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DVD Review: The Mayor of Hell

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Over the past few years no other studio has treated their catalog of older films with more respect than Warner Brothers. To that end, they have turned a number of these decades old films into highly desirable box sets. Among those sets are ones based on the stars such as the Gary Cooper Signature Collection and the Errol Flynn Signature Collection; in addition to those, they also released themed sets such as Film Noir.

This film is a part of the Gangsters Collection, Vol. 3. It follows the Tough Guys Collection, which has since been renamed to Gangsters Collection, Vol. 2 (why the need for the name change? Your guess is as good as mine).

In 1933, James Cagney's career was definitely on the rise, especially after the success of Smart Money (although primarily an Edward G. Robinson vehicle) and The Public Enemy. With The Mayor of Hell, Cagney plays a pivotal, if more of a supporting, role. His presence is likely to add a little star power to a film whose lead character is a teenage boy. I cannot confirm that, but it seems like a possible conclusion. Whatever the real story is, the fact remains that the charismatic James Cagney is fantastic as Patsy Gargan.

The Mayor of Hell is a pre-Code film (Hays Code: guidelines for conduct of what could and could not appear in a motion picture), meaning it was allowed to be a little grittier and realistic in tone than it could have been had the Code been in effect. While the film was real in tone, it was still subject to editing and censorship based on where the film was being shown (a fact that historian Greg Mank talks about in the commentary, showing where some cuts were made by various boards around the country).

The movie opens with a gang of Depression-era kids pulling a car-watching scam, showing the consequences of not paying up. Things take a turn when a shoplifting job results in a group, including leader Jimmy Smith (Frankie Darro looking like a young Joaquin Phoenix), getting caught. In a wonderful courthouse scene, a number of them are sentenced to reform school where they will spend one year in the hopes of becoming better people.

It should be noted that, at the time, reform schools were a hot button issue. Many kids that went in came out harder and meaner than they went in. This film takes us inside the issue and shows that reform is very necessary. The issue was handled more recently, and less effectively, in Driftwood.

Jimmy Smith is the central character. He is a smart kid who is a victim of circumstance. Coming from a poor family and needing to support himself, he turns to the streets, ignoring his schoolwork, which he had excelled at prior to his turn to the streets. Once arriving at the reform school, he does not want any part of it and does little to hide his contempt for Mr. Thompson (Dudley Diggs), the commissioner of the school.

While Jimmy and his pals acclimate themselves to the school, Patsy arrives and introduces himself to Thompson. Patsy is a racketeer from the big city who was awarded the post of deputy commissioner in return for his influence. This job was meant to be essentially a free payday for Patsy and he is not expected to do anything there, but that is not the way things are going to go down.

No sooner has Patsy arrived at the school than he meets Jimmy and his gang. This initial encounter awakens something inside him, a spark that is fanned when he sees how Thompson treats the kids. Patsy grew up in the rough part of town and sees a lot of himself in these kids. He becomes determined to help the kids and tries to keep them from making the same mistakes he did.

Patsy teams with Dorothy (Madge Evans), the school's nurse, to use some alternate methods of running the school. The effects are immediately noticeable, particularly with Jimmy, who becomes the title character. Through all of this, Thompson is determined to regain his station as the head honcho and has his sights set on Patsy's criminal activities. All of this leads to an explosive, fiery conclusion that may remind you of Frankenstein (1931).

This movie is very good. The performances are all first rate. A lot of credit goes to Cagney. With his wonderful presence, he elevates everyone around him to another level. Frankie Darro also delivers a strong performance as the kid who has a good heart, but has many obstacles to overcome. Not to be left out are all of the other kids, all of them giving effecting performances, with Raymond Borzage as the memorable Skinny.

Archie Mayo does a fine job directing the film. It may not have a lot of flair, but it is solid work. Edward Chodorov wrote a strong screenplay, his debut, from the story by Islin Auster (Reform School).

It is interesting to note that this film was remade two times with the Dead End Kids. The movies are Crime School and Hell's Kitchen.

Audio/Video. Warner Brothers has done a fine job of restoring it to as pristine a copy as they could. It looks fantastic, with rich blacks and a strong level of detail. The same can be said for the audio. The mono track is well represented here. There really is no room for complaints here.

Extras.

  • Commentary. There is an interesting track given by film historian Greg Mank. His delivery is a little on the dry side, but he offers all sorts of insight into the making of the film and what the actors went on to do later in their careers. (Would you believe the man in the Robby the Robot suit and the voice of the Dungeon Master from the 80's Dungeons & Dragons cartoon are both in this film?).
  • Warner Night at the Movies. This is a great feature meant to replicate the experience of going to the theater during the year of the film's release, in this case 1933. In addition to the film, you get a host of shorts totaling 20 minutes:
    • Vintage Newsreel. A news clip about a new law to stop racketeering and kidnapping.
    • Musical Short: The Audition.
    • Classic Cartoon: The Organ Grinder. An old black and white ‘toon that follows the grinder as he plays along the street and the antics committed by his monkey.
    • Trailer: The Kennel Murder Case. A film about a murder that was committed behind closed doors. How did it happen? Who did it? The movie stars William Powell.
  • Bonus Trailers. We get trailers for both films that this story was retold in: Crime School and Hell's Kitchen, as well as the original trailer for The Mayor of Hell. These old trailers are pretty cool. We get to see how the films are promoted and, because these are the same story, we get to see how similar some of the sequences are between them. You will also notice in The Mayor of Hell trailer that even in the early days there were clips in the trailer that did not end up in the final cut of the film.

Bottomline. Excellent movie. This is a highly watchable film filled with strong performances from all involved. This is definitely one you will want to get your hands on and spend some time with.

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