Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Angels with Dirty Faces
James Cagney, Ann Sheridan and Pat O'Brien

'Angels with Dirty Faces' is a dramatic gangster movie made in 1938, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, Humphrey Bogart, and Ann Sheridan. The film was successful at the box-office and was well liked by the critics. It received three Academy Awards, for Best Actor, Best Director and Best Writing, Original Story. In addition, James Cagney won the New York Film Critics Circle Award in 1939, for his performance.

It is a great movie, combining a tight, well written script with brilliant acting and social commentary. The final scene as Rocky is taken to the electric chair, is compelling and exceptionally well done, with the fine score from Max Steiner adding to the drama. A true classic movie.

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The basic story line follows the intertwined lives of two young friends in a tough area of New York who each follow a different path in life. Rocky Sullivan, played by James Cagney, becomes a gangster and Jerry Connolly, played by Pat O'Brien goes on to become a priest. We see these two men as they meet up again as adults and influence the lives of the kids of their old neighbourhood. The kids are played by a group of young actors known as "The Dead End Kids" who were brought to Hollywood after a successful 1935 Broadway play called 'Dead End'.

Clever direction by Michael Curtiz raises the movie above the run of the mill crime or gangster drama. We quickly become involved with the characters and empathise with their problems. By the end of the film we can see that Cagney's character was a prisoner of his upbringing and we see, too, how young, impressionable kids can be easily influenced by strong adults.


Warner Brothers had become well known during the 1930's for their high quality crime movies such as 'Little Caesar' in 1931. The story of 'Angels with Dirty Faces' was written by screenwriter and director, Rowland Brown, who intended it as a vehicle for James Cagney, with Brown himself as director. In 1936 Cagney had signed with an independent studio, Grand National Pictures after suing Warner Bros. for breach of contract. Warners won the appeal, however, and immediately bought Brown's story, and assigned Michael Curtiz to direct, with John Wexley and Warren Duff to write the screenplay.

The Production Code which had been introduced in 1930, began to be strictly enforced in 1934 when Joseph Breen was appointed as administrator for Hollywood. The ending of the movie was of particular concern to Breen and a compromise was reached in which the Cagney character would go to the death chamber as an abject coward. Few other compromises were made with the numerous violent scenes contained in the movie. In the warehouse battle scene, real bullets were used.

The Dead End Kids were genuinely street tough and a director's nightmare during shooting, putting off other actors with their ad-libbing. They met their match in James Cagney, a street-wise ex-boxer. When Leo Gorcey tried to upstage Cagney with an ad-lib, the star stiff-armed him. After that, the gang treated him with great respect.

Main Cast

The film benefits greatly from its strong cast. James Cagney dominates the movie in his first film after a two year contract dispute with Warner Brothers and in a brilliant performance flawlessly peels back layer after layer of the Rocky character. He is ably complemented by Patrick O'Brien, who as a young man, actually trained for the priesthood, and who appeared in a total of nine films with Cagney, (this is the sixth). Humphrey Bogart, still three years away from major stardom with 'The Maltese Falcon' and 'Casablanca' shows his class as a cowardly and crooked lawyer and Ann Sheridan, as Rocky's girl, perfectly performs her limited role as the innocent beauty among the New York low life.
James Cagney ... Rocky Sullivan
Pat O'Brien ... Fr. Jerry Connolly
Humphrey Bogart ... Jim Frazier
Ann Sheridan ... Laury Martin
George Bancroft ... Mac Keefer
Billy Halop ... Soapy
Bobby Jordan ... Swing
Leo Gorcey ... Bim
Gabriel Dell ... Pasty
Huntz Hall ... Crab
Bernard Punsly ... Hunky
Joe Downing ... Steve
Edward Pawley ... Edwards, guard
Adrian Morris ... Blackie
Frankie Burke ... Rocky Sullivan, as a boy
William Tracy ... Jerry Connelly, as a boy
Marilyn Knowlden ... Laury Martin, as a child

James Cagney (1899-1986)
Cagney was an inspirational actor who has become one of the greatest legends from the Golden Age of Hollywood. In a long career of over five decades from the 1930s to the 1980s,he worked with generations of different actors in a wide variety of roles. He is best known for his gangster movies but he also gave a memorable performance as the song and dance man George M. Cohan in 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' in 1942 for which he received the Academy Award for Best Actor. He was nominated twice more for the award and in 1999 he was ranked eighth among the Greatest Male Stars of All Time by the American Film Institute.
He was one of the founders of the Screen Actors Guild and its president from 1942-44. In 1984, he received the U.S. government's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom.
Ann Sheridan (1915-67)
As a student in North Texas in 1934, Ann won a walk on role in a Paramount film in a local beauty contest. She stayed on at Paramount, appearing in several movies before signing with Warner Bros.in 1936 where her career really took off. As well as 'Angels with Dirty Faces' she appeared in many successful films such as 'Kings Row' in 1942 and 'I Was a Male War Bride' in 1949, before her career began to tail off. She died from cancer in 1967, aged just 51.
Pat O'Brien (1899-1983)
Frequently partnered with James Cagney, O'Brien began his movie career in 1930 after several years as a stage actor. Firm friends with James Cagney, he appeared with him in nine feature films. As well as his performance in 'Angels with Dirty Faces' he is well known for his role as Knute Rockne in 'Knute Rockne, All American' in 1940.
Dead End Kids
The "Kids" made six pictures together in the thirties, and then became the East Side Kids from 1940-1945, making several low budget films together. Later those "Kids" evolved into the Bowery Boys who made some 48 films between 1946 and 1958.


Director ... Michael Curtiz
Producer ... Samuel Bischoff
Original Story ... Rowland Brown
Screenplay ... John Wexley, Warren Duff, Ben Hecht (uncredited), Charles MacArthur (uncredited)
Music ... Max Steiner
Cinematography ... Sol Polito
Distribution Company ... Warner Brothers
Release date ... November 24, 1938
Running time ... 97 minutes

Academy Awards

No Wins:
Three Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actor ... James Cagney
Best Director ... Michael Curtiz
Best Writing, Original Story ... Rowland Brown