Angels with Dirty Faces

This article is about the film. For other uses, see Angels with Dirty Faces (disambiguation).
Angels with Dirty Faces

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Produced by Samuel Bischoff
Written by John Wexley
Warren Duff
Based on Angels With Dirty Faces by Rowland Brown
Starring James Cagney
Pat O'Brien
The Dead End Kids
Humphrey Bogart
Ann Sheridan
George Bancroft
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography Sol Polito
Edited by Owen Marks
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
November 26, 1938 (1938-11-26)
Running time
97 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget Unknown
Box office $1.7 million[1]

Angels with Dirty Faces is a 1938 American crime film directed by Michael Curtiz for Warner Brothers. It stars James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, The Dead End Kids, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, and George Bancroft. The screenplay was written by John Wexley and Warren Duff, and is based on the story by Rowland Brown. The film chronicles the rise and fall of the notorious gangster William "Rocky" Sullivan. After spending three years in prison for armed robbery, Rocky intends to collect $100,000 from his co-conspirator, Jim Frazier. All the while, Father Jerry Connolly tries to prevent a group of youths from falling under Rocky's influence.

Angels with Dirty Faces was released on November 28, 1938 to positive reviews. At the 11th Academy Awards, the film was nominated in three categories: Best Actor (Cagney), Best Director (Curtiz), and Best Story (Brown).


In 1923, Rocky Sullivan (Frankie Burke) and Jerry Connolly (William Tracy) attempted to rob a railroad car carrying fountain pens. Jerry, the faster runner, escaped from police, while Rocky was caught and sentenced to reform school.

Thirteen years later, Rocky (James Cagney) is arrested for armed robbery. His lawyer and co-conspirator, Jim Frazier (Humphrey Bogart), asks him to take the blame and, in exchange, he will give Rocky the $100,000 stolen on "the day" he is released. Rocky agrees, and is sentenced to three years in prison. After serving his sentence, he returns to his old neighborhood and visits Jerry (Pat O'Brien), who is now a Catholic priest. Jerry advises Rocky to get a place "in the old parish"; he does so, renting a room in a boarding house run by Laury Martin (Ann Sheridan), a girl he bullied in school. He then pays a visit to Frazier's casino. Frazier claims to have been unaware of Rocky's release, but promises to have the $100,000 ready by the end of the week. In the meantime, he gives Rocky $500 spending money.

Rocky is pickpocketed after leaving the casino. The culprits turn out to be a group of youths: Soapy (Billy Halop), Swing (Bobby Jordan), Bim (Leo Gorcey), Pasty (Gabriel Dell), Crab (Huntz Hall), and Hunky (Bernard Punsly). They admire Rocky's reputation and criminal lifestyle so, after retrieving his wallet, Rocky invites them to dinner. While they are eating, Jerry shows up and asks the gang why they haven't been playing basketball. With Rocky's help, he convinces them to play against another team. At the match, Jerry and Laury express equal concern over the negative influence Rocky may be having on the gang.

While walking home, an attempt is made on Rocky's life by Frazier's hit squad. Rocky survives, and retaliates by kidnapping Frazier and raiding his house at gunpoint, stealing $2,000 and a ledger. Frazier's business partner, Mac Keefer (George Bancroft), gives Rocky his $100,000 in full, but informs the police of the kidnapping. Rocky is arrested, but after discovering he has possession of the ledger, Frazier tells the police it was all a "misunderstanding" and Rocky is released. Jerry learns of the kidnapping, and decides to go to the press in an effort to expose the corruption in New York. Rocky tries to reason with him, but to no avail. On the radio, Jerry publicly denounces the corruption; as well as Rocky, Frazier and Keefer. Frazier and Keefer assure Rocky that no harm will come to Jerry, but Rocky overhears their plans to kill the both of them. Rocky kills Frazier and Keefer instead, and makes his way to an abandoned warehouse after escaping the casino. There, he kills a police officer and a standoff ensues with the rest of the force. Jerry arrives and tries to reason with Rocky, telling him the entire building is surrounded, but Rocky takes him hostage. While trying to escape, the latter is shot in the leg and caught. After standing trial, Rocky is sentenced to death.

On the night of his execution, Jerry pleads with Rocky to show people that he died a coward by begging for mercy on his way to the death house, citing the negative influence he has had on Soapy and the gang as his reason. Rocky refuses, but on his way to the electric chair, he does start begging and screaming for mercy, though his motive is unclear to the viewer. The final scene shows Soapy and the gang reading of how Rocky "turned yellow" in the face of his execution, and they lose all respect for him.



