Jan 14, 2013

Dead End

Before Raviv Ullman starred in the revival, we had Dead End (1935), the film version of Sidney Kingsley’s sociological analysis/Broadway play.  It was scripted by infamously radical Lilian Hellman, and it starred box office big-shots Humphrey Bogart and Joel McCrea, who competed to see who would get the best lines.  Innocent of this back-story were the five “Dead End Kids” from the original play, child stars grown into young adults when no one was looking: Billy Halop, Gabriel Dell, Huntz Hall, Bobby Jordan, and Leo Gorcey. None really came from Dead Ends, but they created the myth of the Lost Boys, the slum-dwelling "angels with dirty faces," wise-cracking, irreverent noble savages who would endure in hundreds of films, radio plays, pulp stories, and novels for twenty years.

Dead End takes place within a single day and night on a single block in Manhattan near  the East River, where the poor Irish immigrants in their tenements and the ultra-rich Anglo-whites in a highrise apartment complex peer out windows at each other.  Two childhood chums have returned on opposite sides of the law: architect Dave Connell (Joel McCrea) and gangster Baby Face (Humphrey Bogart). A group of neighborhood boys, all teenagers,  immigrants’ sons, orphans, zoom across the set.  They spend the day swimming, playing cards, fighting, assaulting sissies, offending the sensibilities of the rich, and posturing for the approval of “big men.”  The men, in turn, take an interest in the boys, and compete for their attention.

Meanwhile the boys compete for our attention.  Their bodies are displayed blatantly and continuously.  Before five minutes have passed, Tommy (Billy Halop, the bully in Tom Brown's School Days) rushes out of his tenement apartment wearing overalls and no shirt.  It’s a hot day, so he and his friends decide to go swimming in the East River, an excuse to spend the first third of the movie in their underwear.  Water signifies the boundary between civilization and savagery, childhood and adulthood, the liminal space of adolescence itself.  

At midday, they put on clothes to play cards, but afterwards they strip down again.  Tommy drops his pants and converses for awhile in his underwear, and in case we haven’t gotten a good enough look, gets grabbed by a rich man, so he can squirm and twist, muscles straining.

Dead End Kids are smooth, lean, and very pale, their bodies almost glowing against the dark, sooty backdrops, suggesting that they do not belong there.   They belong in an angelic world, in an Eden unsullied by sin (Bobby Jordan’s character is even named Angel).

One is reminded of the somewhat more bucolic setting of Thomas Eakins’ Swimming, where Berger locates in the adolescent nudes “a reassurance of an essentialized masculine identity.” Yet they represent something more, an elemental connection with each other, sensuous, intense, and physical, erotic but pre-romantic.  They are not yet separated into homoromanic pairs.   They are a pack.

 The boys exhibit no interest in heterosexual coupling, except for a taunt from Spit (Leo Gorcey) at a rich girl who can’t find her boyfriend:  “Won’t I do?”  When they see rich couples dancing on a balcony, they pretend disgust: “Look, they’re dancing like they like it!”

But they are quite aware of same-sex erotic practice.  When they taunt the sissy with “what are ya, a boy or a goil?”, evoking the classic intersexed pansy of 1930’s comedies,  they add a sexual dig.  Angel thrusts his pelvis backward and forward, not side to side as he would to signify girlishness – he is emulating coitus, pretending that he wishes to have sex with the boy.  He has been to Reform School, and knows about the same-sex practices there; when Tommy is arrested, he offers explicit advice on whom to hook up with and whom to avoid.

Early in the film, the kids encounter a new boy, who is acting the mollycoddle by rocking a baby carriage.  He and Tommy exchange shy smiles, but the others try to strong-arm a quarter out of him. He only has three cents, so they grab him, throw him to the ground, pull up his shirt, and start to pull down his pants. There is a close up of his waist, with many hands on his belt, one cupping his crotch.  He struggles wildly. At that moment, an adult intervenes, and surely prevents a sexual assault.  Amazingly, the boys’behavior was toned down by the censors.   In Kingsley’s original play, dirt is rubbed directly into the boy’s privates, and in other scenes the boys playfully grab at each other’s zippers.

The film ends with the architect winning Billy's heart, the first of many adult-teen homoromantic relationships that audiences in the 1930s couldn't seem to get enough of (another is Born to Fight).