Saturday, 18 July 2009

The Portrayal of Priests - Part II

Two years after San Francisco and the same year as Boys' Town, Angels with Dirty Faces was released, starring Jimmy Cagney as gangster Rocky Sullivan, Pat O'Brien as his boyhood friend, Fr. Jerry Connolly, Anne Sheridan as Laury Ferguson, Cagney/Sullivan's childhood sweetheart, and Humphrey Bogart as James Frazier, Cagney/Sullivan's partner in crime and general villain of the piece.

The plot bears striking resemblance to that in San Francisco as regards the relationships between the three principal characters. However, the portrayal of the Priest is now deeper and the spiritual conflict stronger. This is a fight for souls, not only for the soul of Cagney but also for the young hoodlums who idolize him. It should also be noted that Hollywood makes some amends in this film for the glorification of violence in so many of its other films - especially those starring Cagney himself.

At the climax of the film, Cagney faces the death penalty. Unrepentent and hard-nosed to the end, he refuses O'Briens plea to 'turn yellow', that is, to show cowardice as he goes to the chair to break the heroic image the young hoodlums have of him. He remains unrepentant to the end... almost. In the end, it seems, he met eternity making a sacrifice of his own reputation for the sake of others.

Pat O'Brien was known as 'the Irishman in residence' in Hollywood. He was also a regular in the role of a Priest, most famously as the eponimous Fighting Father Dunne. The plot, based upon the true story of a Fr. Dunne of St. Louis, MO, the founder of a Paperboys' Home, is in the mould of Boys' Town, and similarly portrays the Priest as friend of the poor and hero of the children abandoned by Society. He would also go on to play Fr. Francis P. Duffy next to Cagney in The Fighting 69th. O'Brien was part of the so-called Hollywood Irish Mafia, which also included Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Cagney and Frank McHugh.