Rowland Brown wrote the scenario for Angels with Dirty Faces in August, 1937. He was known in Hollywood for writing and directing a number of crime movies in the early 1930s, including The Doorway to Hell[N 1] and Quick Millions. He presented the story to Mervyn LeRoy, who was keen to direct a "vehicle" starring the Dead End Kids, a group of young actors from New York.[1] Brown and LeRoy tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a fee for the scenario.[1]

Cagney, circa. 1935

Brown then began pitching the film to other studios, and eventually made a deal with Grand National Pictures who wanted James Cagney to star in the lead role.[1] By the end of 1935, it became "apparent" to Cagney and his business manager brother, William Cagney, that Warner Brothers were only interested in paying him a "very small percentage of the income dollar derived" from his work. Therefore, Cagney did the "only thing" he could do, and "walked away" until a better arrangement with Warner could be made. After filing a lawsuit to "rectify the inequalities", Cagney started working for Grand National Pictures, a "fairly small studio" compared to Warner.[3] At the time he was offered the role of Rocky Sullivan, Cagney had already made one film for Grand National, Great Guy, but fearing he would be typecast in "tough guy" roles as he had been at Warner, Cagney turned down the role and opted to star in Something to Sing About. The film's budget "ballooned" to an astronomical $900 thousand, and, upon its release, did not fare well at the box office.[4] Its underperformance is believed to have been a contributing factor in the bankruptcy of Grand National in 1939.[5]

Following Something to Sing About, Cagney returned to Warner after reaching a better deal with them. At his brother's insistence, he took Brown's story with him and presented it to the company. Warner acquired the story and then asked a number of directors to take on the project. LeRoy was the first, and although he showed interest, he was unable to commit because he was making movies for MGM; Warner then asked Brown, who showed no interest at all; and finally, Michael Curtiz, who accepted their offer.[1]


Actor Role
Cagney, JamesJames Cagney ... Sullivan, William "Rocky"William "Rocky" Sullivan
Pat O'Brien ... Connolly, Fr. JerryFr. Jerry Connolly
, The Dead End KidsThe Dead End Kids ... Various[N 2]
Bogart, HumphreyHumphrey Bogart ... Frazier, JimJim Frazier
Sheridan, AnnAnn Sheridan ... Martin, LauryLaury Martin
George Bancroft ... Keefer, MacMac Keefer

When Cagney was offered Angels with Dirty Faces, his agent was "convinced" that he would never agree to play the role of an "abject coward" being dragged to his execution. Cagney, however, was enthusiastic about the chance to play Rocky. He saw it as an opportunity to prove that he had a broad acting range that extended beyond "tough guy" roles.[7][8] To play Rocky, Cagney drew on his memories of growing up in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, New York. 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, who 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."[9][10] Cagney's other inspiration was his childhood friend, Peter "Bootah" Hessling, who was convicted of murder and "sent to the electric chair" on July 21, 1927. The night Bootah was executed, Cagney was "playing in a Broadway show" and "wept" upon hearing of his friend's death.[11][12]

Sheridan and Cagney, circa. 1938

Pat O'Brien was cast as Father Jerry Connolly, Rocky's childhood friend. O'Brien had been a "contract player" with Warner Bros. since 1933, and eventually left the studio in 1940 following a dispute over the terms of the renewal of his contract.[13] He and Cagney first met in 1926 in Asbury Park, New Jersey. O'Brien was a "lonely, young" actor "playing in a stock company". He heard that a stage play, Women Go on Forever by Mary Boland, was coming to Asbury Park on its way to Broadway. Wanting to meet the "star of the show", he went backstage after a performance and met Cagney for the first time.[14] O'Brien and Cagney became great friends, and remained so until O'Brien's death in 1983.[15] (Cagney died in 1986).[16]

By May, 1938, the Dead End Kids had already starred in Samuel Goldwyn's Dead End; as well as Warner's Crime School[N 3] (both with Humphrey Bogart). They had signed a two-year contract with Goldwyn in 1937, but he sold the contract to Warner Bros. the same year because of their behavior on the set of Dead End; in one instance, they "jumped" Bogart and "stole his pants" while in another they crashed a truck into a sound stage.[18] Bogart portrays the crooked lawyer Jim Frazier in Angels With Dirty Faces. German scholar Winfried Fluck described Bogart's character, Jim Frazier, as an "entirely negative" and "thoroughly bad figure", in "contrast" with Cagney's antihero.[19]


Brown's story was revised a number times by John Wexley and Warren Duff. They provided "powerful treatments",[20] but as with many of the "catch-as-catch-can" pictures of the time, the screenplay was "insubstantial". Cagney later recalled: "the actors had to patch up [the script] here and there by improvising right on the set".[21]


Gorcey (left) and Cagney (centre) in the basement scene, with Billy Halop in the background

