Tuesday, July 5, 2011

DVD Review: The Mayor of Hell (1933)

The Mayor of Hell (1933)

(Released: 2008 by Warner Home Video)
Another looong DVD Review by Joe Torcivia

In 1933, long before comic books, and DVDs made life worth living, adolescent boys turned to juvenile delinquency in alarming numbers. Our story opens on one such gang of youths who, for a price, offer to “watch cars” against vandalism (caused by them), commit daylight grab-and-run store robberies, and the like. In such a robbery, a candy store proprietor is seriously injured, and the boys are sentenced to reform school. The toughest reform school in the state, “Peakstown State Reformatory”, run by the cruel, pompous, and sadistic Mr. Thompson.

Enter Pasty Gargan (James Cagney), a local gangster who “delivers votes” to the political machine that employs him. As payment, said machine gives him a Deputy Commissioner political patronage job, that puts him in charge of the reform school.

Appalled at Thompson’s methods, Gargan takes over and draws on his own background as a slum kid to instill responsibility and a work ethic in the kids. Remarkably, it works, with the boys even running their own quasi-government. Resentful Thompson seethes at Gargan’s success, until Gargan is called back to the city, is implicated in a gang shooting, and is forced to flee the state lest he face a pending murder charge.

With Gargan in exile, Thompson comes back with a vengeance… until he goes too far and a boy dies! Oh my, what happens then… Oh, me… Oh, my…

The Mayor of Hell” is directed by Archie Mayo, later the director of "The Petrified Forest” (1936), with an uncredited “late assist” by Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”, “Captain Blood”, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and much more!)

I’d never heard of this film, before an Amazon.com recommendation, “inspired by [my] browsing history”. It is a surprisingly good, pre-Hays Code film focusing on the problem of Depression Era juvenile delinquency, and its ramifications.

Cagney is superb as a “good bad guy”, blurring the lines between gangster and guardian. A great follow-up to his prior sensation “The Public Enemy”. The “kids” are a very entertaining mélange of multiple ethnicities: Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Black, and are led by “Jimmy Smith” – played by Frankie Darrow, who looks very much like a “young Cagney”!

Additional oddities: Being still early in the Warner Bros. cannon of talking pictures, and like “The Public Enemy”, it begins with “Warner Bros. Pictures and the Vitaphone Corp. Present: [ with the WB Shield superimposed over the Vitaphone Pennant].

Also like “The Public Enemy”, every featured character in the film is introduced by a pose, in front of a black background, with both the name of the actor and the character he or she plays prominently displayed. In older films, I often have difficulty in determining “who-is-who” beyond the obvious star performers. This is a nice way to remedy that – and I wish it would have been employed more often.

As is our custom in these reviews, we’ll break it into CONS and PROS.


Main Menu: The MUSIC on the Main Menu is disproportionately LOUD, compared to the balance of the program. It is so much so that it’s jarring, when you navigate to the Main Menu from another option.

Extra Features: My standard for a movie DVD’s Extra Features is the inclusion of a theatrical trailer for the film, a commentary track, and “making-of” or background featurette. No featurette is included with “The Mayor of Hell” giving it a CON, in this area.


The Film: A pre-Hays Code film that could easily have been sappy, but delivers more of a punch than expected! Cagney doesn’t even SHOW UP until 24:24 of the film – so the other players bear a large part of the load… especially young Frankie Darrow as our lead delinquent and Dudley Digges as one of those men you love to hate!

The Cast:

• James Cagney as “Patsy Gargan”.

• Madge Evans as “Nurse Dorothy Griffith”.

• Allen Jenkins as “(Uncle) Mike”.

• Arthur Byron as “Judge Gilbert”.

• Dudley Digges as “Thompson”.

• Frankie Darrow as “Jimmy Smith”.

• Allen “Farina” Hoskins (of “Our Gang”) as “Smoke Hemmingway”.

Menus: Menus are easy to navigate, and are nicely illustrated with colorized images of the film’s main characters. But, you WILL give your volume control a workout on the Main Menu.

Extra Features:

Theatrical Trailers:

Not only do we get the trailer for “The Mayor of Hell”, but also those for the two subsequent movies this film inspired: Crime School (1938) starring Humphrey Bogart, and “Hell’s Kitchen” (1939) starring Ronald Reagan – in which we get to see the future President of the United States doused with a fire hose!

Warner Night at the Movies: Not so long ago, when Warner was the BEST DVD PRODUCER of them all, it offered the outstanding “Warner Night at the Movies” with select DVD packages. I couldn’t be more pleased, when I uncover one of these gems!

Warner expertly recreates the movie-going experience of the day as a viewing option for “The Mayor of Hell”. The film may be viewed as part of the entire program, on its own, or the viewer may pick and choose among the included items.

The program consists of:

A theatrical trailer for “The Kennel Murder Case”: (02:19) A “Philo Vance” mystery starring William Powell.

Newsreel: (Runs 01:20) From “Hearst Metrotone News”: Here’s some GOOD NEWS: “U.S. Acts to End Reign of Crime”. Gosh, I wonder if they were successful!

