|Judge Gilbert …
The Mayor of Hell: Reforming the Reformers
Reeducation or punishment? As I’ll go into moreso next week with The Big House, the American justice system has always been caught between a humanitarian desire to help criminals or degrading them in the name of revenge.
The sin in Archie Mayo’s Mayor of Hell is that even juvenile delinquents are stuck in a system that doesn’t have a solid plan for them. They’re put in a reform school which resembles more of a labor camp, and forced to eat the worst food imaginable. Any attempts at resistance are met with brutal, gleeful retribution. The lesson to the kids isn’t that what they’ve done is wrong, but that society is cruel and horrible and deserves whatever it gets coming to it. Not the best of plans.
As this is a Warner Brothers flick from the early 30’s, it drew its inspiration from the real issues that the country’s criminal justice system was facing. It also pulled in a bevy of tough kid actors and their own big star, James Cagney, to create a sensationalistic picture that would show a solution this issue, and the dire, fiery consequences that the old ways could result in.
We begin with a street gang of kids in their mid-teens, something more familiar to the Depression Era than today. They’re running a protection racket– give us a quarter and we’ll make sure your car isn’t missing any parts when you return– and making a mint. It’s only after their attempt to rob a general store results in a serious injury do they get brought to court.
They’re a veritable Half-Dirty Dozen. There’s an Irish kid, a black kid, a Jewish kid, a wormy kid, and a quiet, nice kid who has a rather unsavory cough. Jimmy Smith is the ringleader, cool, charismatic and quick with the punch. He’s played by Frankie Darro in a role that would have made him a teen idol if the concept had been around back in the 30’s. He smolders with an intensity born from a bad home and a defiant streak that will get him in a great deal of trouble.
But back to the gang, real quick. We’re taken painstakingly through their arraignment, where we see each boy defended (or given up by) their parent. The Irish kid’s father is a drunk, the Jewish boy has a father who is cheap, the black boy… well, at least he gets a joke in, and one that’s not at his own expense.
The glimpses of the boys’ background is vital here, and shows what a pointed proposition Mayor of Hell makes itself out to be. While the Jewish father gives his boy to the reform school once he hears it’s free, he still has a brief heart to heart with his boy in Yiddish, assuring that he loves him very much. The film both revels in stereotypes, but humanizes them at the same time; a tricky balance.
They’re brought to Peakstown State Reformatory, where they’re introduced to Mr. Thompson for whom the word ‘sadism’ may as well be emblazoned on his forehead. He’s meticulous in his punishments, skims money off the top, and revels in his dictatorship. Jimmy and Thompson immediately butt heads, or, should I say, Thompson slaps Jimmy on the face and sneers.
There’s hope for the young boys in the form of angelic nurse Dorothy, who complains about their treatment. Thompson laughs her off, even in regards to a young boy with a bad cough.
Their next angel comes in the form of none other than Patsy, a cog in the local political machine. He’s gotten enough votes wrangled that he’s appointed junior commissioner of the reform school, a no-work job that nets him a tidy legitimate salary.
At least that’s the plan, but the night he arrives he sees Jimmy make an escape attempt, which includes some daring stunts including a painful try at climbing a barbed wire laced fence. This and Dorothy’s dedication stirs something within him– a nostalgia, of sorts. He uses his clout to get full control of the school and take it from its fascist roots into a full fledged republic.
Jimmy is elected mayor (for his ability to lick any other boy, naturally), and soon the camp has changed into an open, positive place with its own police force, government, store and system of rules and punishment. Court cases are tried by juries of their peers, and the food is now bacon and eggs, every day. Even the guards are let go.
If it weren’t for the slickness of the production and the commitment of the boys in their roles, it would be a lot harder to buy this idealized situation. The film immediately proffers up this democratic setup as a utopia, with a place for every man and justice for all.
Coming on the heels of Roosevelt’s election in 1932 and as sort of a reaction to the beliefs that were being espoused in films like the proto-evangelical fascism in Gabriel Over the White House just the year before, it’s understandable to try and illustrate that the system can not only still function, but make its citizens happier and more prosperous than the alternative. The alternative, of course, was gaining traction on the other side of the Atlantic in Germany and Italy.
After Jimmy makes the decision not to escape the new guard-less camp, he finally bonds with Patsy and Dorothy over his ability to draw. This can only mean it’s time for the film’s third act.
Patsy’s called back to deal with an insurgent in his organization, and accidentally shoots a man during a tussle. Patsy, in a very un-Cagney like moment, is unnerved by the possibility of taking a human life, shaking nervously. He goes on the lam, leaving the reformatory back in the dreaded hands of Thompson.
