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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