Starring: Joel McCrea, Sylvia Sidney, Humphrey Bogart, Claire Trevor, Wendy Barrie, the Dead End Kids
Director: William Wyler
I’d seen Dead End a number of times, but it had been a couple of years since I had last seen it. I don’t know if I had just forgotten what an incredible movie it is, or if I’d never realized quite how amazing it was, but rewatching it again made me realize what a little masterpiece this film is. It did well at the time of its release, received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, but it hardly remembered today. It’s depiction of slum life in the 1930s might seem a little distant for some film goers to really latch on to, but anybody with a decent understanding of the time and the films of the era should really “get” this film, and feel it right down to their bones.
The film takes place in a slum along the East River in New York, where the wealthy have decided to set up shop as well. Drina (Sidney) is on strike, trying to get the money she feels is owed to her so she can take her brother Tommy (Dead End Kid Billy Hallop) out of the neighborhood. She’s in love with childhood friend Dave (McCrea) who has a budding romance with rich girl Kay (Barrie). Baby Face Martin (Bogart), a childhood friend of Dave’s, is back in the neighborhood to find his mother and his old girlfriend Francie (Trevor).
There are several films from this era that deal with the struggle between the rich and the poor, especially during the Depression, but I don’t think I’ve seen a film do it so blatantly and so honestly as Dead End. The rich look down on the tenements from their big, beautiful building. They sit on their terraces, observing the poor, with the kids from the slums swim in the river. This divide is shown both harshly, when Tommy and his gang get into trouble for beating up a rich boy, and romantically, in the love triangle between Drina, Dave, and Kay. What it shows mostly, for all the characters, is how they dream of being more than just a child of the slums, and how the other world is just slightly out of their reach, both literally and figuratively.
The gentlemen give fine performances. McCrea is one of my favorite stars of the 1930s and 1940s. I don’t think anyone could play the good guy like he could. And Bogart is great as the charismatic bad guy. We find fault with his lifestyle, but can’t help to feel sorry for him when things don’t turn out at all as he imagines. And, as usual, I just loved the Dead End Kids. I don’t know exactly what it is about them, perhaps its the friendship between them, or just the fact that in older films we usually see precocious cuties, not accurate depictions of children living it rough.
But I have to say, it’s the women who steal the show. Sylvia Sidney, an almost impossibly beautiful woman, almost completely carries parts of the movie. Her love for Tommy is honest, her longtime love for Dave is pure. And more than anything, her desire to take her brother away is deep and beautiful. There’s an incredible scene where she describes to Dave a fantasy she has of meeting a rich man. The look on her face as she delivers it is brutal. And Claire Trevor…. boy, I can’t believe more people aren’t familiar with her. With one scene she received a much deserved Academy Award nomination. She’s the complete embodiment of broken dreams and a crushed future. Even Wendy Barrie, who I’m not that incredibly fond of, does a good job of playing the wealthy woman, who remains sympathetic even as she runs from a tenement in disgust.
Another strength of the film is its set design. It’s rare for classic films to take place almost entirely outside. And, when films do venture outside, it usually looks incredibly fake. Dead End creates a very real, vibrant world for these characters to live in. The slum is almost as much a character as any of the living, breathing people on the screen. And it’s a part of each character.
Dead End is simply one of the best films of the 1930s. There’s no other way to say it. It’s just a masterpiece.