Wednesday, March 26, 2008

THE MAYOR OF HELL (Warner Bros. 1933) Warner Home Video

Archie Mayo and Michael Curtiz’s The Mayor from Hell (1933) is the most satisfying crime melodrama of three that studio bad boy, James Cagney made that year; a tautly scripted minor endeavor from writer Edward Chodorov, based on Islin Auster’s Reform School.

Known for his razor sharp delivery of a line and his ability to tower over most of his contemporaries, despite a diminutive physical stature, Cagney makes the character of racketeer Richard ‘Patsy’ Gargan a credible hero in this decidedly un-heroic age.

In the film’s narrative, political fop Richard Gargan is made deputy commissioner of a boy’s reform school as his ‘reward’ for public service by corrupt political cronies; Sam – the political boss (James Donlan), Judge H.J. Gilbert (Arthur Byron) and Hopkins, the Children’s Aid lawyer (John Marston).

Initially, Gargan takes little interest in this appointment. It’s a paycheck set up under graft that affords him an equitable front and lifestyle with plenty of schmoozing and pay offs. However, Gargan eventually develops a legitimate empathy for the boys he oversees – particularly, Jimmy Smith (Frankie Darro), perhaps because in their plight and struggles Gargan taps into his own hopeless start in life as a delinquent youth.

Reformed by the love of the school’s infirmary nurse, Dorothy Griffith (Madge Adams), Gargan eventually begins to rebuild both the spirits of its inhabitants and the institution’s reputation beyond its walls. Gargan censures and/or fires the guards responsible for battering the boys while flying under the radar of heartless and tyrannical Mr. Thompson (Dudley Digges).

Sending Thompson on a holiday, Gargan implements some of Dorothy’s reformist ideas into practical action – including developing an internal system of self regulation and justice that places responsibility for the school’s daily operations squarely on the shoulders of the wayward boys. They are in charge of their own fates. Unfortunately, Gargan is withdrawn from the school to some political business in the city – actually a set up - where he accidentally shoots another man during a staged fight.

His reputation in ruins, Gargan goes into hiding. Thompson returns to the school to spread the rumor that their one time hero has denounced his responsibilities for good. Abolishing all of the progressive reforms Gargan and Dorothy have put into place, Thompson reestablishes his rigid prison-like command – firing Dorothy after she attempts to go higher up the ladder for a reprieve.

The boys are bitter and frustrated but continue to cower under Thompson’s authoritarian rule until one of their own, Johnny Stone (Raymond Borzage) - a popular whipping boy - suddenly dies while placed in solitary confinement. Anarchy ensues. The boys seize control of the school and murder Thompson. Distraught, Dorothy seeks out Gargan who vows to return to the reformatory and become its permanent guiding force for progressivism and social change.

There are many outstanding performances in this film, beginning with Cagney’s raw and motivational standout - so ambitious that it easily dwarfs the rest of the cast. The plot for this film proved so popular it was recycled twice by the studio – once under its original title ‘Reform School’(1938) with Humphrey Bogart and The Dead End Kids generated considerable heat. Yet, as good as Bogart’s performance is in that second film – it is Cagney’s extolling of Gargan’s genuineness and humanity in this original that wins out in the opinion of this critic.

Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer is below par. The B&W image is softly focused with fine details frequently becoming lost during darker scenes. Contrast levels appear weak. Blacks are never deep but rather a faded gray. Whites are a lighter gray. Age related artifacts and screen flicker distract on occasion. The audio is mono but represented at an adequate listening level. Extras include a very engaging audio commentary by Greg Mank and a litany of shorts and trailers a la the Warner Night At The Movies treatment. Recommended – for content, not transfer quality.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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