Watching 1939: Angels Wash Their Faces (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult.

angels41939 film:
Angels Wash Their Faces (1939)

Release date:
Aug. 26, 1939

Ann Sheridan, Frankie Thomas, Bonita Granville, Ronald Reagan, Henry O’Neill, Eduardo Ciannelli, Berton Churchill, Bernard Nedell, Dick Rich, Margaret Hamilton, Marjorie Main, Minor Watson, Cy Kendall, Grady Sutton, Aldrich Bowker, Cy Kendall, William Hopper (uncredited)
The Dead End Kids: Billy Halop, Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Bernard Punsly, Gabriel Jordan, Bobby Jordan

Warner Bros.

Ray Enright

Teenager Gabe Ryan (Thomas) is released from reform school on good behavior, and he returns home to live with his older sister, Joy (Sheridan). However, life isn’t easy when Gabe returns home. After a local mobster’s (Ciannelli) romantic advances are turned down by Joy, a mob starts framing Gabe as an arsonist, accusing him of setting fires. Because of his reform school background, locals and school teachers corroborate the story. A group of neighborhood kids (Granville, The Dead End Kids) help to clear Gabe’s name after the mob burns down an apartment home and frames Gabe.

1939 Notes:
• The Dead End Kids were in a total seven feature-length films, six of them produced by Warner Bros. Four of these films were released in 1939. After 1939, the group transitioned into The Bowery Boys or The East Side Kids.
• By the numbers:
– Ann Sheridan was in six films released in 1939.
– Frankie Thomas was in seven films released in 1939.
– Bonita Granville was in four films released in 1939, and “Angels Wash Their Faces” was her only non-Nancy Drew role of the year.
– Billy Halop was in seven films released in 1939.
– Bernard Punsly was in four films released in 1939.
– Leo Gorcey was in six films released in 1939.
– Huntz Hall was in six films released in 1939.
– Bobby Jordan was in six films released in 1939.
– Ronald Reagan was in seven films released in 1939.
– Gabriel Dell was in five films released in 1939.
– Marjorie Main was in six films released in 1939.
– Margaret Hamilton was in four films released in 1939.
– Henry O’Neill was in 12 feature-films released in 1939.
– Eduardo Ciannelli was in five films released in 1939.
– Minor Watson was in 11 films released in 1939.
– Cy Kendall was in 13 films released in 1939.
– Grady Sutton was in 11 films released in 1939.
– Berton Churchill was in seven films released in 1939.


Other trivia:
• A follow up to the film “Angels with Dirty Faces” (1938), though James Cagney was not available
• Working title was “The Battle Cry of City Hall.”
• After complaints from parents, the Dead End Kids were “cleaned up,” according to a Hollywood Reporter article published when the film came out.
• The sixth of seven movies featuring the original cast of “Dead End Kids”


My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
This film almost feels like “Who’s Who” of 1930s Warner Bros. from Ann Sheridan to Henry O’Neill to the Dead End Kids. The gang’s all here! (Well not really, but it feels like it).

After the success of ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938), Warner Bros. cooked up a follow up story with the Dead End Kids. The plot is weaker, a bit disjoined and without James Cagney, but still is a fun and interesting watch.

In the film, Frankie Thomas play Gabe Ryan who was sent to reform school (though truthfully, it’s hard for me to imagine sweet angel Frankie Thomas doing anything wrong). He’s released at the start of the film on good behavior and Gabe and his sister Joy (Sheridan) move to a new neighbor for a fresh start. But all doesn’t go smoothly. Not only does he fall in with a group of kids (the Dead End Kids) who are known as trouble makers, mobsters are ready and willing to make Gabe an easy scapegoat for their crimes. Gabe is largely targeted because Joy won’t give the lead mobster the time of day.

The start of this film is filled with frustration and a tragic event when an apartment fire leads to the death of a child — a crime Gabe is accused for. But after Gabe is sent to jail, the film suddenly turns lighthearted mid-way through.

In order to help Gabe, the Dead End Kids (specifically Billy Halop) run for kid mayor, hoping they will have pull to get Gabe released. While the kids perhaps overestimate how much pull they have with their temporary city employee roles, they are able to help Gabe out with the help of the assistant district attorney (Reagan).

Even though I’m not the biggest fan of the Dead End Kids, this film is still a good time and a decent watch. If you aren’t familiar with the Dead End Kids, this was a group of teen actors who first appeared in the play (and later film) “Dead End,” which detailed kids growing up in lower income New York City homes. The original group of young actors included Billy Halop, Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Bernard Punsly, Gabriel Jordan and Bobby Jordan. Often times, the kids are smart mouthed and getting into trouble with the law.

Outside of this film, Frankie Thomas and Bonita Granville spent much of 1939 as Nancy Drew and Ted Nickerson, which was a departure from their characters in this film. I always love to see these two together.

It’s also fun to several notable character actors in this film, such as Henry O’Neill, Grady Sutton, Margaret Hamilton and Marjorie Main. Hamilton was keeping true to form as a Miss Gulch-like teacher. She rats out Frankie Thomas, though he has done nothing, going only on his former background.

If you like a good, brisk Warner Bros. gritty film with some comedy mixed in, I recommend “Angels Wash Their Faces.” While it’s perhaps not the most notable film of 1939, it’s a good time.


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1 thought on “Watching 1939: Angels Wash Their Faces (1939)

  1. I don’t know why I was never interested in seeing this, given how much I liked Angels with Dirty Faces. I guess because I generally find that I don’t like sequels, and James Cagney not being in this one was a big minus. Plus, I’m not that wild about Ronald Reagan (except that I did like him in Kings Row). Still, I’m a big Ann Sheridan fan, and I like the Dead End Kids, too, so if I come across it, I will give it a chance!

    — Karen


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