‘Angels with Dirty Faces’: Michael Curtiz’s Touching Gangster Classic Forged Under the All-Seeing Eye of the Hays Code

James Cagney and Michael Curtiz on the set of Angels with Dirty Faces © Warner Bros

Back in the thirties, gangster movies were increasingly popular in the American cinema. The subject of charismatic antiheroes ultimately falling to their demise was always inspirational; there was a certain degree of box-office success that could be counted on since the theme had proven to be raising interest in the audience; the cost of making such movies was usually acceptable, partly because there was no need to invest money in props, as it was always possible to use the ones from previous films. At the verge of the Second World War breakout, movies of such themes were not only solid money-makers, but were deemed necessary and useful as they were seen as an appropriate vehicle for conveying moralistic messages to the viewers: crime doesn’t pay, communities must stick together in order to survive and prosper, redemption is available for those who seek it. In those days, it seems America was doing its best to isolate itself from the darkness spreading across Europe and East Asia, so the movies had to be unrealistic to a degree, sometimes clumsily upbeat and obviously escapist. The infamous Hays Office, the prime body of film censorship, was at its prime, sending protest letters and warnings all across Hollywood, imposing strict guidelines, reshaping storylines and inhibiting strong authorial voices. In such circumstances, however, a true gangster classic was born. Michael Curtiz’s Angels with Dirty Faces came out in 1938 to both critical and commercial success. Eight decades later it’s still regarded as one of the best Hollywood gangster films of all time, a dark proto-noir picture that foreshadowed the type of movies that were to come in the forties and became deeply ingrained in popular culture. The story is simple and has since then been retold many times: two mischievous boys are close friends on the edge of a life of crime, but when one of them gets caught and sent to a reform school, their life paths drastically diverge. One becomes a notorious, well-known gangster, while the other becomes a priest dedicated to steering young boys from the life of crime he almost got stuck in. Their never-ending friendship may be considered the central part of the film, while a great emphasis is put on how circumstances and pure chance have an instrumental role in shaping the lives of all of us, with only a reflex or two deciding if we’re to be priests or criminals.

The story was created by director and screenwriter Rowland Brown in the summer of 1937. After making a deal with a small studio called Grand National Pictures, it seemed Angels with Dirty Faces would soon be filmed, but the studio faced bankruptcy and its main star, James Cagney, returned to work under Warner’s wings. With him, he took Brown’s screenplay and pitched it to the bosses, who soon decided to hand the project into the reliable hands of director Michael Curtiz. Cagney gained nation-wide recognition at the beginning of the decade, having starred in the highly influential 1931 gangster flick The Public Enemy, and was allegedly tired of playing tough guys. Moreover, his agent stated there was no way Cagney would play such a wimpy coward, as the protagonist of Angels with Dirty Faces perhaps turns out to be at the end. But Cagney loved it, most likely seeing it as an opportunity to step out of the tough-guy mold and demonstrate the range of his talents. Brown’s screenplay was handed over to John Wexley and Warren Duff, who provided extensive treatments. The Sicily-born cinematographer Sol Polito, who had previously worked with Curtiz on The Adventures of Robin Hood, took over the camera, while legendary Humphrey Bogart, great Pat O’Brien, talented Ann Sheridan and the entertaining Dead End Kids were brought on board to join Cagney not only in giving his best performance ever, but also in creating the arguably most memorable gangster story of the thirties.

Besides its overwhelmingly talented cast and crew, the main strength of Angels with Dirty Faces lies in the fact that it manages to tell a powerful story and present strong, sympathetic characters even though it was created under the burden of the Hays production code. It’s gritty, dark and realistic, and even if we concede there’s an obvious moralistically preachy quality to it, it was still a small and acceptable price to pay in order to bring this film to life. Angels with Dirty Faces is one of the best films ever made on the topic of friendship, with Cagney and O’Brien’s wonderful, realistic and honest relationship constantly under the spotlight, and its influence and heritage obvious in the films that followed it make it a true classic.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read John Wexley & Warren Duff’s screenplay for Angels with Dirty Faces [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
Three treatments and a screenplay of Angels with Dirty Faces. A fascinating opportunity to chart the story and character development of one of the greatest of all gangster films. Courtesy of Bonhams.

Michael Curtiz is the classic example of a studio director in that he could turn his hand to almost anything. He could go from any genre to another, and somehow this Hungarian knew exactly how those genres worked. Like there was some innate storytelling skill in this man. Curtiz himself rarely expressed his philosophy or filmmaking style in writing since he was always too busy making films, so there is no autobiography and only a few media interviews. His brother noted also that Curtiz was “shy, almost humble,” in his private life, as opposed to his “take-charge” attitude at work. His brother adds that “he did not want anybody to write a book about him. He refused to even talk about the idea.” When Curtiz was once asked to sum up his philosophy of making movies, he said, “I put all the art into my pictures that I think the audience can stand.” —Michael Curtiz, Wikiwand

When first offered the project, Cagney’s agent was convinced that his star property would never consent to playing a role where he would be depicted as an abject coward being dragged to his execution. Cagney, however, was enthusiastic about the chance to play Rocky. He saw it as a suitable vehicle to prove to critics and front office honchos that he had a broad acting range that extended far beyond tough guy roles. —Here’s a look at Warner Bros. 90 Years of Great Filmmaking

Below: Billy Halop plays a prank on director Michael Curtiz on the set of Angels with Dirty Faces.

ANATOMY OF A SCENE: ‘ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES’

The electric chair sequence in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) is one of the most famous scenes in old Hollywood films. Below, James Cagney (center left) walks the last mile with Pat O’Brien. Old Hollywood Films deconstructs the scene and what makes it work.


Open YouTube video

MICHAEL CURTIZ: THE GREATEST DIRECTOR YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF

This first-ever video biography of one of Hollywood’s greatest—but least known—filmmakers illuminates the work and life of the man who made such classics as Captain Blood, Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels with Dirty Faces and Casablanca. Directed by Gary Leva.

FILM NOIR: BRINGING DARKNESS TO LIGHT

Film Noir burrows into the mind; it’s disorienting, intriguing and enthralling. Noir brings us into a gritty underworld of lush morbidity, providing intimate peeks at scheming dames, mischievous misfits and flawed men—all caught in the wicked web of a twisted fate. Gary Leva’s Bringing Darkness to Light is the definitive Film Noir documentary, exploring the roots of the genre, its expressions and meanings, and its influence on world cinema. Lavishly illustrated with clips from great Noir classics, the film explores the genre through interviews with filmmakers, actors, and writers such as Christopher Nolan, Sydney Pollack, Paul Schrader, Michael Madsen, Gordon Willis, William Goldman and James Ellroy. Directed by Gary Leva.

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Michael Curtiz’s Angels with Dirty Faces © Warner Bros.


 

 
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