Adapted by Lillian Hellman from Sidney Kingsley's Broadway play, Dead End concerns itself with several denizens of New York's East River district. Here the elite and the slum-dwellers rub shoulders due to the close proximity of the riverfront tenements with the East Side luxury hotels. Slum girl Drina Gordon (Sylvia Sidney) tries to prevent her younger brother Tommy (Billy Halop) from wasting his life as a member of the local street gang. Tommy and the other kids idolize Baby Face Martin (Humphrey Bogart), a onetime East- sider who has hit the "big time" as a notorious gangster. Dodging the cops, Martin makes a sentimental journey to the neighborhood to visit his mother (Marjorie Main) and his old girlfriend Francie (Clare Trevor). But Martin's mother coldly tells him to get lost, while Francie reveals herself to be a consumptive prostitute. Despite his depressed state, Martin is still admired by the local kids; this displeases sign painter Dave Connell (Joel McCrea), who hopes to escape the slums via his romance with wealthy Kay Burton (Wendy Barrie). Attempting to kidnap a rich boy who'd earlier been beaten up by the street kids, Martin is prevented from making the snatch by Dave, who shoots Martin down. Receiving a large reward, Dave decides to give the money to Drina so that she can afford a lawyer to defend her brother Tommy, who has wrongfully been accused of masterminding the beating of the rich kid. His outlook on life altered by this unselfish act, Dave gives up his mercenary romance with Kay Burton, choosing instead the poverty-stricken Drina. The film introduces the Dead End Kids--Billy Halop, Leo Gorcey, Gabe Dell, Huntz Hall, Bernard Punsley and Bobby Jordan--all of whom were veterans of the Broadway version of Dead End and would be metamorphosed into the East Side Kids and The Bowery Boys.
by Hal Erickson synopsis