Tuesday, May 2, 2023

East Side Story: “Dead End”

Humphrey Bogart wasn’t always a tough but tender good guy. In his early films he was a tough-as-nails bad guy, one whose rare moments of sentimentality only bamboozled him into actions that were all the more depraved. One of those early films, Dead End (1937) was adapted by Lillian Hellman from Sidney Kingsley’s 1935 hit Broadway play. Thankfully, I wasn’t around in that era, but I find it hard to imagine Broadway first-nighters dressing up to watch a play that spelled out the squalor of neighborhoods located very close to their own. Dead End is set in midtown Manhattan, on the shore of the scummy East River, when luxury residences were just starting to replace decrepit tenement flats. When I saw a misguided revival at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre a decade or two ago, the orchestra pit was actually filled with water, so that the neighborhood urchins could splash and cavort in the river that plays a major role in the story.

 It's a story of rich and poor: the snooty newcomers with their maids and butlers and well-pressed clothes, set against the downtrodden working-class folks who can’t find a way  out of their shabby surroundings. A pampered young rich boy is easy prey for the gang of scruffy amoral kids who roam the streets, looking to make mischief. The wild card in all this is Bogart as “Baby Face” Martin, a tough guy who grew to manhood in this neighborhood. Now a successful mobster decked out in fancy threads, he lives far away, but has made a sentimental journey back home to visit his old mother and his once-upon-a-time sweetheart. It is not a good decision: for one thing, his mother wishes he were dead. As for the one-time sweetheart (the Oscar-nominated Claire Trevor), she’s pleased to see him . . . but it soon becomes clear that these days she’s working the streets, and she’s dying of something unmentionable.

 Furious about the day’s twin disappointments, Martin becomes determined to make his NYC trip pay off by staging a heinous crime. Because, in that Production Code era, criminals must always come to a bad end, it is easy to guess that his dastardly deed won’t go unpunished. The hero is a rather bland (as well as blond) good guy played by Joel McCrea, a would-be architect who can’t manage to free himself from his tenement roots. He fancies himself in love with a vapid blonde who won’t commit to him because she can’t shake free of her expensive tastes. McCrea’s character doesn’t seem to realize that a far better choice would be Drina (top-billed Sylvia Sidney), a poor but honest slum-dweller who has always been his friend. When not slaving in the garment trade (or going out on the picket line), she devotes herself to a younger brother now being pursued by the law.

 A note about Sylvia Sidney: she was born in the Bronx to immigrant parents. In 1926 she had her first film role, as an extra in one of D.W. Griffith’s epics. She was a well-paid star in the 1930s, often playing the sister or girlfriend of a gangster. Her career faded in the next decade, but she was still around in 1973 to be nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams. At the end of her life she had key roles in two films by Tim Burton, Beetlejuice (1988) and Mars Attacks!(1996). Hooray for persistence!  

 As for Bogart, he of course moved on from bad guy parts to roles that let him stay alive at the end of the last reel.  



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