The Bleak Reality of William Wyler’s Dead End (1937)

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Following the success of These Three and the film adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth (written about here and here), both released in 1936, William Wyler brought another popular Broadway play to the screen: Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End. Kingsley’s play tells the story of a group of young boys growing up in poverty in the slums of New York. With no clear-cut path to a decent life, the boys have nothing better to do but to find trouble, resorting to a life of petty theft, gambling and bullying. After seeing the play in its original run, both Wyler and producer Samuel Goldwyn were interested in adapting Kingsley’s work to the screen. The characters’ struggles were relatable for a Depression-era audience, and while it was risky to make a realistic film for an audience desperate for escapism, Wyler had proven that he could make a film that was both serious and entertaining. Goldwyn purchased the film rights and immediately began production. Starring Sylvia Sidney, Joel McCrea and Humphrey Bogart, Dead End (1937) was a relatively faithful adaptation of Kingsley’s play. When casting the gang of young boys, Samuel Goldwyn wasn’t having much luck, so he decided to bring several of the boys from the original stage production, including Billy Halop and Leo Gorcy, to Hollywood, offering them a contract. This marked the beginning of the famed “Dead End Kids.”

Sylvia Sidney is Drina, a poor, desperate factory worker who is currently on strike, fighting for higher wages and safer working conditions. She is the sole guardian of her younger brother, Tommy (Billy Halop), and struggles to keep him out of trouble. Tommy is the head of a street gang comprised of other young boys from the neighborhood. They live on a dead-end street, stacked with broken down tenement housing, on the banks of the East River. In the midst of the slums are brand new luxury high-rise apartment buildings, where the wealthy have infiltrated in search of a better view of the city and the river. Right outside the walled entrance of the apartment building lies desperation and abject poverty, yet the wealthy residents can’t possibly be bothered with it.

Dave (Joel McCrea), a childhood friend of Drina’s, somehow managed to temporarily escape the slums by getting an education in architecture. But even with his college degree, Dave is unable to find work as he lacks the resources and connections that come with wealth and social status. Dave has big plans, as does Drina, but the reality of their situation prevents them from finding success and happiness. Hugh “Babyface” Martin (Humphrey Bogart) is another product of the dead-end slums. A notorious criminal wanted for murder, Martin, who is semi-disguised by a bit of facial plastic surgery, returns to the neighborhood of his youth to visit his mother (Marjorie Main, reprising her stage performance) and his girlfriend, Francey (Claire Trevor, in an Academy Award-nominated role). Dave immediately recognizes Martin, and warns him not to cause trouble in the neighborhood. Martin’s puffed ego and sentimentality get the best of him when his mother disowns him and he discovers that Francey is a prostitute. Even an opportunistic criminal such as Martin has nothing to gain from this slum. Not to be defeated by his return home, Martin devises a plan to kidnap the son of one of the wealthy apartment dwellers, demanding an exorbitant ransom.

For the young members of the street gang, the Dead End Kids, they have two examples of men who managed to find a way out. Dave defied the odds and not only finished high school, but graduated from college. Unfortunately, his education, hard work and honesty haven’t really paid off for him, at least at the present moment. He struggles to make ends meet with random odd jobs, hoping for a lucky break with a reputable architectural firm. But without a financial safety net or a well-connected social standing, Dave’s chances are slim. On the other hand, Babyface Martin stuck with his criminal roots, becoming a thief and murderer, and has gotten away with it up to this point. He wears nice suits with pockets full of cash. He’s far from respectable and his lifestyle isn’t sustainable. But for those young boys, Martin’s life of crime is far more attractive and attainable.

Out of William Wyler’s long filmography, Dead End is quite possibly his bleakest film (and yes, I’m taking into consideration Jezebel [1938] and The Letter [1940]). While there is a bit of a Hollywood ending, the overall feeling of desperation at the widening gap between the wealthy and the destitute is impossible to ignore, and weighs heavily on the audience. One problem has a possible solution, sure, but what about everything else? The wealthy residents in the luxury apartments are still disconnected from their surroundings. They don’t care what happens to the thousands of poor people who live outside their walls. Wyler forces the audience to face this very harsh reality, and does so without pretension or preachiness–a rare talent that the director carried throughout his long career.

