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Director: Archie Mayo
Cast: James Cagney, Madge Evans, Arthur Bryan, Allen Jenkins, Dudley Digges
The Mayor of Hell deals with the controversial subject (in the 1930s) of reformatories as it follows the life of depression-era children as they try and survive on harsh urban streets. They work together but break societies rules. At the reformatory they are faced with different types of administrative styles as Thompson (played by Dudley Digges) and Patsy Gargan (played by James Cagney) disagree on how exactly to keep the kids in order and how best to help reform them into good citizens.
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.
By: Greg Dickson
With a star-studded cast this generation would likely not recognize, Dinner at Eight really went all out to bring some of the biggest names together for this film event.
With these hugely successful and talented actors Dinner at Eight gives life to some of the most interesting characters I have seen in a long time. Any audience, no matter how unfamiliar with the actors of yesteryear, is bound to enjoy these well crafted and memorably portrayed characters.
Dinner at Eight follows Millicent Jordan, a middle aged woman prone to frantic episodes, as she prepares for a dinner in her luxurious home that promises to be quite an event. Everyone who is any one has been invited, or so it seems. As she prepares, the movie takes time to feature little snippets out of the lives of her guests, painting a very colorful picture filled with scandal, intrigue, love triangles, adultery, despair, and moral decay.
It seems these guests of innocent Millicent aren’t necessarily the high class people they desire the world to perceive them as. Their skeletons and tribulations end up seeing the light of day and the level of infamy and disgraceful behavior is shocking, especially for the early 1930s.
This movie really does feature some impressive and memorable performances, too many to give justice to, suffice it to say, these characters will stick with you and are bound to have a profound impact even with more then seven decades having passed since they were initially portrayed.
One of the elements to the movie that must be mentioned is the ease with which it mixes incredibly somber subject matter with the most delightful humor. The mastery over the art of storytelling needed to pull that feat off is worth praising.
Surprisingly, despite being completely engaged and enthralled by the characters, and absolutely loving the blend of humor and intense drama I found myself surprisingly un-invested. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it and respected the quality of the production, but felt some how detached. It was almost as if I enjoyed the movie more on an academic level and less on a personal level. Even as I write about it, I don’t fully understand it, but it certainly wouldn’t be a movie I would revisit again and again and I wouldn’t give it a ten or a nine, though I completely respect it and enjoyed it immensely.
As bizarre as that may sound, don’t let it deter you from seeing it (I did really enjoy it), it is a masterpiece of writing, and features some of the best performances from some of the most unparalleled film actors of the last one hundred plus years.
Dinner at Eight is both satisfying and filling, not to mention delicious.
Review By: Greg Dickson