“Vitaphone Presents: The Audition”: (Runs 09:16) A music short starring Hannah Williams (who sings “Get Happy”), The Three X Sisters (…I guess that meant SOMETHING ELSE in 1933), Larry and Larry (dancers), and Phil Emerton’s Band.

A producer suggests several new wrinkles for a bandleader’s act, such as singers, dancers, costumes, and settings. Actually nice and fun, for what it is. Seriously, though… does anyone remember any of these performers? More interesting “Lost Era” stuff from the Warner Vaults.

“The Organ Grinder”: (Runs 07:17) A Merrie Melodies cartoon by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, with Leon Schlesinger – Producer. Coincidently, the Merrie Melodies opening theme for this one is “Get Happy”, which we’ve just heard performed in the previous short!

The WB Shield and Vitaphone Pennant introduce this cartoon about an Italian organ grinder and his clever monkey, who entertain the street denizens of an old urban setting.

The black and white “city street backgrounds” are extremely detailed and precise, looking more like an old Max Fleischer cartoon than anything out of Warners. The Monkey, who gets into all sorts of trouble, is quite entertaining – and the many street urchins who flock to the goings-on are actually endearing.

Oddly, the Organ Grinder himself is not all that easy to read. Is he just a jolly old soul eking out a meager living, or is he more malevolent? His expressions seem to swing back-and-forth between the two, and he never falls securely on any one side. There are two Italian stereotypes and one Chinese stereotype for those who look for such things.

Another oddity… I have NEVER SEEN this cartoon at any point in my life… and I think we can all agree that I’ve watched a lot of cartoons!

A street urchin pops out at cartoon’s end to say “So long, folks!”

The film itself: Cagney shows us why he’s one of Warner’s brightest stars! Yet, so much of this picture is well-carried by his co-stars! Digges, Darrow, and the rest of the kids REALLY carry this one more than you’d expect from a group of co-stars – especially when such a “big name” is the headliner! What I really expected to be a “big, sappy, nothin’ of a film” turns out to be surprisingly good – and delivers a climactic ending that must have had its audience talking for a long, long time!

Commentary Track by Greg Mank:

“In the early 1930s, the Warner Bros, Studio was the almighty king of rip-roaring depression melodramas: Beer and blood gangster sagas, sexy gold diggers, violent climactic death scenes worthy of Greek tragedy – and a crusading spirit that made many of their movies social documents or modern morality tales. Well, here’s Warner Bros. at its most socially crusading AND wildly melodramatic!”

With this, Greg Mank opens one of the best and most lively commentaries I’ve heard on a movie DVD! I haven’t heard any others by him, but I sure hope he got the opportunity to do more! His observations include:

• The original title of the film was “Reform School”.

• Mank describes the end of the film as a “censor-defying climax”!

• Local censors and censoring boards everywhere cut out different parts of the film. The cuts (by Mank’s description) were large and frequent in number. All of the film is presented intact on the DVD, but I’ve gotta wonder what kind of a mess it must have looked like on the big screen!

• Frankie Darrow had a varied career – voicing “Lampwick” in Walt Disney’s “Pinocchio”, and was inside Robby the Robot of the classic sci-fi film “Forbidden Planet”! I wonder if he was carried-over when “Robby” appeared (twice) as an evil robot on LOST IN SPACE.

• Darrow was also the “Young Cagney” character in “The Public Enemy” (…the mix-up and switch in actors for that film notwithstanding).

• Allen Jenkins was born in the NYC boro of Staten Island – making it fitting that he would become a member of the NYPD in his voicing role of “Officer Dibble” on TOP CAT.

• The inspiration for “The Mayor of Hell” came from a progressive reform facility in “Orange County”, 60 miles from NYC. We’ll hopefully assume that, in the real-life case, things turned out differently.

• Jack Warner’s favored director, Michael Curtiz, was brought in to film the final climactic scenes of “The Mayor of Hell” – which had actually wrapped with a milder (and more censor-approved) ending. WB decided to get behind the film, defy the suggestions of the censors, and go all out to make it BIG – and Curtiz was the man for the job! He would later fulfill a similar role for Errol Flynn’s “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938). See that review HERE!


The Mayor of Hell” delivers far more than one might expect from such a premise and from a film of the time. Top Cat fans, like myself, might be disappointed in the relatively small role for Allen Jenkins (He’ll get his due in “A Slight Case of Murder” – 1938), but James Cagney, Frankie Darrow, and Dudley Digges, more than make up for that!

Warner Night at the Movies” allows you to experience the film in (at least something resembling) its proper context.

It is highly recommended for fans of James Cagney, gangster films and crime drama in general, anyone with a weakness for loveable juvenile delinquents, and enthusiasts of the period.


Uncle Fletcher said...

Great review, but Allen "Farina" Hoskins wasn't "later of Our Gang" in 1930. He'd been in the Gang since the early 20s, and would outgrow his role in another year. I think 1931 was his final year, when he was more or less replaced by "Stymie" Beard.

Joe Torcivia said...

Thanks for the kind words – and the information, “Unk”!

My bad! The correction has been made!