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The Mayor Of Hell

03 Nov

The Mayor Of Hell – directed by Archie Mayo. Prisonflick. 90 minutes Black And White 1933

★★★★★

The Story: A tough ward boss, as a reward for delivering votes, is given supervision of a boys’ reformatory, and it gets to him.

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The trashy title should not put you off from one of the best movies of its era and one of James Cagney’s most brilliant films. Of course, being Cagney, it’s a gutter drama, but what a drama! What a story!

Cagney himself is in top display as an actor – fluid, immediate, and interesting. Of all the great stars, he was the most tragic artistically because his acting depended upon a manner, and the manner was so fixed that he could never play a part opposite to it, try as he might. Highly volatile, perched always on the balls of his feet (because of lifts?), his oddly made-up, glancing Lawrence Olivier eyes, he presents a constant perturbation. Off camera he was a honey, a gent, and a man of some cultivation. But he wanted to but could not play gentler parts because his technique had become fixed – probably by his many years on Broadway before he even got to Hollywood – as a live wire. He could only act one way.

Allen Jenkins, his old roommate from their chorus boy days, plays the dumb Damon Runyon sidekick. And he is but one in a cast that is top-heavy in every role no matter how small.

The beautiful Madge Evans plays the nurse at the reformatory. Watch her. She had been acting in movies all her young life, and everything she does is alive, fresh, apt, and necessary. She was brought over from MGM to soften the atmosphere. She’s so lovely. She’d such a fine actor.

Broadway star, Dudley Digges plays the mean reformatory head, and he will make you want to kill him. It is a thoroughgoing performance of a man ruled by terror and terrorizing everyone around him.

The leader of the reformatory boys is Frankie Darro, a tiny toughie. He plays in concert with 200 boys, each one particular, each one creative and vivid in the many scenes in which they appear, both regimented and in mobs.

Archie Mayo knows how to make the whole thing work and move and capture the truth and the comedy and the sentiment of Edward Chodorov’s fine screenplay. The Special Features commentary is tip-top. If your parents ever threatened to send you to the reformatory, you were right to be scared, because this is what they had in mind.

 
 
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