Casablanca director Michael Curtiz turned in this pioneering entry in 1938 -- part of the budding street urchin genre that posed the question of what society would do with its troubled kids. Starring the Dead End Kids (a group of hooligans akin to the Litle Rascals, only meaner), their story is filtered through the eyes of two men. Rocky (James Cagney in another career-defining gangster performance) is fresh out of jail and back on the streets where he hopes to make some cash. Father Jerry (Pat O'Brien) is a priest and boyhood friend of Rocky's, who's managed to turn toward the path of good. Oh, and Humphrey Bogart makes an appearance as a scheming attorney through into the mix.
How these three men interrelate is the main story line, while the hijinks of the kids stands as a continuous backdrop to the action. Sometimes it's fierce, but just as often it's plodding and uninspiring. The underlying social commentary -- how children can turn good or bad depending on how they are raised, a controversial idea in the 1930s -- doesn't get much of a chance to shine, which may be a problem of too many stars, too many precocious child actors, and not enough legroom for all of them to stretch.
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