The Brothers Warner never shied away from social issues of the Depression Era in their films, from bootlegging gangsters (LITTLE CAESAR, THE PUBLIC ENEMY) to “yellow” journalism (FIVE STAR FINAL, PICTURE SNATCHER) to rampant illicit sex (BABY FACE, CONVENTION CITY)… even the musical GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 featured an ode to the unemployed and destitute, “Remember My Forgotten Man”. THE MAYOR OF HELL tackles the juvenile justice system, as a gang of slum kids get tossed in a reform school run by a crooked superintendent and suffer extremely harsh conditions, until a political hack takes over and implements change. The hack… why, it’s none other than Jimmy Cagney !
Cagney bursts on the scene in typical Cagney fashion about a third of the way into the movie, pulling up to the prison gate as the guard demands to know who goes there: “Gargan, the new deputy commissioner, ya screw!”. Patsy Gargan may be a ward heeler and got his job through political patronage, but he was a slum kid himself once, and when he witnesses the brutality going on, he tells Superintendent Thompson, “I’m gonna run this racket my way from now on!”. Of course, Patsy’s not totally altruistic; he’s hot for prison nurse Dorothy Griffin, whose ideas to make the school a better place (like the kids self-governing, better food, no more whippings) he helps implement.
Patsy’s got other problems on the outside, and when he goes to deal with a crook trying to muscle in on his voting racket, he winds up accidentally shooting the thug and has to take it on the lam, leaving the school back in Thompson’s hands. The old way of doing things return, but when one sickly youngster ends up dying in the ‘cooler’, the kids take matters into their own hands, starting a riot and putting Thompson on trial, finding him guilty of murder. Thompson jumps out the window and is chased to the top of a barn, which the kids set afire, causing Thompson’s death! Patsy returns just in the nick of time, before the kids raze the school to the ground.
Though Cagney’s the nominal star here, the spotlight falls on the street punks, a wild bunch of boys if there ever was one. Frankie Darro , soon to star a few months later in William Wellman’s WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD, is ringleader Jimmy, a cocky kid with a bad attitude that no one can reach… until Cagney comes along. The early scenes of the kids depict their hardscrabble lives, raising hell on the streets, and being sentenced in court. Though they come from differing (and, admittedly, stereotyped) ethnicities, they share a common bond of poverty and lack of education, learning crime as a way to make a fast buck. Among them are Our Gang’s Allen “Farina” Hoskins, outstanding in a dramatic role for once; Raymond Borzage (son of director Frank) as the sickly, doomed ‘Skinny’, former silent child star Mickey Bennett as Jimmy’s tough rival Butch, and future TV director Sidney Miller as Izzy, the comic relief Jewish kid.
The adults in the cast include Madge Evans as nurse Dorothy, sympathetic to the boys’ plight and working for change, Allen Jenkins as Patsy’s sidekick Mike (who cringes whenever the kids call him ‘Uncle Mike’ at Cagney’s request!), and Dudley Diggs as the rotten, corrupt Thompson. Harold Huber plays the hood who tries to take over Patsy’s turf, and after getting punched goes after Patsy with a hearty “Dirty son of a…”. Robert Barrat, Arthur Byron, Edwin Maxwell, Sheila Terry, and Fred “Snowflake” Toones are among the other Familiar Faces in the cast. THE MAYOR OF HELL was retooled and remade twice by Warners as vehicles for The Dead End Kids : 1938’s CRIME SCHOOL (with Humphrey Bogart in the Cagney role) and 1939’s HELL’S KITCHEN (this time with Ronald Reagan!), but neither can hold a candle to this underrated little film. Frankie Darro and his wild boys make The Dead Enders look like a bunch of cream puffs, and I’m pretty sure they’d mop up the floor with Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, and company in a street fight!