Principal photography started in June, 1938 in Warner's Burbank studios,[22] ending in August. Filming finished a week behind schedule due mostly to the time it took to shoot the scenes of Rocky's gunfight with police and his execution.[1]

Cagney's opening scene with the Dead End Kids took place "in the basement of a deserted building". By this time, the Dead End Kids "had been throwing their weight around quite a bit with [other] directors and actors". As the scene was being shot, Leo Gorcey jokingly ad libbed "he's psychic!", "thereby throwing the rhythm of the scene right out the window, souring the whole thing very nicely". So in the next take, just before he said "come here, suckers", Cagney "stiff arm[ed Gorcey] right above the nose. His head went back [and hit] the kid behind him, stunning them both momentarily."[23] Huntz Hall witnessed Gorcey being hit, and later recalled in 1978: "Leo hated [Cagney] for the rest of his life" after the incident.[24]

While filming Rocky's shootout with the police, one scene called for Cagney to be "right at the opening" as machine-gun bullets took out the windows above his head. At this point in his career, Cagney had experience with the unpredictability of using live gunfire and he later recalled that either "common sense or a hunch" made him cautious. He told Curtiz to "[shoot the scene] in process", and as he got out of the way, "Burke, the professional machine gunner, fired the shots". One of the bullets deflected hitting "the steel edge of the window", and going "right through the wall" where Cagney's head had been. This experience convinced Cagney that "flirting this way with real bullets was ridiculous".[25]

Rocky's execution was shot at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility.[26][27] The "death house" featured in the film was designed by state architect Lewis Pilcher; it went into service in February, 1922.[28] For years, viewers have wondered if Rocky really turns yellow as he is being strapped into the electric chair, or if he is faking it in order to keep his promise to Jerry. Cagney later said: "In looking at the film, it is virtually impossible to say which course Rocky took - which is just the way I wanted it. I played [the role] with deliberate ambiguity so that the spectators can [form their own opinions]. It seems to me it works out fine in either case".[29]


The film premiered on November 26, 1938.[17] Although the production budget is unknown, Angels with Dirty Faces grossed $1.7 million from the worldwide box office, and is said to have been a financial success. Analysts claim that if it weren't for Angels with Dirty Faces and two other films directed by Curtiz that year (The Adventures of Robin Hood and Four Daughters), Warner Bros. would have lost a considerable amount of money, resulting in negative turnover for the company's 1938 fiscal year.[1]

Critical reception

Initial reactions

Angels with Dirty Faces was met with critical acclaim. Frank Nugent, of The New York Times, called it a "savage melodrama" offering "Cagney at his best".[30] The New York-based motion picture journal Harrison's Reports had similar views. Calling the film a "powerful gangster melodrama", they said: "[It is] one of the most thrilling pictures produced in some time". The "acting, particularly by James Cagney, is brilliant".[31] On the other hand, Variety magazine was less enthused, writing: "On the strength of the Cagney-O'Brien combo, [Angels with Dirty Faces] should do fair business, but the picture itself is no bonfire". That "cowardice angle [at the end of the film] is thoroughly hokey, [and the] 'Dead End' kid story has already been told too many times".[32]


Cagney won two awards for Best Actor; from the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle, respectively. Furthermore, Angels with Dirty Faces was nominated for three awards at the 11th Academy Awards ceremony; Best Actor (for Cagney), Best Director (for Curtiz), and Best Writing (for Brown).

List of awards and nominations
Date of ceremony Award / Film festival Category Recipient(s) and nominee(s) Result Ref(s)
February 23, 1939 Academy Awards Best Actor James Cagney Nominated [33]
Best Director Michael Curtiz Nominated
Best Writing (Original Story) Rowland Brown Nominated
December 15, 1938 National Board of Review Awards Best Actor James Cagney Won [34]
January 3, 1939 New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Actor James Cagney Won [35]

General consensus

Contemporary critics have tended to agree with their 1938 counterparts. The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports a 100 percent critical rating (based on 20 reviews; all certified "fresh", with an "average rating" of 8 out of 10).[36] In 2005, Slant Magazine praised Angels with Dirty Faces for being Warner's "best gangster" movie. Awarding four out of four stars, Jeremiah Kipp said: "Rocky Sullivan embodies all the qualities we love about bad guys". Cagney "offers a real intensity and a sense of playfulness", even as he shoots "fellow gangsters" dead. The final, "climactic" scene of "cowardice is unparalleled in gangster movies, and the more Cagney begs and screams, the more [we are] amazed at how he reduces the hero worship of gangsters to nothing. [The film marks] Cagney’s finest hour in a career filled with great performances".[37]

