Sunday, July 17, 2011

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) — Whaddya hear, whaddya say?

It's the same every time. My recent annual re-watching of Yankee Doodle Dandy only whetted my appetite for more James Cagney. (Is he my favorite actor of the "classic" Hollywood era? He may have to arm wrestle Cary Grant for the title. Certainly both occupy a shifting cloud of my top-of-the-tops from the 1930s-'50s.) This time, though, I was ready for that whetting and so had a neighboring DVD already pulled from the shelf. It's one I hadn't seen in years, and I was pleased to discover that it still holds up to my memory of it.

In 1938 Warner Brothers took a stand in the nature/nurture debate, pointing a gangster melodrama, Michael Curtiz's Angels With Dirty Faces, squarely at the poverty, social dysfunction, and ineffectual judicial system that mold and ultimately doom gangland's Rocky Sullivan, memorably played by Cagney because, hey, who else?

It's a random dice-toss of chance — Rocky, a boy from the New York City slums, can't run as fast as his best pal Jerry on the day it counts most — that preordains the boy to come of age in reform schools and prisons, which educate him only in how to become a top-dog hoodlum.

Fifteen years later, Rocky is a natty, snazzy, hardened gangster newly released from prison when he visits his old tenement neighborhood to reunite with his boyhood pal Jerry, who's now a priest (Pat O'Brien, Cagney's real-life friend and frequent co-star).

Even through its contrived sentimentality and its position as the ground zero for generations' worth of Hollywood tropes, Angels remains a pinnacle achievement from the heyday of the Hollywood gangster cycle. Rocky Sullivan, like other toughs played by the charismatic Cagney in The Public Enemy and other hits, so sculpted the actor's public image that not even his footloose spin playing George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy could shake it. The way Rocky hitches his shoulders remains a staple of Cagney impressions. Cagney took the mannerism, along with Rocky's catch-phrase "Whaddya hear, whaddya say?," from a streetcorner pimp he recalled from his own hard growing-up in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen.

When Rocky returns to his old haunts, he encounters the new generation of young street thugs, played well by the Dead End Kids. It isn't long before the ruffians take the dapper, famous, and (in their eyes) enviably successful Rocky as a role model. Like Cagney himself, Rocky is spirited, often funny, and entirely self-directed. There's nothing false about his cocky swagger and rat-a-tat delivery.

His yin/yang equal is Father Jerry, now an activist social reformer as savvy and resolute as Rocky, and who's willing to manifest his compassion for his old pal through a right hook when the occasion calls for it.

While Rocky enjoys his Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangster celebrity, Father Jerry is doing his best to keep the kids' hearts and minds out of harm's way. Therefore he's duty-bound (and divinely sanctioned) to disapprove and try to influence his friend — even while admitting that in the crap shoot of life Rocky has, outwardly if not inwardly, won the toss. Although fate split Rocky and Jerry on their divergent destinies long ago, the kids can still choose which path to take, and nobody sees that better than Jerry.

Meanwhile, Rocky attempts a hard-boiled romance with steely Ann Sheridan (another reunion from the old hood), and catches up with the racketeering gang that he took the fall for years ago. That's when he runs afoul of Humphrey Bogart as the slick, crooked lawyer who owes Rocky a hundred G's in stolen loot. When Bogart's bad-bad guy sets out to bump off Cagney's good-bad guy, we're rooting for Rocky all the way.

However, as the kids trade basketball in the parish church gym — Rocky's tough insistence that they play by the rules makes for one of my favorite scenes in '30s cinema — in exchange for high-profile living with ill-gotten dough and racking 'em up at the pool hall, we see that Father Jerry is correct and Rocky's influence on the vulnerable street kids can make a literally life or death difference.

The way Rocky takes care of his former cronies puts the cops on his tail. New York is gripped with gangster panic, the kids following his headline exploits as if he's a sports star. A blazing gunfight dovetails smoothly into one of the great Hollywood endings: Rocky's "last mile" walk and Jerry's appeal to his humanity for the sake of the kids who worship him as a hero. Rocky's final moments before the electric chair's sizzle — all shadows and the sound of Rocky's last words — pump up a climax that's as riveting as it is famously ambiguous.

