The Mayor of Hell Review

The Mayor of Hell is a classic example of Hollywood studio system moviemaking. It's not a particularly glowing or distinguished film, but then most of the studio product wasn't either. The studio system had a knack, one that has persisted ever since, of diluting every success with subsequent versions of popular films altered just slightly to keep the public well-fed in familiarity. It's not so much a lack of originality that defined these films as the need to quickly capitalise on some particular movie that fickle audiences enjoyed just months or weeks earlier. Warner Bros. had a hit in 1932 with Mervyn LeRoy's I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, a picture starring Paul Muni that effectively helped alter the American penal system. LeRoy's film contributed to the studio's reputation for producing socially conscious fare, and Warner Bros. saw a piggybacking opportunity.

During the same time period, James Cagney had become a huge star at the studio and audiences loved him in gritty, tough guy roles like his breakout performance in 1931's The Public Enemy. Wheels a-turning, Warner swiftly readied The Mayor of Hell, directed by Archie Mayo and combining Cagney's uncompromising grit with a group of street kids who must endure overly harsh treatment at a reform school. It's a film of surprising bleakness and an obvious attempt to once again get in the muck and mire of social realism. Mostly, though, it feels like a script patched together with two separate ideas to accommodate the competing interests of a star and an agenda. Cagney isn't even in half the movie. The reform school boys are really the main focus, and even with the frequent revisiting of similar ground in other films, their story is far more effective than Cagney's subplot.

The movie seems to make up its mind on how to view these little future criminals right from the start, when they're running a small time racket of "watching" people's cars. For a nominal fee, you get a white chalk mark on your tire. Refuse to pay and that same tire is deflated. We know we're supposed to be on their side because a man who doesn't want to pay the kids off is portrayed as incredibly obnoxious. When a candy store incident results in arrests all around, the court room scene shifts blame to the parents, who are portrayed as stupid, uncaring, negligent, and/or hysterical. It's off to reform school for the tiny thugs, despite having the kindest, most well-meaning judge you're likely to see in films of this time period.

Notable characters here include a Cagney, Jr.-type named Jimmy (Frankie Darro), a little African-American boy called Smoke (Allen "Farina" Hoskins), and a Jewish kid with the name of Izzie (Sidney Miller). Horrible stereotypes are hard to ignore, regardless of when the film was made, and having Smoke's father (played by the familiar Fred "Snowflake" Toones) come across as a caricature of ignorance is glaring and ugly. Izzie's pronounced enthusiasm at being treasurer and store operator at the reform school is one of a few other insulting stereotypes the film employs without necessity. The issue isn't changing values, but simple recognition of right and wrong. Similarly, the kids in the film are little punks who probably deserve punishment, though not to the extent seen in the film certainly, and need reforming. The things they do are plainly wrong and menacing, just as what the Cagney character, a racketeer named Patsy Gargan, does goes beyond being even morally grey.

Cagney's Patsy is in line for a favour after locking up a number of votes for a political machine. His reward leads him to be named deputy commissioner of the state reform school, a job intended to be in name and paycheck-only. When he sees the unfair conditions at the school, which more closely resembles a prison, and meets a pretty nurse named Miss Griffith (Madge Evans), Patsy sticks around to push aside head man Thompson (Dudley Digges) for awhile. Cagney's character, like the actor, is from the same streets as these kids and his interest is shown as entirely legitimate. A highly improbable utopia emerges from Miss Griffith's insistence on allowing the delinquents to govern themselves. Eager to impress the nurse, Patsy goes along with it and, Poppins-like, the hooligans become perfect little conformists who enjoy bacon, eggs, and cake at meal time. When Patsy confronts the guy eager to replace him as racket boss, resulting in a shooting and the hurried need to get out of town, everything at the reform school comes crashing back to normal.

The Mayor of Hell was officially remade twice - first in 1938 with Humphrey Bogart and the Dead End Kids in Crime School, and, just a year later, as Hell's Kitchen, again with the Dead End Kids who were joined by Ronald Reagan. I've not seen either of those, but I'm confident that they end differently than the original version. Even though Patsy's a crook who serves as proof that crime can pay (and how!) and the reform school kids are deserving of fair punishment, it's Thompson who becomes the obvious evil hound. The child performances are all quite impressive, but Digges' Dickensian turn as Thompson takes the film. The actor manages to keep his wholly unsympathetic character from becoming a cartoonish villain, while still remaining completely loathsome. His fate is to be rounded up by a kiddie lynch mob and suffer a gruesome (for 1933) death. It's a spectacular result in an otherwise dated, middling film. There's no way a story like this would really play out in this particular fashion, and pessimistically open-ended problems like political graft are never even given hints of resolution. The film only needs two minutes to wring out a resolution that's blindly abrupt, though probably one audiences ate up.

The Disc

Encoded for regions 1, 2, 3, and 4, The Mayor of Hell is transferred progressively on a (just barely) dual-layered disc, and presented in the 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio. It is released both individually and as part of the Warner Bros. Gangsters Collection Vol. 3 (with Vol. 2 being newly retitled from its original incarnation as the Tough Guys set).

Video quality is acceptable, and roughly of the same calibre as the other two 1933 films (Picture Snatcher and Lady Killer) found in the box set. There's maybe a little more grain and a couple of instances where things go slightly out of focus. Inconsistencies in the picture quality also are noticeable. Some speckles here and there, but otherwise no significant damage in the print. For a film of this period, The Mayor of Hell looks fine, but not outstanding. Similarly, the audio has the same mild hiss heard in the other films, but it's not bothersome . The one-channel English Dolby Digital mono track is presented with no other significant problems, and should satisfy the vast majority of viewers. Optional English for the hearing impaired and French subtitles are available, white in colour.

Greg Mank's commentary is a primer on how to keep things interesting for 90 minutes without overwhelming the listener. Teeming with information, including shooting schedules, background on the principals, and the film's battles with censorship, Mank has done his research and seems eager to share. There are very few lulls and Mank does a nice job of descriptively pointing out things particularly deserving of attention instead of simply narrating. It's a wonder that Massachusetts audiences got anything out of the film given how chopped up the version they saw in theatres must have been.

As with the other releases in Vol. 3 of the Gangsters Collection, a set of vintage extras can be found within the Warner Night at the Movies section of this disc. They're started off by a trailer for the Philo Vance mystery The Kennel Murder Case (2:19) and a newsreel (1:20) about the dangers of organized crime across the country. Next, we have the Vitaphone musical short "The Audition" (9:16) featuring Hannah Williams performing the song "Get Happy," a tune also heard in sped-up form over the opening credits of the Merrie Melodies short "The Organ Grinder" (7:17). Harman and Ising's black and white cartoon stars the title character and his monkey, who has a gift for imitating Harpo Marx and Laurel and Hardy when not perilously climbing neighbourhood buildings. It's the 1995 Turner Entertainment dubbed version. Trailers for The Mayor of Hell (2:31) and its two remakes Crime School (1:37) and Hell's Kitchen (2:22) round out the disc's bonus material.

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