Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Mayor of Hell is a quickie James Cagney vehicle, and not one of his best. A reform school follow-up to Warners' smash hit I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, it's far too contrived and melodramatic to serve as a proper exposé. Yet the story is more believable than MGM and Dore Schary's saccharine success Boys Town. It's a gangster film only by tangent, as Cagney's racketeer makes a rather instantaneous conversion to the side of virtue, encouraged, of course, by true love.
City crook Patsy Gargan (James Cagney) delivers votes to a political boss and is rewarded with a no-show job as superintendent for a state reform school. Seeing the terrible conditions and cruel methods of school director Thompson (Dudley Digges), Patsy takes over the job in earnest. He sympathizes with the boys, and is also attracted to the school nurse, Dorothy Griffith (Madge Evans). The reform school becomes a model community overnight after Patsy follows Dorothy's suggestions to dismiss the guards and set the boys to governing themselves. But Thompson plots to regain control, while Gargan's hoodlum underlings back in the city move to oust him from their ranks. In Patsy's absence, Dorothy is fired and the school erupts in violence. Can Patsy put it all back together?
The Mayor of Hell attempts to fit James Cagney within a more socially conscious film concept, an idea resisted by the feisty star's unique screen personality. Patsy Gargan can't simultaneously be a corrupt city crook and also a softhearted, democracy-loving patriot, so the film never grabs our emotions. An extended prologue shows Frankie Darro's adolescent gang running a protection racket for parked cars, a sequence that's practically a how-to lesson for petty extortion. Sent up the river for a candy store holdup, Darro and fellow gang members (including the Jewish-American ethnic stereotype played by Sidney Miller) end up in a gulag-like reform school. Thompson feeds the kids pig slop and pockets the school budget for himself. Tough kid Darro tries to escape and gets caught in a barbed wire fence; the sadistic school director whips him as he hangs there.
Before you can say "FDR's New Deal", Patsy and pretty Dorothy Griffith bestow the gift of democracy on the school. Simply by steering the right candidates into jobs in the school government, Patsy is able to shape the destiny of his new socialist mini-republic. Patsy gives the highest jobs to the school's most powerful gang leaders, who miraculously become little Thomas Jeffersons and Benjamin Franklins. The only threat to this paradise comes from the evil director Thompson, who enlists a craven snitch to provoke trouble and discredit Patsy.
Back in the city, Patsy spends only about two minutes with his old gang, just long enough to get him in hot water over an inadvertent shooting. But Dorothy remains true to her man, and the two return to the reform school just in time to prevent the whole place from burning down. Infuriated when Thompson allows a sick student to die, the boys riot and burn down the barn. The kids convene a vigilante court to try the director, a scene that smacks of populism gone out of control. Thompson perishes violently, but the final curtain shows a respected judge lending his blessing to Patsy and Dorothy's noble reform experiment. Gargan asks for permission to run the school permanently.
The previous year's I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang practically advocated revolution and anarchy, but The Mayor of Hell takes pains not to besmirch America's reform schools. Only the rotten apple Thompson is bad, and not the system in general, as evidenced by the presence of a good-hearted prison guard. The film's image of city politics is something else again. With gangsters controlling the public vote Democracy is joke, and The Mayor of Hell doesn't even pretend that anything can be done about it. Cagney's Gargan simply walks away from the mess downtown, letting somebody else take his place in the corrupt system.
Cagney is acceptable in an undemanding role and pretty Madge Evans hasn't much to do besides offer support. Frankie Darro and the other hoodlums are sentimental good boys at heart, cutting a groove that the Dead End Kids would soon fill. As the rotten school director, Dudley Digges is as hiss-able as Simon Legree.
The Mayor of Hell comes with a full 'Warner's Night at the Movies' selection of extras that includes a 1933 newsreel excerpt (not too exciting), a musical short subject (The Audition), a Merrie Melodies cartoon (The Organ Grinder) and various trailers. Author Greg Mank provides a good, well-researched commentary. He knows the film's entire shooting schedule as well as the backgrounds of all the actors. Five-foot three-inch Frankie Darrow played many a jockey and bellboy, and also was inside the Robby the Robot suit in Forbidden Planet. Sidney Miller is the father of actor Barry Miller and Madge Evans was married to playwright Sidney Kingsley, who, appropriately, wrote the original play of Dead End. Allen "Farina" Hoskins plays Smoke, the black member of Darrow's street gang. Warners must have found The Mayor of Hell a useful property, for it was remade twice, as Crime School (1938) and Hell's Kitchen (1939). The disc contains trailers for all three movies.
The other titles in the Warners Gangsters Collection, Volume 3 (Smart Money, Picture Snatcher, Lady Killer, Black Legion, Brother Orchid) are reviewed Here.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Mayor of Hell rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 6, 2008
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson
Go BACK to the Savant Main Page.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are more likely to be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Return to Top of Page