Thompson is only too gleeful to oblige, and soon he’s got the guards working the boys harder before with even worse food. Dorothy resigns in protest, and Jimmy is punished for daring to even ask for her reinstatement. When a group of boys are caught breaking into a food store, the boy with a cough replaces Jimmy in the cooler, a small pen in the middle of the school grounds lets the wind in at night. Unsurprisingly, to almost everyone, the boy doesn’t last the night.
What happens next is as crazy and as powerful as anything else you may see in a 30’s Warner Picture, with hundreds of boys– well, I’ll touch on that below. The lesson of Mayor of Hell is that people will fight for every inch of power they’ve got; if people share the power though, the world can become equitable and fair.
Of course, like I said before, that doesn’t address the corrupting problems in a democracy, which ignores that while Patsy becomes reformed by this microcosm of democracy, he’s left his own racketeering ring to continue in its stead. Society remains overall corrupt, still putting people like Thompson in power and run by the wills of the powerful; maybe this newer, purer society of delinquents can save it.
The Star Attractions
Director Archie Mayo (Doorway to Hell) creates an engaging and electrifying story here, which makes great use of Cagney and the cast of hundreds of extras. It has to be noted that Cagney is essentially a supporting player here, as the story of Jimmy’s resistance and reform dominate the picture.
But let’s not short his performance either. It’s still got the Cagney zip, and the way the man can toss off slight indifference with a big grin is worth its weight in gold. There are a lot of great little moments for him too, like how he casually pushes over an underling who gets in his face.
Cagney’s presence helps elevate the film, and it’s noted in several sources that he found that this role hit close to home for him. Even though Cagney’s star power was certainly above making this sort of film, he went with it because he believed in the material, and he gives it his all.
Cagney’s also met tit-for-tat by Dudley Digges as Thompson, whose cruelty is portrayed with just the slightest hint of humanity. The faintest glimpse of guilt and horror covers his face at key moments, even if the rest of the time he’s a gleeful bully.
Madge Evans (who looks eerily like Kristen Bell) is serviceable as Dorothy though mostly a smile or a scowl depending on the scene. Allen Jenkins has a few amusing scenes as Cagney’s henchman, and Arthur Byron plays an appropriately scowl-y good judge.
But the stars of the picture are the young boys. They were culled from a number of places– including a former member of Our Gang– but all turn in touching, sweet performances in an almost unbelievably uniform manner.
Again, Frankie Darro is the big attraction. His other big picture, Wild Boys of the Road (listed as one of my essential pre-codes), demonstrates a special ability to smoulder on cue. Unfortunately the actor’s short stature doomed him to horse jockey roles (no joke, he was in the Marx Brothers’ Day at the Races), and it’s a shame because he is wonderful leading man material.
I’m going to spend a bit talking about the ending next, but I wanted to sum things up for those of you who are going to skip it: The Mayor of Hell is a virtuoso thrill ride, a testament to fiery social film making that may not be fully baked but one that gives the audience something to chew on. When people say, ‘they don’t make them like that anymore,’ this is that ‘that’.
The Fiery Climax
[Spoilers be here, skip to the next section to miss out!]
The film’s current ending was initially heavily opposed by the Hays Office, and, in fact, was not the one originally shot. However, those in the upper offices felt the one filmed to placate the censors lacked punch.
That version had the boys riot, take over the reformatory’s armory, and arrest Thompson. Thompson, on the stand and accused of murdering the young boy, decides to kill himself by jumping out the window. Not the most satisfying conclusion to such a cruel man, but one that may have gotten by a few censor boards.
A few weeks after filming had wrapped, however, Warner Brothers asked director Michael Curtiz (he of Casablanca and Mandalay fame) to come back and shoot the ending as it was originally written; it’s sensationalism would do a lot better in arousing the filmgoer’s passions, even if it runs contrary to the film’s lessons in democratic process.
This climax involves chasing Thompson past that broken window, and trapping him on the roof of the barn. The mob of boys then sets the barn on fire and cheers gleefully when Thompson falls to his death, first through a fence of barbed wire and then hitting his head on a rock in the pig sty. Now that’s a death.
Patsy shows up with Dorothy (in the film’s biggest contrivance) and quell the rioting boys. They agree to put out the fire, and the judge arrives a few days later and absolves everyone of any blame. The man Patsy shot lives, and Patsy decides to become the new supervisor. He and Dorothy kiss and all of the kids poke fun at ‘em. Damn, being in that reform school looks sweet.