Adaptations in other media

Angels with Dirty Faces has been adapted by means of two radio plays. The first was on the May 22, 1939 broadcast of Lux Radio Theater, with Cagney and O'Brien reprising their film roles;[20] while the second was on the September 19, 1941 broadcast of the Philip Morris Playhouse, starring Sylvia Sidney.[38]

In popular culture

In 1939, Warner Bros. released a cartoon short spoofing their "cycle" of crime films. The cartoon's title, Thugs with Dirty Mugs, is a direct pun on Angels with Dirty Faces.[39] In the early 1990s, parodies appeared in the form of films within a film in Home Alone and its sequel, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. These parodies are called Angels with Filthy Souls and Angels with Even Filthier Souls, respectively.[40][41]

Notes and references


  1. Cagney had a supporting role in The Doorway to Hell.[2]
  2. The Dead End Kids were a male acting group from New York. The group consists of: Billy Halop (as Soapy), Bobby Jordan (as Swing), Leo Gorcey (as Bim), Gabriel Dell (as Pasty), Huntz Hall (as Crab), and Bernard Punsly (as Hunky).[6]
  3. Crime School was released six months before Angels with Dirty Faces.[17]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Robertson, pages 47-48.
  2. Cagney, chapter 3, page 3.
  3. Cagney, chapter 4, pages 20-21.
  4. Neibaur, page 164.
  5. Fernett, page 41.
  6. The closing credits for Angels with Dirty Faces.
  7. Here's a look at Warner Bros.. 90 Years of Great Filmmaking, Park Circus, page 4, published March 28, 2013. Retrieved December 8, 2015.
  8. Neibaur, pages 177-184.
  9. Neibaur, page 179.
  10. Naremore, page 164.
  11. Hughes, chapter 4, page 3.
  12. Neibaur, page 2.
  13. O'Brien, pages 260-61.
  14. Parkinson, Michael. "James Cagney and Pat O'Brien on the Parkinson talk show", Parkinson / BBC One, published January 1, 1981. Retrieved December 10, 2015.
  15. Zibart, Eve. "Beloved Actor Pat O'Brien Dies of Heart Attack", The Washington Post, published October 16, 1983. Retrieved December 10, 2015.
  16. Flint, Peter B.. "James Cagney Is Dead at 86; Master of Pugnacious Grace", New York Times, published March 31, 1986. Retrieved December 10, 2015.
  17. 1 2 Hanson, page 60.
  18. Hayes and Walker, pages 56-74.
  19. Fluck, page 386.
  20. 1 2 Neibaur, page 173.
  21. Cagney, chapter 4, page 26.
  22. Pollock, Arthur. "News and Comment of Summer Activities in the Stage and Screen World", The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, published June 28, 1938. Retrieved December 12, 2015.
  23. Cagney, chapter 4, page 30.
  24. Neibaur, page 176.
  25. Cagney, chapter 4, pages 27-28.
  26. Mogul, Fred. "Luring Tourists Up the River to The Big House", WNYC, published January 8, 2005. Retrieved December 12, 2015.
  27. Coscia, Elizabeth. "Sing Sing Correctional Facility Plans Dark Museum", The Observer, published June 23, 2014. Retrieved December 12, 2015.
  28. Christianson, page 17.
  29. Cagney, chapter 4, pages 32-33.
  30. Abramson, page 1551.
  31. Harrison Staff. "Angels with Dirty Faces", Harrison's Reports, page 179, published November 5, 1938. Retrieved December 8, 2015.
  32. Variety Staff. "Review: 'Angels with Dirty Faces'", Variety, published December 31, 1938. Retrieved December 8, 2015.
  33. "11th Academy Award Winners and Nominees", Academy Awards, first published February 23, 1939. Retrieved December 7, 2015.
  34. "'Angels with Dirty Faces' Accolades", New York Times, published January 1, 2010. Retrieved December 7, 2015.
  35. "New York Film Critics Circle Awards for Best Actor", New York Film Critics Circle, first published January 3, 1939. Retrieved December 7, 2015.
  36. "Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)", Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved December 18, 2015.
  37. Kipp, Jeremiah. "Angels with Dirty Faces", Slant Magazine, published February 2, 2005. Retrieved December 18, 2015.
  38. "Paper Clipping from page 17 of the September 19, 1941 edition of the Harrisburg Telegraph",, published July 21, 2015. Retrieved December 7, 2015.
  39. Wells, chapter 25, pages 141-43.
  40. King, Darryn. "Inside the Making of Home Alone’s Fake Gangster Movie", Vanity Fair, published December 22, 2015. Retrieved January 20, 2016.
  41. Wilkinson, Amy. "Home Alone turns 25: A deep dive with director Chris Columbus", Entertainment Weekly, published November 6, 2015. Retrieved January 20, 2016.

Further reading

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