One of the singular aspects of the Hollywood dream factory was the number of films in which Catholic priests played important moral roles – unlike the sad reality of the cinema of our age. Spencer Tracy, Gregory Peck, Bing Crosby and even Frank Sinatra played priests at some stages of their career. Tracy, for example, with his rackety offscreen life, played Father Flanagan in two films about Boystown, the pioneering children’s home…and returned with brio to the priestly role in The Devil at Four O’Clock. Aside from the schmaltz and romanticism of these films, it is interesting to think that until relatively recently, the narrative language of the Church and the Catholic community was so recognisable to audiences, particularly in America, that it was possible to make big-grossing movies with big-grossing stars with Catholic themes.
In Angels with Dirty Faces, Pat O’Brien plays Father Jerry Connolly, the childhood friend of Rocky, a gangster played by Jimmy Cagney. The priest’s mission is to help and support local delinquent boys (played by the Dead End Kids), and to keep them out of Rocky’s clutches and away from a life of crime.
When Rocky is caught and sentenced to death after he has committed murder to save his friend, he is visited by Jerry, who urges him to go to his death ‘like a snivelling coward’, for the sake of the young boys who idolise him. Rocky gives up the last things he has, his pride and his self-love, in order to help the future of the young. It’s an extraordinary scene in an extraordinary film. Here is the scene on youtube. Bring a hankie.
O’Brien and Cagney were themselves lifelong friends. Here they are on the Parkinson show in their later years; this clip is worth a watch, particularly for Cagney’s anecdote about Angels With Dirty Faces.