As mentioned before, the film portrays the ultimate triumph of democracy over fascism… even if that ultimate triumph involves mob action. It’s strange for a moment, but in the context of the emerging dictators of the 1930’s, it’s not surprising that one would be arguing for a more equal society. The ‘any means necessary angle’ would disappear after the Production Code became enforced, though, but would definitely be making a reappearance in a big way in American cinema a few decades later.
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Watching through the film with its commentary track on (more on that below), you’d be amazed at some of the stuff that was censored. A crying mother mentioning that her son became a murderer after leaving the reformatory: censored. Cagney cleaning off a gun: censored. The rioting boys holding guns: cut to pieces. A line indicating that there was a house with girls in it: eliminated with prejudice. The track is a good reminder why the Pre-Code era ended; because state-level censor boards were insane.
- Besides the fact that using the word ‘Hell’ in the title was still risque when this was released, during a fistfight Cagney has in the film, he’s heard to exclaim, “Son of a bmmph” with that last word barely muffled in the struggle. Warner Brothers really wanted to go all in with this picture.
Here are some extra screenshots I took. Click on any picture to enlarge!
Trivia & Links
- Today’s entry is coming to you thanks to the Cagney Blog-a-Thon, presented by The Movie Projector. Click here to see all of the other participating blogs and reviews; you can also win a copy of the superb Yankee Doodle Dandy, which, hey, you should already own. But two copies never hurt anyone!
- Some standouts from the Cagney Blog-a-thon I’ll go ahead and recommend: the Classic Film & TV Cafe looks at the roles Cagney turned down and Grand Old Movies nails it with his review of Footlight Parade. Since I try not to read reviews of movies I haven’t seen, I had to skip a few good looking Pre-Code posts, too. Check them out if you’re interested!
- There’s a commentary track by Greg Mank for this picture that covers pretty much everything you could want to know about it, from its stars and filmmakers to the film’s background. It’s a very good listen, with a couple really hilarious stories (Cagney’s as much a character in real life as he was in the pictures). Mank also lists out all of the film’s troubles with state censor boards; it sounds like the movie must have been nigh incomprehensible in New York.
- The track also points out a couple of parallels in the movie to a passion play, supposing that the Warden is the devil and Jimmy is, of course, Jesus. I think it kind of falls apart near the end (unless I missed the part in the Bible that involved Jesus trying to revenge murder Satan), but it’s an interesting premise.
- Movie Classics reviews the film with quite a bit of detail and compares it to the-unseen-by-me reformatory flick Hell’s House (1932).
- Cliff over at Immortal Ephemera takes on the film’s villainous Dudley Digges, who was considered one of the great stage actors of his era. He also popped up in The Invisible Man (1933) and The Mutiny on the Bounty (1935).
- Classic Cinema Gold goes into actress Madge Evans. She was one of those actresses who was always the co-star and never the star.
- John Greco goes over The Mayor of Hell‘s two remakes, which were 1938’s Crime School and 1939’s Hell’s Kitchen. Crime School has Humphrey Bogart in the Cagney role, and Hell’s Kitchen has Ronald Reagan in the expanded role of a lawyer. Both of those two versions (released a year apart!) starred Warner’s stable of ‘Dead End Kids’, who originated in Angels With Dirty Faces… which starred James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.
- Doctor Macro has got plenty of posters for this one and a pair of scans. Note that the second screenshot doesn’t depict a scene from anywhere in the film, as Jenkins holds a gun and Cagney looks on perturbed. I wonder if it was staged or if the scene got cut…
- DVD Talk busts out this great line about the film:
Fortunately, with the speed and expertise of the Warner studio system, you don’t have to necessarily believe a thing in The Mayor of Hell to enjoy it, because everything is geared so mechanically and professionally towards getting across the story in as efficient and effective method as possible.
- Andre Sennwald’s contemporary review in the New York Times compares the film liberally to I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), and only dismisses Madge Evans performance as his only complaint. Noticeably, his review mentions the trial and sentencing of the boys as the beginning of the picture– that’s because in New York the first ten minutes of the hoodlum’s antics were censored. I wonder if Sennwald ever got to see a full cut of it… either way, a reminder of how lucky we are that film studios kept these things intact. Salute your local film preservationist today!
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- Mentioned in Wikipedia’s Pre-Code Films List.
- This film is available in the 3rd Warner Brothers Gangster Collection, alongside the great Picture Snatcher (1933). It’s also available as a single disk on Amazon (where, at the time of this writing, it’s a whole $5!) and can be rented from Classicflix.
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