Film & TV

‘Angels With Dirty Faces’: Hollywood’s Irish Moral Guardians

BY Tiffany Brannan TIMEMarch 17, 2022 PRINT

The commercialism of shamrocks and bunnies frequently overshadows the real meaning of St. Patrick’s Day, which originated as a Christian holiday. To honor the traditional meaning, that is, of morality, I’d like to discuss a serious classic film which is appropriate for the holiday, “Angels with Dirty Faces” from 1938.

This film features no shamrocks or jigs, yet it paints a powerful picture of the influence that the Irish people in Hollywood, both in front of and behind the camera. These Irishmen were devoted to their homeland’s traditional Catholic faith, so it’s not surprising that one of the movie’s main characters is a Catholic priest.

Few think of the major powers in Hollywood as being Irish, but many Old Hollywood players were Hibernian (of Irish ethnicity). These included not only character actors, who typically played policemen and washerwomen, but many A-list stars, as well. Some of the more famous included James Cagney and Pat O’Brien, who made nine movies together. The lifelong friends both worked at Warner Bros. in the 1930s, so they were cast in many films together as co-stars. This movie, the sixth of their pairings, was perhaps the most famous.

If you recognize that “Angels with Dirty Faces” is a gangster film, you’re probably wondering what it has to do with St. Patrick’s Day. Firstly, it stars, as just mentioned, the characteristically Irish James Cagney, plus “Hollywood’s Irishman in Residence,” Pat O’Brien. The characters feature surnames like Sullivan, Connolly, and McGee, and the main parish (a local Catholic church) seems like a minority neighborhood in a big city.

However, the biggest Irish influence on this film is not seen or even credited on the screen. I refer to the Production Code Administration (PCA), led by Irish American newspaperman Joseph I. Breen. Similar in appearance as well as temperament to Pat O’Brien, who was his close friend, Joe Breen was the tough Irishman who made the Motion Picture Production Code law in Hollywood from the mid-1930s until his retirement in 1954. Few films offer as vivid an example of what Joe Breen did with the PCA than “Angels with Dirty Faces.”

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Promotional ad for “Angels with Dirty Faces.” (Warner Bros.)

First, the Story

The story begins when adolescent Rocky Sullivan (Frankie Burke, later Cagney) and Jerry Connolly (William Tracy, later O’Brien) get caught stealing fountain pens from a train. Unlike Jerry, Rocky is unable to outrun the police, so he goes to reform school and ends up becoming a gangster with several convictions.

Meanwhile, Jerry becomes a priest in their old parish and dedicates himself to keeping the next generation of boys (The Dead End Kids) from becoming hoodlums. Fifteen years after the story begins, Rocky returns to his old neighborhood after finishing a five-year sentence. There, he happily reunites with Jerry and gains the ardent admiration of the priest’s group of boys. Although the charismatic criminal uses his sway over the lads to make them behave themselves at a basketball game, Father Connolly fears that admiring the gangster’s glamorous life will corrupt the delinquent-leaning lads.

Rocky rents a room in the old neighborhood and gets reacquainted with a girl he knew in childhood, Laury Ferguson (Ann Sheridan). Although she initially resents his cocky attitude, she is soon bewitched by his charm and believes that he wants to reform. Meanwhile, Rocky pays a visit to his crooked lawyer, Jim Frazier (Humphrey Bogart), who’d promised to invest his $100,000 of stolen funds while he was in jail. Rocky soon realizes that Frazier and a crooked nightclub owner, Mac Keefer (George Bancroft), have gone into business together with his money and that they have no intention of returning the funds to him. They plot to kill him to avoid relinquishing any money or control. Rocky is too smart for them, though.

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(L–R) Leo Gorcey and James Cagney in “Angels with Dirty Faces.” (Warner Bros.)

Meanwhile Jerry worries as Rocky’s heavily publicized manipulation of the local law enforcement makes him a dangerous hero to the parish boys. A moral battle ensues, which Rocky and Jerry must fight, within themselves, as well as with each other.

One might think that their changed worldviews and diametrically opposed lifestyles would make the childhood friends become enemies after they reunite in adulthood. However, they remain personally devoted to each other. Rocky is angered by his fellow gangsters’ threats to end Father Connolly’s reform efforts with violence; he goes to great lengths to protect his friend’s life.

This movie does not present the moral conflict present in most gangster films, namely making the audience sympathize with an anti-hero who has absolutely no redeeming qualities.

The Story Behind the Story

Just as Jerry Connolly remains a true friend to Rocky Sullivan, Joe Breen was a friend to those who might be viewed as his enemies: the filmmakers. Although he fought to quell the immoral content of Hollywood’s productions, he did not have a personal grudge against his studio colleagues. In fact, he regarded people like Howard Hughes, whom many guess to have been a bitter enemy, as his friends. It’s easy to assume people were friends or enemies based on their business dealings and personal beliefs, but movies like this remind us how wrong we can be.

Father Connolly’s crusade against corruption is reminiscent of the real-life fight against evil influences in America, which the Catholic Church waged in the 1930s, headed by the Catholic (later National) Legion of Decency. Founded in 1934, this organization is best remembered for classifying films with different letters based on moral acceptability, making it one of the first national rating systems.

The movement’s rapid spread throughout the country in early 1934 was one of the main motivators for the formation of the PCA in July of that year. Like the gangsters in this movie, the studio bosses realized that the moral reform was too much for them. Fortunately, they decided to work together to build an effective system (instead of trying to assassinate the reformers).

Joseph Breen in the 1950s
Joseph I. Breen in the 1950s, working at the Production Code Administration. (Courtesy of Tiffany Brannan)

In the movie, Father Connolly builds his crusade against evil on faith, which he supplements with practical action. He knows he needs publicity to alert the public to the corruption running rampant in their own bureaucracy, but the media are afraid to go against the powers that be. Finally, one publisher agrees to take a chance and back the priest’s reform efforts. This ignites a powerful movement, which gets the attention of the citizens as well as the mobsters themselves.

Similarly, the Legion of Decency received support and publicity from a newspaper mogul, Irish Catholic layman Martin J. Quigley. This Chicago publisher was one of the authors of the Code as well as a powerful advocate for the clean movie movement. Art imitated life in this film by demonstrating how the power of the press can be used for a good cause.

Old Format, New Formula

If you are familiar with pre-Code gangster movies like “Scarface,” “Little Caesar,” and James Cagney’s breakout film, “The Public Enemy,” you probably think you’re well-versed in early crime flicks. Since it is not your standard gangster film, “Angels with Dirty Faces” will challenge your expectations about the whole genre. Although it features racketeers, machine guns, shootouts with cops, and stacks of ill-gotten money, this movie depicts so much more than a violent yet glamorous life of crime. Instead, this thought-provoking crime story focuses on the moral problems which gangland presents to its members and the rest of society.

You don’t have to be Irish or Catholic to appreciate “Angels with Dirty Faces.” The Hibernian themes are subtle backstories instead of cliché stereotypes. The religious moments focus on themes which unite, including faith, decency, and forgiveness, instead of divisive denominational doctrines. Supported by a talented cast and an uncomplicated production, this is a powerful story which is just as potent today as in 1938.

Tiffany Brannan is a 20-year-old opera singer, Hollywood history/vintage beauty copywriter, film reviewer, fashion historian, travel writer, and ballet writer. In 2016, she and her sister founded the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, an organization dedicated to reforming the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code.
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