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Angels with Dirty Faces

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Title: Angels with Dirty Faces  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: James Cagney, Dead End Kids, Humphrey Bogart, Michael Curtiz filmography, List of film director and actor collaborations
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Angels with Dirty Faces

Angels with Dirty Faces
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Produced by Samuel Bischoff
Written by Rowland Brown
John Wexley
Warren Duff
Starring James Cagney
Pat O'Brien
Humphrey Bogart
Ann Sheridan
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography Sol Polito
Edited by Owen Marks
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
November 26, 1938 (1938-11-26)[1]
Running time
97 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Angels with Dirty Faces is a 1938 American Dead End Kids. The film was written by Rowland Brown, John Wexley, and Warren Duff, with uncredited assistance from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. The film is about Rocky Sullivan (Cagney), who is a notorious gangster. O'Brien plays his childhood friend, Father Jerry Connolly, who attempts to keep six young boys away from being influenced by Rocky. Jim Frazier (Bogart), a crooked lawyer and MacKeefer (Bancroft), a shady businessman and municipal contractor attempt to dispose of Rocky.

The film was released in November 28, 1938 to positive reviews. At the 11th Academy Awards, the film was nominated in three categories; for Best Actor (Cagney), Best Director (Curtiz) (who was also nominated for Four Daughters) and Best Story (Brown), losing all three.


Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) and Jerry Connolly (Pat O'Brien) are childhood friends who robbed a railroad car as kids. Rocky saved Jerry's life during the chase by pulling him out of the way of a steam train while running from the guards that saw them. Rocky was then caught by the police, but Jerry—who could run faster—escaped. Rocky, after being sent to reform school, grew up to become a notorious gangster, while Jerry became a religious priest who mentored at-risk youth.

Ann Sheridan and James Cagney

Rocky returns to his old neighborhood, where Jerry is the parish priest and intends to keep young boys away from a life of crime. Six of those boys, Soapy (Billy Halop), Swing (Bobby Jordan), Bim (Leo Gorcey), Patsy (Gabriel Dell), Crabface (Huntz Hall), and Hunky (Bernard Punsly), idolize Rocky, and Jerry attempts to keep his former friend from corrupting them. (These boys were to star in Dead End Kids/East Side Kids/The Bowery Boys films).

Meanwhile, Rocky gets involved with Frazier (


Dead End Kids



The story was written by Rowland Brown as a project for James Cagney at Grand National Pictures, the independent studio Cagney had signed with in 1936 after winning a breach-of-contract suit against Warner Bros. The original plan had been for Brown to write the full script and direct the film, but when Warners won back Cagney's contract on appeal they bought Brown's story for Cagney but assigned John Wexley and Warren Duff to do the screenplay and Michael Curtiz to direct. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur also assisted in the writing of the screenplay.


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. Bogart, for one, was very impressed by the death house scene and informed Cagney as such.

To play Rocky, James Cagney drew on his memories of growing up in New York's Yorkville, a tough ethnic neighborhood on the upper east side, just south of Spanish Harlem.. His main inspiration was a drug-addicted pimp who stood on a street corner all day hitching his trousers, twitching his neck, and repeating, "Whadda ya hear! Whadda ya say!" Those mannerisms came back to haunt Cagney. He later wrote in his autobiography, "I did those gestures maybe six times in the picture. That was over thirty years ago - and the impressionists have been doing me doing him ever since."

Pat O'Brien, known as "Hollywood's Irishman in Residence", played Jerry Connolly, Rocky's childhood friend. In real life, Cagney and O'Brien were great friends, who first met in 1926 and would remain friends until O'Brien's death in 1983, Cagney would die in 1986. O'Brien had been a contract player in Warner Bros. since 1933 and left the studio in 1940, after a dispute over the terms of his contract renewal. This was the sixth of their nine feature films.

Humphrey Bogart played crooked lawyer Jim Frazier, who attempts to dispose of Rocky. Before making this film, Bogart starred with The Dead End Kids in Samuel Goldwyn's Dead End (1937). When executive producer Jack L. Warner saw the film, he quickly casted them in Crime School (which was released before this film) opposite Bogart.

