During the Great Depression a number of rich New Yorkers gentrified parts of the East River, displacing several slums in the name of a waterway vista in their high-rises. Sidney Kingsley’s original 1935 play of Dead End mashed the actual dead end community of Manhattan’s East 53rd Street with the luxury River House of East 52nd to bring to light the human tensions in advanced capitalism. After a private street exit closes (likely due to the sort of construction that comes with neighborhood renovation), the dressy rich must walk through immigrant-heavy back streets when traveling. With the distance between these communities closing, internal aggravation among the play’s riverside ruffians, the Dead End Kids (later bought by Samuel Goldwyn and eventually renamed the Bowery Boys), turns into physical violence.
It’s material that could be ripe for Marxist interpretation, but Kingsley’s play acts as more noblesse oblige social concern more than flip-the-system call-to-action. As a result, director William Wyler shot his 1937 film adaptation as a claustrophobic drama using one (expensive) set for most of the action in order to draw these two communities even closer.
The Dead End Kids take most of the screentime—they have a believable ruffian chemistry and a tendency to take full advantage of the small set by running to every corner in the name of pure juvenile energy. Their explicit gang status and preference for mean pranks and purposeless fighting stands opposite to Joel McCrea’s Dave, a product of this neighborhood but currently working an honest living as a college-educated architect. McCrea speaks in his signature mid-range coherence despite his identification with the Italian-derived fast slang of the immigrant youth—more of his straight man act, yes, but it sends a strange signal that any success must drop his or her native speak. McCrea’s relationship with the kids slowly fills with these sorts of differences, not only derived from McCrea’s blank-slate approach as an actor, but also his unwillingness to separate from his twangy Americana presence to play an authentic second-generation pauper.
There could be a move here to point to his conservative politics, WASPy self-built persona, and millionaire status in order to accuse McCrea of being more suited for a River House resident than playing at slumming it with the kids. However, his casting proves to be a bit more surreptitious than that. McCrea’s Dave, one of the few to break from the slums, personifies rags-to-riches American Dream ambition by sheer indomitable will. Success has meant fighting against the life of glorified crime that resident gangster “Baby Face” Martin (an early role for Humphrey Bogart) pushes onto the kids, as well as avoiding the stagnancy of the background neighbors. Though meant to prod a sympathetic plight for the poor (perhaps casting agents assumed a wide audience would want handsome, adventure-seeking movie star Joel McCrea to pull through no matter the role), McCrea can brag that his character had climbed the economic ladder without the assistance of any government program. Everyone wins.
Of course, McCrea’s work here extends past his star image in his role. Unlike the monogamous previous films in this series
, he’s forced to bounce between two women. Normally, McCrea’s mating dance extends to the leading lady with side blinders, but here he’s called to be riddled with indecision. He keeps a reserved distance to childhood friend Drina (Sylvia Sidney) in case nouveau riche
Kay (Wendy Barrie) decides to drop most of the perks in her new lifestyle for him. Seeing this hesitancy in McCrea by way of friendly hugs, light speech, and the telling medium shots of two bodies in close-enough proximity takes away from his single-minded eroticism that defined much of his impersonal heroes in previous features. Choice allows McCrea to exhibit a character that must explicate what he wants and why, and his actions must fill in the blanks.
By contrast, Bogie’s Martin, back in town from a career of successful big-time crime in Chicago, steadily devolves into single-minded nature and charm found in McCrea’s character in previous movies. Martin is back in New York to present his living body to his grieving mother and previous lover before launching into another organized crime spree; but his connections with McCrea, the River House, the Dead End Kids, and the legacy he’s left behind steer him all over the congested set. In the most emotionally resonant scene, his mother disowns him for all the panic he’s caused her, seemingly placing Bogie’s eyes in that droopy, alcohol-fueled stare for the rest of his career. He seeks any sort of connection with ex-girlfriend Francey (Claire Trevor), revealed to be a streetwalker and thus completely undesirable to Bogie (that a murderer would have more monogamous ambition than the typically puritan persona of McCrea in 1937 certainly says something about the level of character fault McCrea is willing to achieve). Now a husk of a person, Bogie reverts to old habits by teaching the Kids how to use a knife for their upcoming gang fight, leading to McCrea’s armed confrontation with the gangsters.
Bogie’s one-note loose morals here gives a nice lens to McCrea’s acting growth. While McCrea is granted only medium shots with both of his girls in order to hold back from their soft-lit confessional monologues, Bogie’s one romantic interlude features his own close-up with those empty eyes darting off Trevor’s shoulder. McCrea submits to Bogie’s power in every encounter except the gunfight, often shutting up and displacing his physique during Bogie’s shoulder-rubbing among the criminal elite. McCrea is still a man of reaction rather than forward action, but he doesn’t need to subvert the script in order to keep his screen image of smirking, brawny nice-guy intact. When Bogie has nothing left to lose, his suave maneuvering of the community turns into a spiteful grimace and a towering walk, nothing more than an exaggerated criminal organizer. This transformation comes after a scene with McCrea confessing his inability to flirt back with Barrie: “I wish I could find [your dream guy] for you.” He’s not neutered like McCrea’s cowardly poet in Barbary Coast – he’s still willing to jump around and show off his athletic prowess, ultimately taking down Bogart’s suicidal rampage. Dave’s unwanted heroism gives his stoneface off-screen stare yet another dimension: he’s no stoic Ulysses killing for the good of his people, but one filled with moral shellshock from the act, another layer of indecision.
McCrea can’t pull the boy scout act here. He can roll up his sleeves and give a showy American exceptionalism all he wants, but his heroic acts only dig further into his internal moral dilemma (the reward for killing Bogie will either bail Sidney’s brother Tommy out of jail or allow him a year’s romance with Barrie). He’ll buckle his knees under power, flirt cautiously, resign his hands to his side, and read off his regrets. He’s the American Dream, but he’s not sure where that dream will lead him.
Part of our on-going series covering the Museum of Modern Art's series Acteurism: Joel McCrea.