Monday 31 December 2007

Crime School (1938) Lewis Seiler

The Dead End Kids are busy hanging out on the street, talking tough and stealing fig newtons from the corner store. They're also stealing on a larger scale, earning money at Junkie's store bringing in whatever they can carry but Junkie doesn't want to pay the sort of cash they want and the ensuing scuffle brings together a candlestick and Junkie's head and suddenly the boys are on the way to reformatory. Sitting quietly in the background while the judge talks to the boys is Deputy Commissioner Mark Braden and he's much of the point of the film.

The point seems to be to address the common concern that sending kids to reform school only introduces them to a harder criminal element who teach them to be even worse members of society than when they got in to start with. Certainly the reformatory they arrive at initially is brutal, run by the large and imposing Superintendent Morgan with deliberate and violent demonstrations of power. Braden has a very different approach and he discovers plenty at the reformatory.

Frankie Warren, one of the Dead End Kids who has only been at the reformatory for one night has already been hospitalised through being whipped. The food is indigestible slop. The reformatory doctor is a struck off drunk and many of the guards are army deserters or police officers drummed off the force. Sixty per cent of the 'inmates' turn out to be hardened criminals after they leave. Braden takes matters into his own hands and begins to clean the place up, starting by firing all the bad apples including the superintendent himself.

Braden is Humphrey Bogart, and this being 1938 he isn't a star yet but he's getting closer. This may not be the equal of Dead End, the film that gave the kids their original name, but it's a number of steps up over his previous movie, the amazing hillbilly wrestling musical comedy called Swing Your Lady. The story is not particularly surprising generally and certain parts of it are awesomely predictable but Bogart's up to the task, relishing the fact that he's not playing a gangster for a change, and the Dead End Kids were always better early on in their careers. Cy Kendall is also notably excellent as the tough former superintendent. It's worth watching for quite a few reasons, not least to see Bogie laugh.

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