Jill Blake

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9 Responses The Bleak Reality of William Wyler’s Dead End (1937)
Posted By swac44 : October 14, 2017 11:27 am

Intriguing to see the issue of gentrification dealt with in such a dramatic way, decades before it would become more prominent in the public’s mind.

Finally saw this for the first time on TCM recently, marvelled at the first rate work by the leads (and it made me wish Gorcey had more opportunities for serious roles). Also remarkable is the set for this film, which I gather was one of the more notable constructed for a film at the time.

Posted By Doug : October 14, 2017 2:53 pm

The picture threw me for a moment, seeing Allan Jenkins next to Bogart in a serious drama. I know him primarily from comedies or comedic roles in murder mysteries- Spudsy Drake from the Perry Mason series and, of course, “Sh! The Octopus”.
Reading about Wyler on IMDB I found that he had been married to Margaret Sullavan.
Her performance in “The Shop Around The Corner” still gets to me every time I watch it.
“Dead End”-can we call it ‘dramatic realism’? Broadway and then Hollywood shining a light on ‘real world problems’.
Not as romanticized as the ‘Forgotten Men’ of “My Man Godfrey”-in “Dead End” troubled youths must choose between two examples for success. That may have been a ‘real world problem’ for many living in the slums of the big cities in 1936/1937. From the 1850′s through to about 1930 one of the solutions to the problem of ‘Dead End Kids’ was the “Orphan Trains”. Moving kids across the country from broken/no homes to families willing to take them in-much good came from the Orphan Trains.

Posted By Mark Mayerson : October 15, 2017 10:53 am

If you think that Dead End is Wyler’s bleakest film, I recommend his last film, The Liberation of L.B. Jones.

Allan Jenkins is brilliant in Dead End and it’s a shame that he didn’t get more opportunities like this. His characterization would have fit beautifully into post-war film noir.

Posted By Renee Leask : October 17, 2017 5:28 pm

“Dead End” is that rare combination of a highly entertaining film that is also bleak as hell — and, if you’re open to it, highly political. If someone from a foreign country asked me to explain the Great Depression, I’d show them this before I’d show them “Grapes of Wrath.” They’d get plenty of information while they enjoyed the loveliness of Sylvia Sidney and the long legs of Joel McCrea (!). Like a lot of movie buffs, my first exposure to Marjorie Main was as Ma Kettle, but she’s just scorching in this movie. BTW way Ms. Blake, I think the ransom Babyface demands is exorbitant, rather than exuberant.

Posted By George : October 17, 2017 7:43 pm

“If someone from a foreign country asked me to explain the Great Depression, I’d show them this before I’d show them “Grapes of Wrath.”

I’d also show them Wellman’s HEROES FOR SALE and WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD. And the “Remember My Forgotten Man” number in GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933. They’d see that homeless war veterans are not a recent problem.

Posted By Jill Blake : October 17, 2017 8:19 pm

Renee–

Ha! Talk about an autocorrect fail. Thanks for calling my attention to that. Sometimes those kinds of things slip through the cracks.

And yes–I think it’s the perfect film to show those who aren’t familiar with the Great Depression.

Posted By Jill Blake : October 17, 2017 8:21 pm

George–

Absolutely. Especially HEROES FOR SALE. What a powerful film. Richard Barthelmess was such a dynamic actor, but is rarely given credit for it. I hope that film makes it onto Filmstruck one of these days. I’d love to cover it.

Posted By Jill Blake : October 17, 2017 8:21 pm

Mark–

THE LIBERATION OF L.B. JONES is one of the few Wyler films I haven’t seen. I’ll try to track it down.

Posted By George : October 17, 2017 11:37 pm

I’m ashamed that I still haven’t seen LIBERATION OF L.B. JONES. It was filmed a few miles from where I then lived in West Tennessee.

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