Angels With Dirty Faces (1938): Michael Curtiz Directs James Cagney in Oscar Nominated Turn

Angels With Dirty Faces marked James Cagney’s return to his earlier specialty, this gangster melodrama, this time around with strong social commentary.
The working title of the picture, which was directed by Michael Curtiz, was “Battle of City Hall,” and indeed, the helmer mad a gripping and brisk narrative out of a rather familiar plot.
The yarn bears resemblance to “Manhattan Melodrama,” “San Francisco,” and “Dead End,” in centering on two childhood friends, who grow up to go their different ways
Cagney plays Rocky, a slum tough returning home to the Lower East Side after serving time in prison to find he has been eased out of the racket by his former partners, Humphrey Bogart and George Bancroft, who now perceive his as an embarrassing anachronism. As a gangster with some redeeming human features, Cagney is contrasted with Bogart, who has no such features.
A shrewd and slick picture, “Angels With Dirty Faces” was popular entertainment that benefited from the presence of the stars, the intriguing characters, and the morality (message) that comes at the conclusion.
Unlike scores of crime-gangster pictures, the climax is no longer the brilliant action sequence in which Rocky shoots it out with his rivals. Instead, the priest asks Rocky to destroy his popular image by dying like a coward, suggesting that it is a different kind of courage, “the kind that only you and I and God know about. I want you to let them down. They’ve got to despise your memory.”
The ending has prompted a continually asked question over the years: Did Rocky really turn yellow as he walked to the electric chair, or did he just pretend to, for the sake of the boys who perceived him as role model, as at first, Rocky scorns the request of the priest to pretend cowardice.
Read our review of Cagney’s Oscar winning performance: Yankee Doodle Dandy.
The movie catapulted the likable Ann Sheridan into stardom and again showed Warner’s style of filmmaking at its most distinctive and effective.
A sequel, “Angels Wash Their Faces,” directed by Ray Enright, bears little resemblance to the original in dramatic impact or power.
Oscar Alert
Oscar Nominations: 3
Original Story: Rowland Brown
Director: Michael Curtiz
Actor: James Cagney
Oscar Awards: None
Oscar Context:
The winner of the Best Actor was Spencer Tracy for MGM’s “Boys Town,” which also won the Original Story Oscar for Eleanore Griffin and Dore Schary.
Cagney was earlier cited by the New York Film Critics Circle as Best Actor.
Michael Curtiz had achieved a record in 1938, getting two Best Director Oscar Nominations; the other was for Four Daughters, the film that made John Garfield a star. But, alas, Curtiz lost the Oscar to a more popular director at the time, Frank Capra for “You Can’t Take It With You,” a film that also won Best Picture of the Year.