Going to a Gangster Flick at Gardena Cinema

As a classic film fan, I’ve seen the majority of the “essential films.” You know…the ones that make the AFI lists, win Oscars and are preserved by the Library of Congress. Even so, I have my blind spots. Some, like Chinatown, I fully intend to watch but never seem to get around to. Others, like A Clockwork Orange, I have no intention of seeing and am totally fine with it. Still others just fall off my radar and I simply forget about them. Such was the case with Angels with Dirty Faces. Such an obvious essential, yet I continually forgot about it. Until last week. I was reading through my weekly Film Radar email (an essential read for any SoCal based film fan) when I noticed it was playing at Gardena Cinema. A classic I’ve somehow missed that’s being screened at a theatre I’ve never visited? I’m there!

angels with dirty faces


Well, not quite. It was more like I’ll try to be there if I have nothing else to do. Then Sunday came around and it was gloomy out and I was feeling lazy and thought maybe I would just stay home. Just to make sure I was making the right call, I pulled up the trailer on YouTube.  About 30 seconds in I stopped it, grabbed my keys, and headed to Gardena.

Gardena Cinema

Until recently, I had never heard of Gardena Cinema. Then, during my weekly Film Radar perusal I saw it pop up as a venue. A little research told me it was the last family-run movie theater in LA, a single screen giant (800 seats!) that opened in the 1940’s and was starting to screen classics and art house flicks in an effort to keep its doors open. Since all of this is right up my alley, I knew I would have to visit.

Gardena Cinema

Gardena Cinema may have been built in the 1940’s but its interior harkens to a (slightly) more modern era. My guess is that it was last updated during the 1980’s. Here’s the thing. I love a movie palace. I love visiting a Beaux Arts behemoth and imagining what it was like in its heyday. But I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s and some of my fondest movie memories are from visiting the dinky little single screen cinema at my local mall. Visiting Gardena Cinema was like time traveling to my youth and I loved every inch of its retro trappings.

gardena cinema

After a quick stop at the snack bar, I settled into my seat to finally watch Angels with Dirty Faces. Starring James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Pat O’Brien, Ann Sheridan and the Dead End Kids it’s the ultimate gangster flick brought to you by the studio that could produce them like no other, Warner Bros. In fact, according to Cagney himself, the famous imitations of him stem from his iconic portrayal of doomed gangster Rocky Sullivan.

angels with dirty faces

In the film Rocky and his pal, Jerry Connolly, are street toughs growing up in the tenements of New York City. Spending their days loitering and committing petty crime, they’re both destined to go nowhere until fate steps in and changes the course of their lives. For Rocky it’s reform school, incarceration and organized crime and for Jerry it’s a second chance and a priestly vocation. Years later the friends are reunited and, though their bonds are forever tied, they find themselves fighting for success and salvation on opposite sides of the law.

Angels with Dirty Faces

Angels with Dirty Faces is filled with stellar performances by Cagney and O’Brien, moody cinematography by Sol Polito and an engrossing story that shows how a simple twist of fate can have the most devastating consequences. Watching it, I couldn’t help but compare it to another film with a priestly protagonist, Going My Way. Though both Bing Crosby’s Fr. O’Malley and Pat O’Brien’s Fr. Jerry both have the shared goal of keeping kids off the streets of New York, they achieve their goals in very different ways. Father O’Malley does it through inspiration and song while Fr. Jerry does it through exposure to the harshest of realities. They both get the same results, but one leaves you all warm and fuzzy while the other exposes you to the grimness of reality. But I digress…

angels with dirty faces

Needless to say, I loved the film and can only wonder why I let it fall of my radar for so long. And let’s not forget Gardena Cinema. It’s not a movie palace, it’s not in the most picturesque neighborhood and it’s definitely rough around the edges but, it’s a gem all the same. It’s family run theater in a region rampant with corporate greed and overdevelopment. It’s a place that dares to be different and, in doing so, struggles for survival. It’s a time machine to the past, where, for a couple of hours, you can indulge in nostalgia and forget the worries of the present – all for the cost of one movie ticket.

Whether you’re in the mood for a classic film or more modern fare, you can find it at Gardena Cinema. Check out their schedule here.



1 Comment

  1. Rito February 21, 2024 at 7:20 am

    Great post! Makes me want to do both the Gardenia Cinema and Angels with Dirty Faces.

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