Dec 12, 2009
Crime School

The picture above shows Humphrey Bogart, Gale Page, and the Dead End Kids in a scene from the 1938 film Crime School.

Bogie is the star of the month at TCM and they’re showing many of his major, and a lot of his minor films, including Crime School and Dead End. I saw the latter film some years ago, and my memory of it is not very fresh. Michael Moriarty has written an article in which he discusses Dead End as a Marxist film. Every suggestion of conservatism is to be encouraged in actors, so I won’t engage in any criticism of his piece, and will focus on Crime School.

This is the second film that the Dead End Kids made. Bogart plays a social worker who becomes deputy commissioner of corrections in New York. He investigates the reform school where the boys are doing time, and reforms the reform school.

Now what Michael Moriarty objected to in Dead End, and it may be there for all I know, was that crime was excused on the grounds that it was a product of the environment. Slums breed crime is the thought that is supposed to be embodied in that movie. Now there is in liberalism a strain of thought that stresses environmental causes for crime. This tendency was given a comedic treatment in Trading Places, which centers around the nature/nurture controversy. Whether that strain of liberalism was predominantly Marxist in the Warner Brothers’ films of the 1930s I’m not so sure. The idea that life in the slums is a mitigating factor in the boys’ delinquency is stated, and then the judge dismisses it with a contemptuous remark that other men started out with disadvantages, and did not turn to crime.

What is presented dramatically is the idea that the school is brutal. The warden keeps a cat-of-nine-tails in his office for dealing with recalcitrant prisoners. The prison doctor is a drunk and an incompetent. Bogie’s character gets rid of the cat, and fires the doctor.

He uses an approach that A. S. Neill of Summerhill might have used to get the boys to co-operate. He tells them they can paint their room. When they goof off, and get paint all over the room he says okay, they can have it that way. They then realize that they need to do a good job, and paint the room properly.

The film shows that trust and respect bring about a genuine reformation in the boys, rather than encouraging them to return to crime.

Now all of this does go against the tendency of some us, myself included, to lock ‘em up and throw away the key. So yes, it is left leaning and liberal to that extent. It also rejects the easy notion that everything has a sociological explanation. By explicitly rejecting the sociological explanation, and focusing on the emotional lives of the boys, it moves towards a more individual and psychological model of crime and its causes.

It closes with the boys paroled, and the promise that they will have jobs and schooling. The socio-economic (jobs, school) is thus blended into the psychological.