THE ANGELS WASH THEIR FACES (1939)
Article 4792 by Dave Sindelar
Directed by Ray Enright
Featuring Ann Sheridan, Billy Halop, Bernard Punsly
What it is: “Dead End Kids” drama
When a reform school inmate is released on parole, he is targeted as a fall guy by conspirators involved in an arson/insurance scam. Friends of the framed boy are convinced of his innocence, and come up with a plan to free him; one of their members enters a civic contest to become mayor of the city for a week, and he intends to use the authority to get the boy released.
I’ve covered so many Bowery Boys/East Side Kids movies over the years that it’s sometimes easy to forget that the roots of the group can be found in the Broadway production of a Sidney Kingsley play about street urchins called “Dead End”. The kids who played the urchins became sensations, and were brought to Hollywood to star in the movie version, where they became known as “The Dead End Kids”. Over the years, they aged, splintered into different groups, grew more overtly comic, and became for all practical reasons, parodies of their original selves. Given the propensity for the later versions of the group to visit spooky old houses and dabble in fantastic themes, it’s no surprise I’ve seen so many of their movies for this series. This is probably the only movie I’ll see of theirs in their original incarnation for this series, and that’s only because it has a single nod to the realm of the fantastic, and that’s when the character played by Billy Halop dreams that miniature members of the rest of the gang are climbing over him and reciting civics lessons to him.
The movie itself is a partial sequel to ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, and even though the movie is more drama than comedy, we can see the transition from a primarily dramatic group to the more comic take of the later versions. The emphasis isn’t on Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall (though both are present), but on Billy Halop and Frankie Thomas (the latter was not really a regular member of the group). The movie does capture how charismatic they were; this movie really only comes alive when the kids are on the screen. The story is fun, sometimes clever, but it’s all pretty far-fetched as well. Nevertheless, as a street melodrama, it’s entertaining enough. Still, the most amusing detail in the movie was something that definitely could not be appreciated at the time. Once Billy wins the contest to become mayor for a week and is stymied in his initial attempts to get the boy released, he tries to think of which adult he can contact for aid, and decides that the President of the United States is too busy to be of help. In the end, the adult that does help him is the son of the district attorney, played by a young Ronald Reagan.