After watching the 1932 movie Hell’s House, set in a reform school, I was keen to see this better-known Warner Brothers movie, directed by Archie Mayo and starring James Cagney, Frankie Darro and Madge Evans, which was made the following year. I was delighted to find that this one is included in the excellent Gangsters Collection 3 recently issued by Warner Brothers – a shame for film fans in the UK that it is only available as a region 1 import, though I believe the discs are actually region-free.
Anyway, the print is beautifully remastered, a great change from all the shaky grey pictures and out-of-sync soundtracks I’ve been suffering recently! The commentary by film historian Greg Mank also gives interesting background, though at times I think he gets too fixated on listing all the films a minor actor appeared in rather than focusing on what is happening in the powerful melodrama we’re watching. The most intriguing aspect of his commentary is his focus on how much censorship this film suffered even in the pre-Code area, with various states cutting different lines and scenes, offended by everything from juvenile vandalism to Cagney saying: “Ah, nuts!”
The spectacular finale, where rioting inmates set fire to the reformatory, was almost completely cut in some states, so that cinema-goers must have had a job working out what was going on.
Cagney plays gangster Patsy Gargan who is given a role as deputy commissioner, nominally in charge of a reform school, as a political favour. However, when he meets the boys and sees how badly they are being treated by the sadistic Mr Thompson (a wildly over-the-top Dudley Digges), Gargan starts to become emotionally involved. As a boy from the slums himself, he identifies with the youngsters and is determined to help them. He joins forces with the saintly reformatory nurse Dorothy (Madge Evans), takes over the running of the reform school and gives the boys a chance to prove themselves through self-government. The experiment goes smoothly and gives hope for the future – but Thompson is determined to get back control.
As with Hell’s House, the film’s title is partly a defiant pre-Code gesture . The studios kept putting words like “sin” and “hell” in the titles of movies, while the Hays office kept on trying to stop them. According to Mank’s commentary, though, the title is also an indication of just how much fear there was of reform schools at this time. From the bleak real-life stories he recounts (one young runaway got a friend to shoot him in the arm so that he wouldn’t have to go back) , it sounds as if they really were prisons in all but name.
With most Cagney films I’ve reviewed, I find myself tempted to write reams about him and not enough about anyone else! This time it’s a bit different. I can’t think of all that much to say about him in this, although he does dominate the screen as usual in the scenes where he’s present, playing a gangster with a soft side and falling in love with the forthright Dorothy. His almost-instant reformation isn’t that believable in plot terms, but he makes you believe it. There are some lovely witty lines and moments to remember, like the scene early on where he turns up at the reformatory wielding a bottle and invites the awful Thompson to share a drink.
However, although Cagney is billed as the main star and gives a fine performance, there are large chunks of the film where he isn’t present, including the first half hour or so . A lot of the time the main focus is on Jimmy Smith (Darro), who has the title role as the “mayor” of the reformatory, and the other boys in his gang. (Darro actually has a slightly similar quality to Cagney as a small, delicately-built figure with a fierce presence –it’s easy to see why he was originally chosen to play the young Cagney in the opening scenes of The Public Enemy, although when the two main gangster roles were famously swapped he ended up playing the young Edward Woods instead.)
Hell’s House slightly soft-pedals at the start by taking an innocent farm boy, mistakenly jailed, as its hero. By contrast, The Mayor of Hell focuses on a gang of juvenile delinquents who run a protection racket on city streets, vandalising parked cars unless the owners pay them money to “watch” them. They also break into a candy store and assault the elderly owner. These are no misunderstood angels, although Mank points out that an audience at the time would have seen them as hungry, disillusioned youths struggling to survive in the Great Depression, and not just as yobs. The opening scenes have that unmistakeable Warner grit and immediately got me hooked.
After being arrested, the boys all appear in court, with their parents in tow, and there’s more grittiness as the difficult circumstances of their lives are glimpsed. One father turns up so drunk that he can hardly stand, let alone put forward any argument for keeping his son out of reform school. Another weeping mother begs the judge not to send her boy to reform school, saying that her older son served time there and… “He came back a murderer!” (This was one of the lines the censors cut in some states.)
Unfortunately, though, this scene also features racial stereotypes – with a Jewish father complaining that he had to lose a day’s work to come to court, and an African-American father appearing dazed and stuttering. In both cases, these stereotypes are almost instantly undermined. The Jewish father gives a poignant speech to his son in Yiddish, with tears in his eyes, which, infuriatingly, has no subtitles, but clearly has nothing to do with money, but to do with his love for him. Then the black father has the best line in the scene, when he retorts to a judge, who has said: “We want to know what you know, not what you think”. His reply is: “I’m not a lawyer, I have to think before I speak.” All the same, the stereotypes leave a bad taste. I would like to know exactly what the Jewish dad says in his Yiddish speech – as I’ve studied German and some words are similar, I could work out some of it, but not all. I think he says something like “Well, I can’t cope with you any more, I’ll have to leave it up to God now. Your mother is lying ill in bed and can’t do any more. I pray to God that you will learn to respect your mum and dad.” But I may well have got this all wrong and am sure I missed some of it anyway.
On the plus side, once the boys go into the reform school, most of the stereotyping is overcome – there are a couple of brief instances of this with Izzy (Sidney Miller), the Jewish boy, but most of the time it seems to me that the focus is on the comradeship between all of them, rather than on reinforcing prejudices.
In Hell’s House, the justice system is blamed for the terrible state of the reformatory at the centre. It’s suggested that the warden is kindly enough at heart, but can’t run the place properly because there is no political will to give him the funds he needs. In The Mayor of Hell, by contrast, the boys’ suffering is down to the fiendish Thompson, a Squeers-style villain who takes an evil delight in starving and humiliating them and chasing them with a whip, and has no pity at all on the sick boy, Johnny/Skinny (Raymond Borzage). I’m actually not sure which of these portrayals is more chilling. Both films have something of a fairy tale quality, a belief that engrained corruption and cruelty can be cleared away easily if one or two individuals vow to put things right.
I see from the trailers included on the DVD that the film was remade twice within a few years, first as Crime School, with Bogart in the Cagney role, and then as Hell’s Kitchen, with Ronald Reagan. I’d be interested to see either of these, especially the Bogart one! It would also be interesting to know whether there are any 1930s or 40s films about girls’ reform schools or prisons. I’ve seen a couple of movies with scenes set in female prisons, and I think Joan Blondell’s character is glimpsed in a reformatory in Three on a Match, but I haven’t seen a whole film on this theme as yet.