William Wyler originally wanted to film on location on the streets of New York, but producer Samuel Goldwyn insisted that it be made in the studio. Art director Richard Day was assigned to design the sets, and made one of the most convincing and elaborate sets in film history.
This was the first appearance of the Dead End Kids who later evolved into the East Side Kids and later the Bowery Boys. Producer Samuel Goldwyn brought the boys - who had appeared in the original Broadway production of the play - to Hollywood to appear in the movie. He later regretted the decision, as the boys ran wild through the studio, destroying property and crashing a truck through the wall of a sound stage. Afterwards, Goldwyn decided not to use the boys again and sold their contract to Warner Brothers.
In order to get past the censors, all references to Francey's "profession" were veiled (although it was mentioned in the original play on which the film was based), even the fact that she was suffering from the late stages of syphilis, which was never mentioned by name.
When producer Samuel Goldwyn visited the huge set constructed for the film (a very detailed depiction of a New York City slum) he shouted, "Why do directors always want these slums to be so dirty? Clean it up!" He was eventually persuaded by director William Wyler that very few people lived in clean slums and that it would hurt the picture's credibility if a slum were depicted as a nice place to live.
An early gangster role for Humphrey Bogart that built on the success of his performance in The Petrified Forest (1936) the year before, Bogart's name appeared below that of Sylvia Sidney's in the opening credits. This was reversed for any subsequent re-releases.
Samuel Goldwyn acquired the rights to Sidney Kingsley's play for $165,000 - an exorbitant amount of money at the time. The play had been a huge success on Broadway (which is why it commanded such a big fee) and Goldwyn purchased it with the intention of filming it largely uncut, knowing that he would have many run-ins with the Hays Office over the content.
Sidney Kingsley based his story of a luxury high-rise built in a tenement neighborhood on a real area of 1930's New York. The actual "Dead End" was located on East 53rd Street on Manhattan's East Side. The luxury high-rise depicted in the film is based on The River House, a 26-story Art Deco high-rise erected on 52nd Street in 1931, when the area surrounding it was still a tenement neighborhood. As depicted in the play and film, the rich tenants of The River House looked down on (and occasionally clashed with) the poorer residents of the neighboring tenements. The 53rd Street tenements were torn down in the late 1940's to make way for the United Nations complex. The River House still stands today.
Item 13 is incorrect. The tenements where the UN was built ended at 47th Street and First Avenue. The 53rd Street tenements still exists on First Avenue. The location on 53rd Street across from the River House was a coal/lumber yard and was replaced by 60 Sutton Place South in the mid to late 1950's.
Director William Wyler was dissatisfied with 'Sylvia Sydney (I)''s look of disgust in a scene where she was supposed to react to trash cans in dirty alley. After several unsatisfactory retakes, Wyler ordered the property man to obtain real cockroaches, which elicited the appropriate response from the actress.
Director Wyler directed the property man to litter the set with real garbage to create the appropriate slum atmosphere. This disturbers the fastidious Sam Goldwyn, who would pick the garbage up after shooting would stop for the day.