The Dead End Kids being sold with Humphrey Bogart, Crime School (1939) is the Warner Bros version of Dead End (1937). A cheap attempt to profit off the discovery of this group of Brooklyn teenagers with charm, comedic timing, and acting instincts.
Bogey plays a friendly, smiley, Deputy Commissioner and eventual school warden that treats this crime “school” as exactly that – a school rather than a juvenile detention center. He sees humanity in people, whereas Bogart’s characters usually display the opposite traits. The chemistry with Billy Halop carries over from other films. It’s one of the few films where Bogart’s not the antagonist, showing off he can play wholesome and innately good, while still holding onto his usual sharp edges. When he plays off of type, it’s always a treat – he’s far better as an actor than simply playing the heavies. He gets a romance piece and a role model figure that he nails in Crime School.
As for the story, it’s a straightforward look at how bad environments breed crime at a young age. Halop leads the group and is the standout, but Leo Grocey is fantastic too as the group rat. These kids show an intelligence with the ability to play hard nosed street wise kids while also harboring fear. It’s an impressionable group that is easily swayed, making the bulk of the story conflict that could’ve been easily avoided with more critical thinking.
Crime School is missing a few key ingredients from Dead End, mainly cinematographer Gregg Toland. The film isn’t necessarily trying to tell the story visually, it’s a rather mundane take and has very little shot variation. There are loud moments, but nothing too appealing visually. Unfortunately, the film suffers from always going with the same framing and blocking.
To cap it off, Bogart is fantastic with these kids, able to meet them at their level and relate. There is a reason studios were desperate to put them together again after the success of Dead End. Overall, Crime School is a goofy, over-the-top moral parable that feels purely like a knock-off of Paramount’s Dead End. It’s a shameless knock-off, in fact, but decently acted with enough to enjoy these character performances.