Pre Code Confidential #15: James Cagney in THE MAYOR OF HELL (Warner Brothers 1933)

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!

Pre Code Confidential #11: THE MALTESE FALCON (Warner Brothers 1931)

Everybody knows the 1941 Humphrey Bogart/John Huston classic THE MALTESE FALCON, but only true film fanatics watch the original 1931 version. Since I fall squarely into that category, I recently viewed the first adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s seminal private eye yarn. The film, like it’s more famous remake, follows the novel’s plot closely, with the added spice that Pre-Code movies bring to the table.

Cortez is no Bogie, but he’ll do

The odds are six-two-and-even if you’re reading this post, you don’t need a plot recap. What I intend to do is go over some of the differences between the two versions. Let’s start with Sam Spade himself, the prototype hard-boiled detective. Suave, slick-haired Ricardo Cortez  interprets the role as a grinning horndog who’s never met a skirt he didn’t like. We meet Spade in the opening shot, clinching a dame in silhouette at the door to his office. Then the door opens and the camera pans down to the girl’s gorgeous gam, hitching up her stocking, so there’s no doubt that more than just business was being conducted behind that closed door. This sets the tone for Cortez’s character, an amoral man completely out for himself. We later discover he’s been banging his partner Miles Archer’s wife Iva (and as she’s played by the lovely Thelma Todd  , who could blame him?!?). He’s also got a thing going on with secretary Effie ( Una Merkel , another Pre-Code cutie). Cortez made a career playing shady types, and though his Spade differs from the more cynical Bogart , he does well in the role of less than honorable gumshoe.

Bebe in the bathtub/la-dee-da-dee-dah!

Bebe Daniels plays opposite Cortez as the lying, duplicitous Ruth Wanderly, enacted in the Huston film by Mary Astor. Miss Daniels, a star in the silent era, was more closely associated with early musicals (DIXIANA, 42ND STREET), and is no match for Astor in the dramatic department. However, she does get to strut her Pre-Code stuff more freely than Astor did ten years later. There’s a scene where Ruth and Sam are passionately kissing while a record comes to an end; the scene changes to Daniels asleep in his bed the next morning. Sam answers the door to find Iva, who spies Ruth peeking through the bedroom door… in her kimono! Later, when a thousand dollar bill goes missing from an envelope, Sam orders Ruth to “take off your clothes” so he can search her… and she does! Though she’s no Mary Astor (let’s face it, few actresses were), Bebe Daniels does fine in the pivotal role of Ruth Wanderly.

Diggs & Frye… more than just friends?

The villainous trio of Casper Gutman, “Dr.” Joel Cairo, and the gunsel Wilmer Cook are portrayed with no ambiguity about their homosexuality. Right off the bat, Effie tells Sam a “gorgeous new customer” has arrived, and in walks the effeminate Dr. Cairo (Danish actor Otto Matieson). Gutman (Irishman Dudley Diggs) sports feminine curls and is more than fond of his hired goon Wilmer, played by none other than Dwight Frye. It was a very good year for Frye, as he appeared in both FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA for Universal in 1931. There’s also some homophobic slurs tossed by Spade at the homicide dicks Dundy and Polhaus (Robert Elliott, J. Farrell McDonald), as he teases Dundy with the sobriquets “sweetheart” and “darling”, much to their chagrin.

When Warner Brothers wanted to re-release the ’31 version in 1936, the then-in-place Hayes Production Code had a fit, claiming it was too “lewd” and unacceptable to be put on the Silver Screen again. Warners then commissioned a remake, retitled SATAN MET A LADY, changing some things around and starring Warren William and Bette Davis in the Cortez and Daniels roles. The new film was a bomb (Davis hated it), and Hammett’s story sat untouched until John Huston got ahold of it in 1941, and the rest is film history. The Huston/Bogart MALTESE FALCON remains the definitive version, and is still my favorite, but this  Roy Del Ruth  1931 Pre-Code take has a lot to offer. While not nearly as atmospheric or influential as the later film, this MALTESE FALCON is at least the stuff that Pre-Code dreams are made of!

The “Pre Code Confidential” Files:

  1. LADY KILLER
  2. KONGO
  3. MAKE ME A STAR
  4. THE MASK OF FU MANCHU
  5. HOLLYWOOD PARTY
  6. THE SECRET SIX
  7. PLAY-GIRL
  8. BABY FACE
  9. BLONDE CRAZY
  10. CLEOPATRA