Dead End (1937)

dir. William Wyler. The film opens with a New York City real estate history lesson, about how the poor once lived at the riverside dead end of city streets, until the wealthy recognised the appeal of riverside living and built towering luxury apartments, looking down on the tenements below. Without being too preachy, DEAD END manages to present a detailed and sympathetic story about the working poor, and why it’s often difficult, or impossible to escape. This was originally a play on Broadway, and the film has a comforting theatrical atmosphere. The emotional centre of the film is a group of children who spend their time swimming in the river, fighting, and teaching each other the street skills they need to survive. The child actors dominate the film, with incredibly physical, heartbreaking performances. These roles were so hard to cast, that the famed producer Samuel Goldwyn recruited the original child cast from Broadway. The young actors would go onto feature as group in many other films, under many names, but beginning as The Dead End Kids. The kids upstage the more famous actors, even Humphrey Bogart as the wanted gangster “Baby Face” returning to his old neighbourhood to reminisce. It’s clear that his bloody career is one possible path for our street kids. Taking inspiration from Broadway, the film was shot on a single giant stage, complete with a portion of the Hudson River, which the kids dive into, or are thrown into. The film can be tragic, but is not despairing, and manages to tell a story about the cycle of poverty, with comedy, romance, and even some thrilling action.

By Nicholas Hudson-Ellis

Co-Founder & Film Programs Manager of Bangkok Screening Room.