I never heard of the Dead End Kids until I saw this film. Long before West Side Story and The Outsiders, the Dead End Kids served as a Depression Era vehicle for social commentary on American urban life. Living in tenements along the East River as the moneyed started to convert Manhattan’s slums into upscale properties, the Dead End Kids demonstrated some of the pains of change and the kinds of decisions necessary to avoid going down a road to ruin (i.e., a life of crime). The ensemble held on in different incarnations well past its shelf life until the late 1950s, when the actors were in their mid-30s and had become more of a comedy act.
Adapted from Sidney Kingsley’s successful 1935 play, Dead End is the one that started it all. It goes through a day in the life of a street “gang” led by Tommy Gordon (Billy Halop). The kids are rough around the edges and have names like Dippy (Huntz Hall), Spit (Leo Gorcey), and T.B. (Gabriel Dell). They openly mock their rich neighbors across the street in the co-op that abuts the slum (the windowless door to the co-op clearly states “service entrance”), steal, fight, play cards, shine shoes, and spend a lot of time swiming in the river at the end of the block. A slick neighborhood expat gangster, “Baby Face” Martin (a young Humphrey Bogart), who apparently made it as a hit man elsewhere, returns with his thug, Hunk (Allen Jenkins). No one, not even his low-talking mother (Minor Watson), wants him around. Meanwhile, Tommy’s sister, Drina (Sylvia Sidney), a mother figure who’s off work striking for better wages, is trying her best to keep Tommy on the right path. She mentions a few times that the extra $3.50 a week (!) she’s fighting for would get them to a better place. She’s all into Dave (Joel McCrea), an unemployed architect with his eye on a rich girl (Wendy Barrie) who lives in the co-op.
Loaded with subplots, the story is okay even with its old school melodrama. Some of the performances—specifically Bogart, Sidney, McCrea, and Watson—are decent. The surreptitious way syphilis is slipped into the story is interesting. Otherwise, Dead End has issues. It may have been edgy in the ’30s, but in comtemporary eyes it reads as silly, even campy. The set is too tidy and ordered to be a real street. The kids’ exaggerated fake Archie Bunker accents get annoying after awhile—I expected to hear the word “murdalize” at many points (I didn’t). The story is moralistic in an unsophisticated way that even the ABC Afterschool Special never was. Still, Dead End depicts a world without a middle class and criticizes gentrification, points that ring familiar today. I didn’t hate Dead End, but it’s completely forgettable.
(Gene Siskel Film Center) C-