, Jim Frazier (Humphrey Bogart) (who had insisted that Rocky take the fall for a robbery the two of them were involved with while promising Rocky that he would get his share of the money when he got out of prison). Jim, now working for gangster Mac Keefer (George Bancroft), doesn’t have the money readily available, and offers to get it together within the week. After leaving Frazier’s office, Rocky runs into some local boys, who pick his pockets. However, he follows them to their hideout (which also used to be HIS hideout when he was younger), where they learn just who he is. He quickly gains their confidence, and helps Jerry to get the kids to behave (although Jerry wonders whether Rocky will end up being a bad influence for the kids). On his way home, some thugs sent by Frazier attempt to kill Rocky, but he turns the tables on them. Afterwards, Rocky kidnaps Frazier and, in the process, also gets his hands on some information that Mac and Frazier were using to blackmail the city officials. With Frazier in his hands, Rocky demands a ransom from Mac of nearly $100,000. After giving him the money, Mac then tries to have Rocky arrested, but finds out from a newly freed Frazier that Rocky has the blackmail information. As a result, they drop the charges, essentially making Rocky another partner. Rocky tries to give some of the money to Jerry to help build a gym, but Jerry wants nothing to do with the tainted money. In fact, he warns Rocky that he’s going to go after all the gangsters in town, including Rocky himself. Jerry’s efforts start to gain traction, leaving Mac and Frazier trying to figure out how to get rid of both him and Rocky. Rocky manages to put an end to their plan (and to them as well), but is caught by the police. Will Rocky continue to be a hero to the end for the boys (as a gangster), or will Jerry be able to show them that Rocky’s way is wrong?
In the mid-1930s, James Cagney had a big contract dispute with Warner Brothers when he sued them for pushing him to do more films in a year than he was willing to do. While the court case went on, he made some movies for Grand National Pictures. Writer and director Rowland Brown came up with the story for Angels With Dirty Faces and, after pitching it at some of the various studios, was able to sell it to Grand National Pictures, who wanted Cagney to do it. However, Cagney had tried to avoid becoming typecast in tough guy roles and took on Something To Sing About for the smaller studio (with the film underperforming at the box office). With the lawsuit getting resolved and Cagney coming back to work for Warners, he brought the story with him (which the studio decided to buy). For the role of Rocky Sullivan, James Cagney (who had grown up on the Lower East Side of New York) was inspired by a drug-addicted pimp he had known (who particularly inspired some of Rocky’s mannerisms and the phrase “Whaddya hear? Whaddya say?”) as well as his childhood friend Peter “Bootah” Hessling (who was convicted of murder and executed in the 1920s). It all worked out well for Cagney, as the picture itself was a big hit, and his performance resulted in his first Oscar nomination.
It’s taken me a long time to finally get around to seeing Angels With Dirty Faces. I’ve known of the film for a long time (especially having grown up with the first two Home Alone films and their title spoofs of the “movies” Angels With Filthy Souls and Angels With Even Filthier Souls that Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin McCallister watched), and the combined star power of James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart made the film an attractive one. However, apart from a clip used in the TCM Scene It? DVD game, I’ve never had the chance to see the movie until this last year. Quite simply stated, it lived up to (and beyond!) my expectations. James Cagney alone carries the movie as a tough gangster who still has a soft spot for his old friend Jerry Connolly (played by Cagney’s offscreen friend Pat O’Brien) and the church. From start to finish, I was mesmerized by him! The ending for his character is ambiguous, and, although it was likely demanded by the Hays Office as part of the Production Code in force at the time, it still feels genuine to me. And, although it’s still early in his career, Humphrey Bogart also leaves a strong impression as a lawyer who thinks he can outwit Cagney’s Rocky (yet is caught every time). The movie kept me on the edge of my seat frequently, especially when the thugs came after Rocky and again when the police were hunting him down. This film is considered a major classic, and I definitely think it deserves that status! I personally might go so far as to call it my favorite gangster film, so I have no hesitation in giving it some of my highest recommendations! Seriously, go see it as soon as possible!
What’s Old Is A New Release Again (2021) with… Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)
This movie is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive Collection. The transfer comes from a 4K scan of the original nitrate camera negative. It’s a typical Warner Archive release. In short, beautiful picture quality with the level of detail being shown off perfectly, and all the dust, dirt and debris has been removed. It’s a perfect release for a (in my opinion) perfect movie, and it’s highly recommended!
Film Length: 1 hour, 37 minutes
My Rating: 10/10
List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections
Footlight Parade (1933) – James Cagney – Each Dawn I Die (1939)
Stand-In (1937) – Humphrey Bogart – The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Ann Sheridan – Dodge City (1939)
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