Angels With Dirty Faces sure has aged well. There's a bowlful of old chestnuts in this pulpy parable where hardcore street toughs are named Soapy, Swing, Mim, Patsy, Hunky, and Crabface, but it's saved from the terminal trites by its prime-rib casting and ear-pleasing screenplay, to which Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur contributed without credit. One of my favorite exchanges is apparently also one of Quentin Tarantino's, who modified it only slightly for the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs:

Soapy: "Hey! Call a fair game or I'll slap you right in the kisser!"
Rocky: "You'll slap me? You slap me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize."

It all moves crisply forward under the gifted hand of director Curtiz, who kept the pace lively and the imagery genre-perfect. (1938 saw four more Curtiz films, including The Adventures of Robin Hood.) Even clichés such as the kids' dime paperback street patois ("I didn't say a woid!") and the newspaper headlines rushing toward the camera still somehow feel fresh and appropriate.

I want to give a special shout-out here to actor Frankie Burke, who at the old age of 23 appears in the early scenes playing young Rocky as a boy. Although he made other films after Angels, this is the role he's remembered for. And there's no wondering why — the guy's such a dead ringer for Cagney that I found myself wondering if the part was actually Cagney somehow playing Rocky as a teenager. The look, the talk, the mannerisms, it's all there and there's no question that this kid is going to grow up to be Cagney's character. Apparently it was a role Frankie (real name Francis Vaselle Aiello) was born to play. According to his IMDb bio, he was a Brooklyn kid who grew up hooked on Cagney in the movies.
"He imitated Cagney for a long time to his friends and family, much to their approval, before deciding to hitchhike to Hollywood to get an interview with Cagney, but this attempt failed, so he returned home to New York. Later he tried it again, and this time he landed a job on the vaudeville circuit doing impressions of Cagney. A Warner Bros. talent scout saw his act and hired him for the role of the young version of Cagney's Rocky Sullivan' in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)."
Some 17 mostly forgotten films later, his story takes a spin toward the peculiar:
"His whereabouts from 1941 to about 1961 are unknown, but sometime in the early 1960s, he decided to ride the rails as what he, himself, called a 'Hobo' until he became too ill and was taken from a train when it pulled into Junction City, Kansas. He was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and sent to a long term care facility in Chapman, Kansas where he passed away only weeks later on April 7th, 1983."
The bio is hardly official and not what we'd call professionally written ("he sat in the lobby for weeks every day"). It was apparently provided by the proprietor of a (rather, the) Frankie Burke fan site, so while there's no other way to authenticate the info, there's no doubting its earnestness — or Burke's uncanny turn in the role.

Then there's Leo Gorcey, the pugnacious leader of the original Dead End Kids, who almost gained another vector of immortality by almost making it onto the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album cover, complete with his Angels Jughead hat. It seems that a paltry fee of $400 demanded by either Gorcey or his agent (accounts differ) was the sticking point.

Angels With Dirty Faces shows that the studios — particularly Warner Bros. with its distinctive house style and contract players — could produce good work even when knuckling under to the Thou-Shalt-Nots of the Production Code's killjoy moralizing (the original conformist "PC"). There's plenty of gunfire, but no blood or corpses; the "coppers" are shown as embodiments of Law & Order while Rocky and the other criminals are punished by early death and ignominy. It's suggested that Ann Sheridan's Laury didn't exactly live the wholesome life before her husband got gunned down and Father Jerry rescued her, but the script dodges any unsavory details.

And yet that obeisance to the Code pushed the screenplay toward its most interesting highlight — the unveiling of murderous thug Rocky Sullivan's layers and nuances, the "good kid" he could have been showing through the hardened outer shell he grew while bouncing in and out of the joint. His final seconds in the Death House, and the sacrifice they represent, turn the character inside out, potentially making this brutal gangster one of Hollywood's great screen heroes.

Cagney leaped at the role as a means to stretch his range on the screen, and everybody noticed. It earned him the New York Film Critics Award and his first Best Actor Oscar nomination.

As a Cagney gangster picture with a marshmallow center, it contrasts in interesting ways alongside The Public Enemy from seven years earlier and especially White Heat eleven years later. What a fine triple-feature DVD night that would be.

These days, we note wryly that this Depression-era film's "society is to blame" text, and the Code's dictates on how lawmen and criminals must be portrayed, make a perhaps humbling red-state/blue-state unity. The whole "crime doesn't pay" trope has never felt more quaint than it does today, but the way Angels With Dirty Faces balances hard-bitten gangster drama with warmly stage-managed religiosity gives us an entertaining period piece, one which shows that after more than seventy years you still can't go wrong with a Jimmy Cagney movie.