After this movie, Curtiz would work again with James Cagney in films such as Casablanca.

The film would mark the first of three films with Cagney and Bogart, the next two films would be made the following year, The Oklahoma Kid and The Roaring Twenties, which came out in 1939.

Frankie Burke, Marilyn Knowlden and William Tracy played Rocky, Laury and Jerry as adolescents, respectly. Burke was discovered by a Warner Bros. talent scout who was searching for young men who resembled Cagney. The resemblance between Cagney and Burke was so astounding that Burke was cast on the spot. Knowlden is the only living member of the cast.


Filming of Angels with Dirty Faces started in June and ended in August 1938. The film was mostly shot at the Burbank Studios of Warner Bros. Seven stages of the studío were used. The death house scene was filmed at Sing Sing Penientiary. Architect Lewis Pilcher was the designer of the death house, which went into service in the early 1920's. The building still remains there.

The Dead End Kids terrorized the set during shooting. They threw other actors off with their ad-libbing, and once cornered Bogart and stole his trousers. But they didn't figure on Cagney's street-bred toughness. The first time Leo Gorcey pulled an ad-lib on Cagney, the star stiff-armed the young actor right above the nose. From then on, the gang behaved.

For years, viewers have wonder whether or not Rocky really turns yellow as he is being strapped into the electric chair. Some have wondered if he is faking it in order to keep his promise to Father Jerry. When asked about the scene years later, Cagney says he chose to play it in such a way so that the audience could make their own decisions as to whether or not he was faking.


Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times called the film a "savage melodrama" offering "Cagney at his best" along with "a panel of effective supplementary characterizations."[2] Variety was less enthused, writing, "On the strength of the Cagney-O'Brien combo, 'Angels' should do fair business, but the picture itself is no bonfire. That 'Dead End' kid story has already been told too many times." The review also called the cowardice angle at the end of the film "thoroughly hokey."[3] Film Daily called the movie "One of the cleverest concoctions of pulse-pounding excitement, heart-stopping thrills and throat-catching emotional human touches ever to hit the screen."[4] Harrison's Reports called it "A powerful gangster melodrama ... the acting, particularly by James Cagney, is brilliant ... one of the most thrilling pictures produced in some time."[5] John Mosher of The New Yorker called it "a nice example of the classic underworld film."[6]

Awards and honors

James Cagney won the 1939 New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor for his role. In addition, the film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role (James Cagney), Best Director and Best Writing, Original Story.

Angels with Dirty Faces was nominated for AFI's Top 10 Gangster Films list.[7]

Michael Curtiz was nominated twice for Best Director, one for this film and the other for the box office hit comedy melodrama Four Daughters. However, Curtiz could not take the Oscar with him, as Frank Capra took the Oscar for You Can't Take It With You. Cagney would lose to Spencer Tracy for Boys Town.

Adaptations to other media

  • Angels with Dirty Faces was dramatized as a radio play on the May 22, 1939, broadcast of Lux Radio Theater, with James Cagney and Pat O'Brien reprising their film roles.
  • Angels with Dirty Faces was presented on Philip Morris Playhouse September 19, 1941. Sylvia Sidney starred in the adaptation.[8]


Warner Brothers created a 1939 cartoon spoofing this film, titled Thugs with Dirty Mugs.

A parody of the film appears in Home Alone as Angels with Filthy Souls. In Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, scenes are shown from a sequel to that film, Angels with Even Filthier Souls.

Ram Jaane is a 1995 Indian Bollywood remake. Shah Rukh Khan was cast as Rocky in the movie alongside Juhi Chawla in one of his early villain roles during his first years in Bollywood. It took almost three years to complete.

The film became an inspiration for a sketch on Sesame Street, titled "Monsters with Dirty Faces".

"Angels with Dirty Faces" is the title of a song by Sham 69 on their 1978 album That's Life.

"Angels with Dirty Faces" is the title of a song by Los Lobos on their 1992 album Kiko.

See also


  1. ^
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  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ AFI's 10 Top 10 Ballot
  8. ^

External links

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