‘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.
Since the release of the film over 75 years ago the title seems to crop up on a recurring basis. ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’ just doesn’t seem to go away and we can’t help but wonder if there’s more of an explanation as to why the name has been so popular throughout the years…
Let’s start with the film:
The film is based on the contrasting journeys of two childhood friends. Both boys were close as children and caused trouble in their tough NY neighbourhood – Hells Kitchen. After the gang get into trouble, Rocky goes to a juvenile detention centre beginning his life as a hardened criminal. Jerry on the other hand escapes and decides to walk the straight and narrow, becoming a Catholic priest and working with young people from the estate he and Rocky grew up in. Later Rocky goes back to jail for armed robbery and takes the heat for his co-conspirator on the condition that he is paid $100,000 dollars upon release. Three years later Rocky is back on the streets and continues to live his life as a criminal, much to Jerry’s distain, the local youths start to see Rocky as an idol. The men are still friends through their differences and when Jerry stands up against the corruption Rocky is faced with choosing a life of crime or his childhood friend. Rocky’s old partner doesn’t want to pay up what is due and plots to kill him. Rocky however kills his enemies first and is sentenced to death for the crime. Jerry asks his old friend for one last favour, that Rocky ‘die yellow’ and leave the youths knowing that the life of crime is no life. Rocky refuses but before being put to death breaks into tears and begs for his life. Back in Hells Kitchen the young boys are disappointed but Jerry asks them to pray for “a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could.”
The film has a clear message at the end. Just like Jerry and Roxy the young boys living in poverty could choose a life of crime or to be role models passing on positive messages.
Angels go Punk:
40 years after the film, Sham69 released their upbeat ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’ single that seems to speak for the ‘Kids like me and you’, suggesting the lads know their fans are in similar economic positions. The song addresses the difficulties of the poor and lower class at the time; ‘Ain’t got no money but I don’t cry. We’re the people you don’t wanna know, We come from places you don’t wanna go.’
Around this time the punk movement was in full stride and the issues of the working class were not a subject shied away from. The Sham69 guys are singing about the fact that they are the same people snubbed on the street, the same people who’s homes and communities are considered to be rough and dangerous. The song speaks on the band never being sad but ‘sometimes lonely, Doing things someones told me’, they have been working for the man and are restless.
Repetition of ‘Angels with dirty faces, Angels from nowhere places, Kid’s like me and you’ occurs 5 times in the song, after every verse and even twice on occasion. Sham69 are asserting to the listener that they are the going through the same struggle. The band also express their ambitions ‘Trying to be someone in life’ showing they want to rise above the glass ceiling set for them.
Similarities can be drawn between the film and this song as the inspirations clearly rise from the same place. The band seem to live in a rough area much like ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ and want to do better then the limitations they are set. The song has a positive message overall as there is a sense of striving for better cards than they have been dealt.
Rap with the Angels:
The Living Legends, unlike the other artists using the same title are a rap group. In their 2000 track ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’ they speak on being underground artists, their fight to succeed and the stresses of trying to capitalise off of music. The song goes on to discuss how little they truly understand but how much they have learnt from the lives they have led. ‘Ain’t nothing ever gonna go, ain’t nothing ever gonna change, unless you go and use your soul. Use your mind, know your role’ In the last hook, referring to the scene (music industry) and the world, ‘yeah it go on without you.’ This song has a theme of taking action. The group, similarly to Sham 69, Rocky and Jerry are from a poor place. It feels as if they are frustrated with their current positions and want to advance in the music industry as well as life but are aware that it will take personal strength and reflection to do so. The Living Legends assert the idea of duty and they speak on using your soul to spark change, comparisons can be drawn between this idea and Jerry’s longing for Rocky to take responsibility for his influence on the local boys and repent in the eyes of God, something you can only do with your soul.
It’s the turn of the Sugababes:
They released ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’ in 2002. A theme of the song is being a bad girl that appears sweet and innocent. The girls don’t know what man to pick from and don’t seem to want to settle ‘I want to be mysterious, Naughty, sexy on the cheap.’ They are speaking directly to a man who they’re involved with. ‘You don’t know, that we’re angels with dirty faces in the morning.’ This may be more about their appearances. They get what they want and are portraying themselves as vixens, ’We know we’ll get our own way’. They have two sides to them, ’Angels in the day, But at night could be nasty’ this could be a reflection of Jerry and Rocky’s opposing personalities, an angel and a devil. Overall lyrics suggest this track may be more focused on the aesthetics and sex lives of the girls. They are claiming to be wolves in sheeps clothing, appearing one way but actually being proudly promiscuous and in control of their sexuality.
The turn of West Coast Punk:
SUM 41’s song entitled ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’ has a very clear theme, sadness and obsession. The first verse suggests addiction, ‘I need this to get me through…cant resist’ The songwriter(s) are living ‘Perfect hells’ this use of language shows contrast, that there is good where there is bad. ‘Obsession has begun, possessed by destruction. How did I get so low, believe me no one knows. Sometimes I can’t hold on and no one can help me’ These lyrics sound like signals of depression and drug abuse, the drug being what is obsessed over. The addiction seems to be constant, ‘it’s got a hold of me’ is repeated throughout the song and ‘no one can help me’ is also constant. The writer seems to dislike themselves and their behaviour ‘I’m walking pollution who’s drained by delusions, on the verge of destruction I cave in to abduction.’ The writer seems hopeless, ‘Theres no chance i could win’ and is blaming themselves for their sadness. A link could be drawn between Rocky’s struggle with his life of crime and his relationship with Jerry his best friend and a Catholic priest. Towards the end of the 1938 film Rocky breaks down and may be regretful of the life he has led, just as SUM41 speak on bad decisions and wrong turns.
It’s time for another go at this one. It’s a clear message we might not look like you, we might not talk and walk like you or be what you want us to be. We probably don’t conform but don’t be fooled by that- underneath that dirt there is something good and something fighting for a place or for a cause.
FOOTNOTE- you might like this especially for Christmas – The Home Alone film featured a spoof movie entitled ANGELS WITH FILTHY SOULS – it ran for 1 minute 20 seconds and was commissioned for the loveable gangster scenes .
“I’m gonna give you to the count of 10 to get your ugly, yellow, no-good keister off my property before I pump your guts full of lead.”
“All right, Johnny, I’m sorry,”. “I’m going.”
“One. Two. Ten!”