The Mayor of Hell Reviews
Cagney has such charisma and his presence carries the movie, but there are also fine performances from Frankie Darro (the leader of the kids), Digges, and Arthur Byron (a thoughtful judge), among others (and including all those child actors). It's fun to hear all the 'tough talk' and slang from the 30's, and the scenes early on with the kids are enjoyable. The film's message, to paraphrase Cagney's character, is that you have to take a firm hand with kids or they'll walk all over you, but on the other hand, they're just kids, and behave better when shown a little love and respect. The action gets a little melodramatic as the film progresses, and the simplistic and somewhat horrifying ending isn't great, but all in all it's an entertaining film.
Part of Patsy Gargan's motivations for trying to fight the existing system is his interest in a young nurse (played by Madge Evans) who works at the reformatory and has had enough of the current system.
In some respects the story seems formulaic early on but soon begins to twist and turn as a personal crisis threatens Patsy Gargan's ability to further his crusade against the status quo.
Dudley Digges is great as the strict disciplinarian who has worked in his current position for twelve years. He plays a harsh and hateable character, yet he is also sympathetic to a certain degree when you consider his responsibilities and the way they have hardened him. After all, he has a whole school filled with juvenile delinquents to deal with. The audiences ability to first sympathize with this character and then soon come to realize that he has crossed the line both add to the realism and the depth of the story.
Madge Evans does a wonderful job of playing a nurturing nurse who is dedicated to her work, yet attracted to the impulsive and uncultivated Patsy Gargan. She is a great blend of motherly instinct towards the boys who have to endure harsh living conditions and sexuality as she inadvertently attracts Gargan and then falls for him. In the opinion of this reviewer Madge Evans has a screen presence and an ease with which she acts that has a mesmerizing quality. She seems to really be invested in the character and she has an effervescence about her that is scene stealing, which is really saying something considering the massive screen presence of the physically diminutive James Cagney.
James Cagney has the ability to explode into your home as he acts on screen. He is a fireball of energy and presence and in this role he plays a complex character that is very enjoyable to watch. James Cagney plays Patsy Gargan who appears to be a kid at heart but has found himself in the very adult role to help kids with a similar past to his own. Sure, he is partially motivated by his eagerness to impress the lovely nurse, Dorothy Griffith, but it is enjoyable to watch him transform from selfish opportunist to selfless humanitarian as he attempts to teach these wayward children a little something about life as a responsible adult.
While the diverse cast of children are wonderful young actors, the parts they play will seem stereotypical and at times politically incorrect to modern audiences. The scene near the beginning when the children are being sentenced to the reformatory features the stereotypes of the era with potentially offensive portrayals for instance of an ignorant black man and a penny pinching Jewish man, more concerned with the potential income he is loosing out on by not being at work that day then the trouble his son has found himself in. The stereotypes featured appear to be more for humorous effect then because of any racist motivations and one can't help but applaud the diversity in casting for the time despite some politically incorrect content.
The movie has its flaws and at times is a bit oversimplified but it does feature some outstanding performances including some hugely talented child actors, some of which had long careers in show business. It is rough movie, and a movie that was controversial for its time. It certainly feels like a precursor to the Film Noir of the 1940s and 1950s with its candid depictions of violence, hatred, murder, physical attraction and crime.
Even if the plot or subject matter isn't of particular interest to you it is worth seeing for some very well executed performances. This is a unique movie and one worth taking time to see.
I think this movie may be a little overdone. The trailer goes on about how "fearless" and "dramatic" it is, and of course there is the title. You would think we would see constant beatings, deaths covered up, boys living in squalor--at least a prison riot or two. And while I suppose there is technically one, there at the end, it's a pretty tame riot. There are a couple of deaths in the movie, but there is very little violence. In point of fact, one of them is probably from the effects sleeping in a shack on a cold night have on tuberculosis, and there's no way to be sure that the kid wouldn't have died by the end of the picture of just general lack of proper treatment anyway. What's more, while it's quite clear that these kids have a hard life, and while the reform school is mismanaged and probably in the long run at least as bad for the kids as being on the street, the kids would be pretty shocked by how much worse state prison would be.
Our story starts with an integrated, or at least somewhat integrated, band of hoodlum kids led by Jimmy Smith (Frankie Darro). They end up getting sent off to reform school for robbing a candy store and injuring the owner. It turns out the reform school is run by the corrupt Mr. Thompson (Dudley Digges), who is not so much interested in the "reform" end of things so much as making sure the boys do what they're told. What's more, he's skimming off the state funds, and the boys are ill-fed, ill-clothed, and just generally ill-treated. Nurse Dorothy Griffith (Madge Evans) wants things to be run better, more in tune with modern principles, but Thompson doesn't care. However, in comes Patsy Gargan (James Cagney), who has gotten the position as a stopover on the way to a slightly higher patronage job, and Patsy wants to impress Dorothy, so he decides to run the place her way, including making Jimmy "mayor" and appointing other boys to other positions of "authority." And all goes well until Patsy shoots a guy and ends up on the lam.
The interesting thing is that it's called a "reform school" even though the original uses of the place do not seem to include reform in any meaningful way. I'm not a hundred percent sure what they actually are doing with the boys, but it never really seems to come up that they might want something to do with the "school" part of the name. The only time they ever have books is what is probably hymnals or something. Anyway, it's specifically stated to be church. The point is, even the most hardened anti-reform advocate must surely acknowledge that the point of sending someone to prison is to prevent them from harming society, and these boys are going to get out sooner rather than later. One boy's mother says that one of her sons went into reform school and came out a murderer, and I can't see that these boys were being taught much of anything else. No problems were being solved here for anyone.
It is true that the black and Jewish people in the movie are crude ethnic stereotypes, but they're in the movie to be stereotypes at all. And while Mr. Hemingway (Fred Toones) is just there to be laughed at, his son, "Smoke" (Allen Hoskins) is not. Mostly, he's part of the gang. It's roughly the same with Mr. Horowitz (William H. Strauss), who is admittedly not as funny. However, Izzy (Sidney Miller), while admittedly doing a bit Borscht Belt, is also taken relatively seriously. One might even expect that he'll convince Patsy that he should maybe consider serving kosher meals. When he is incapable of trading his bacon for someone else's eggs, he just gives up and gives the guy the bacon, which is showing him to have dignity of a sort. Yes, it's a bit of a stereotype that he ends up as a storekeeper and presumably the treasurer, but he is considered for such a relatively important role among the boys. He is shown early on to have an eye for beauty. This is better than nothing.
Really, Cagney doesn't much register here. It feels as though the casting people weren't sure whether they wanted a movie about Cagney or the kids, and they weren't sure Cagney was the right guy to cast. James Cagney the man was actually a softy, I've read; James Cagney the character, not so much. I'm not sure exactly what the plan was when he took the job at the reform school, but it was clearly supposed to lead somewhere. He was supposed to be working his way up the chain of government. The reform school was supposed to be a step on that. That doesn't really work for me. The idea that one look at a girl would convince him to do right by a bunch of hard-up boys? Not working. Yes, all right, he came from the same place as these boys, but that didn't exactly mean he was working for them before he met Dorothy. He almost seems to be stopping in on his way to another movie. The whole thing is a little disjointed, and the title is certainly extreme. But hey, it was 1933, and there was money to be had in this kind of thing.