Foundational Fiction in William Wyler’s Dead End


Deservedly influential studies of film adaptation of literary works emphasize the fictitiousness of the concept of fidelity.1 From this point of view, the illusion of adaptation is a topic and theme of many films of the classical Hollywood period, and not a lamentable absence of a supposedly lost original.2 If, as Nico Dicceco clearly indicates, “medium-specific material differences” inevitably “render literal replication in adaptation impossible,” then directors, making the illusion visible, perform a critical rather than deceptive function. The illusion ism in William Wyler s Dead End (1937) – an adaptation of Sidney Kingsley’s successful Broadway play of die same tide (1935) – offers interesting examples ofthat critical project, pardy because this social-problem film also foregrounds its polemical and realist engagements with the troubled world outside. The film is an implicit critique of its own modus operandi. The deceptive power of imitation, replication, and fictitious imagery is located in the social world of tiie real to which the films fictions refer.As Jan Herman points out, Wyler suggested that Dead End “would be most effective if shot in New York in an actual riverfront slum,” but the producer, Samuel Goldwyn, refused to allow that degree of realism (168). Goldwyn had clear reasons: in a letter of 25 April 1937, Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Administration, recommended that Goldwyn should “be less emphatic, throughout, in the photographing of this script in showing the contrast between conditions of die poor in tenements and diose of the rich in apartment houses.” Breen objected to “filth, or smelling garbage cans, or garbage floating in the river” (qtd. in Rollyson 102-03). Rather than shoot on location, a crew led by Richard Day built “a huge, multitiered ghetto street more or less duplicating the stage production” (Herman 168). Wyler complained that “the whole damned street” looked “phony” (qtd. in Herman 168). According to Lillian Hellman’s account, Goldwyn “fired Willy” for refusing to clean up garbage with which Wyler had tried to increase the realism of the set. Goldwyn told Hellman that he was replacing Wyler with Lewis Milestone, but then he brought Wyler back onto the project when Hellman said, “I work with Wyler. I won’t work with anybody else” (qtd. in Herman 169). Wyler was restored to the project in two days.Kingsley’s play, Dead End, had already made a subsidiary theme of false appearances, but from the opening shots onward, Wyler’s film makes an issue of reality’s absence in ways that go far beyond the play’s representation of falsification and artificiality. Axel Madsen writes jusdy that “to its 1937 audiences, die subject [of Dead End], not die medium, was the message” (155),3 but that lucid observation requires some qualification. Throughout die film, in addition to the parable of class conflict and suffering and in addition to the philosophical commitment to social determinism (all of which are explicit in Kingsley’s play),4 Wyler’s Dead End also treats direcdy die foundational fictitiousness of money. The financial example of fictitiousness had become so painfully evident during die Great Depression that Wyler’s proto-postmodernism (including the film’s reflexive critique of its own illusionism) becomes a part of the film’s social realism: money furnishes a central example of falsification itself.5The cinematic artifice of Dead End, like the numerous examples of artificiality and falsehood within the story, becomes a metaphor for simulation, dissimulation, empty signifiers, and the dead end that is the emptiness at the heart of illusions. Slavoj Zizek has suggested that this linkage of simulation with real-world crises is a postmodern condition: “it is not only that Hollywood stages a semblance of real life … In latecapitalist consumer society, ‘real social life’ itself acquires the features of a staged fake” (13-14). Fictional examples to which I will return below include a false face (via plastic surgery) on a wealthy gangster, duplicitous police, and prostitutes feigning affection.