Thursday, July 14, 2011

Hell Is A Bad Place To Be

The Mayor Of Hell(1933)
Director: Archie Mayo
Cast: James Cagney, Frankie Darro, Madge Evans, Dudley Digges

Lingering among the more forgotten films in the filmography of James Cagney is this 1933 classic about a reform school for boys that stands as one of the actor's most effective and powerful films. I discovered this film on TCM years ago, attracted by the provocative title and the presence of one of the screen's great actors in the lead role. It turned out to be a really moving pre-code message picture, that was quite unlike the gangster and horror sensationalism that the title suggested. The ending always stayed with me and for years I sought it out and could find very few guides that even knew of it's existence, until it was released to DVD in 2008 as part of the Warners Gangster set Volume three. I've shown it a few times since then and it has proven a success as the film's many attributes have aged gracefully and the plot still gripping and relevant, even nearly 80 years after it's initial release.

The film begins with a group of young hoodlums, led by Jimmy Smith(Frankie Darro) who rob a candy store and are sent to a reform school. They first have to go before a Judge(Arthur Byron) and we have to endure some of the most hilarious ethnic stereotypes imaginable. Now, some of the acting here is very good, particularly the mother sobbing for her son to be set free, but not all of this may go over well with today's "enlightened" audiences. Fred "Snowflakes" Toones who plays the father of Smoke(Farina, one of the most beloved Our Gang stars) was famous for performing the most outlandish, racist schtick of the period, though he does get the best line: A lwayer asks him to, "Tell me what you know and not what you think!" to which he replies, "Excuse me boss, I ain't no lawyer. I can't talk without thinkin'!"

The boys are sent to the reform school and it's a nightmarish place led by a cruel warden named Mr. Thompson(Dudley Digges). The kids are treated as automatons and are essentially in a forced labor camp with little food and alot of bitterness that could easily turn them into future criminals. Lo and behold, arrives a new deputy commissioner, Patsy Gargan(James Cagney) who comes to inspect the place with a floozy and his bodyguard, Mike(Allen Jenkins), in tow. Patsy is a racketeer who just wants to use the place as a front, but when Jimmy tries to escape and he witnesses the boy's brutal treatment, he decides to stay. He also develops a crush on the head nurse, Dorothy Griffin(Madge Evans) who wishes to change the school. Patsy takes over and him and Dorothy design a government that the kids run. Jimmy is voted as Mayor, but still feels wary of the place. Overall, it is a success and the kids perform more productively and are happier in their work. Jimmy almost gets duped into running away by lead snitch, Charlie(George Offerman Jr.) but relents and comes back. Patsy eventually gets through to the boy when he discovers he is a talented artist. All is going well, except that Patsy's former business has been taken over back home and Pasty goes to confront the new boss and ends up in a scuffle that finishes with a bullet in the usurper. Patsy goes on the lam and Thompson takes over, ruling with an iron fist and worse than ever, even firing Ms. Griffin.

Tension brews among the camp and when one of the boys, Johnny Stone(Raymond Borzage) dies from mistreatment, the kids go beserk and in one of the most unforgettable(and controversial) finales of the pre-code era, they take up arms and imprison the guards and put Thompson on trial and sentence him to death. Thompson jumps out a window and escapes, as the kids become a lynch mob and set fire to a barn he was taken refuge in(shades of Frankenstein) and Thompson falls to his death. Patsy arrives in time and pleads for the kids to stop and tells them of his own predicament and agrees to help them. They cease and help put out the fire. The guy Patsy shot survives and the kids are not accused of the crime as the violence was deemed to be of Thompson's own doing. Patsy stays on to run the school, now romantically attached to Dorothy and fade out for a happy ending.

Worthy of analyis for it's sharp socio-political themes, The Mayor of Hell can stand alongside the brilliant, I Was a Fugitive From A Chain Gang(1932) as one of the most moving and important films of the period. The school is depicted in vivid fashion with bleak settings and shadows draping every corner, almost like a German expressionist film. The kids always have muddy faces and it's suggested, maybe even more than that. The food served is some unrecognizable slop, blackened and murky and images of barbed wire fences and whips stay long in the memory of what can be truly described as a veritable hell on earth for these kids. Director Mayo handles the film adequately, like many Warners Bros. directors, he moves the film along at a brisk pace and does not waste time. Despite, a few outdated touches, notably some ethnic stereotyping, the kids are all presented in a postive and more importantly, equal light. One very sweet touch is a scene of a frightened boy afraid his first night being comforted by his friend, who pats his hand for reassurance. The image of a black and white sharing a close scene is something that would rarely be seen in cinema for near;y thirty years. It's been suggested that Michael Curtiz directed some scenes as well, which makes sense given the darker plot and the shadowy sequences, all reminiscent of his famous work.

James Cagney is dynamite as Patsy Gargan, conjuring up images of his famous gangster roles, while softening enough to show a human side to this iron man. He seems to show real care and tenderness towards the children and has a real rapport with them throughout that add to the film's enjoyment, as this could have been much more bleaker. His romance with Madge Evans is sweet and never obtrusive and helps move the plot along. Not as famous as his more antholigized performances from films such as The Public Enemy(1931), Angels with Dirty Faces(1938) and White Heat(1949), it really deserves more analysis. Dudley Digges is a truly hissable villain, crouched over and forever scowling at the boys with his whip and pulling them violently and spewing forth threats with venomous authority. It's hard to believe this is the same actor who portrayed the loveable Surgeon in Mutiny on the Bounty(1935), but it is and what a tribute to his great versatility. You'll be rooting for the kids to get him by film's end, no doubt. Madge Evans is lovely and intelligent in the role of the head nurse and works well with Cagney, showing a forcefullness and willingness for heroics that maker her character appear more modern. All the children are likeable, Sidney Miller as Izzy and Farina as Smoke, being the most visible, but Frankie Darro as Jimmy proves why the child became a star. The kid has a gruff kind of quality that really makes you believe that he could be a junior-version of James Cagney, showing the right kind of presence and swagger that make a gangster work so well. He even looks a bit like the actor and his character's growth and development with Patsy really make the heart of the film, as after all, Jimmy is basically the protagonist that the film revolves around.

The Mayor of Hell was a deserved box-office success and led to two remakes, Crime School(1937) with Humphrey Bogart in the Cagney role and Hell's Kitchen(1939) with Ronald Reagan(!) and starring the kids from the previous film, the future Bowery Boys, the Dead End Kids. Both films were very watered down from their predecessor and contained none of the brutality and humor that the earlier film, and of course, nothinga s dymanic as that ending. A very underlooked picture, The Mayor of Hell deserves it's reappraisal and is a must for classic cinema fans, particularly those that are fans of Cagney and the hard-hitting dramas of the Pre-Code era.

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