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The Mayor of Hell

The Mayor of Hell(1933)

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teaser The Mayor of Hell (1933)

James Cagney may have played a lot of loose-cannon gangsters in his day, buthis aggressive big-screen image was quite the opposite of his real-lifepersonality. He's long been considered one of the nicest, most generous mento ever achieve icon status in Hollywood. Nevertheless, the feistiness thatdrove his characters had to exist somewhere in his real-life makeup, and itusually revealed itself when he dealt with the mechanics of the studiosystem. Cagney wasn't shy about complaining when he felt he was beingover-worked. In fact, he had a reputation among studio executives for doingjust that.

The Mayor of Hell (1933), a brutal potboiler that's saved by Cagney'scocksure performance, is a case in point. Shot very quickly, and on ashoestring budget, it was hardly the kind of thing that this would-be hooferhoped to be stuck doing for the rest of his career, no matter how popular itturned out to be. Cagney stars as Patsy Gargan, a gangster who pulls a fewstrings to get himself appointed as "deputy inspector" of what turns out tobe a corrupt reform school. When he arrives to assume his post, Gargan seesthat the school's charges are being viciously mistreated by several guards,under the supervision of sadistic Warden Thompson (Dudley Digges.) Afterfalling in love with a nurse (Madge Evans) who wants to do right by theboys, Gargan quickly turns things around at the school. However, heeventually abandons the kids and returns to his thuggish ways, which leadsto a climax that left period audiences more than satisfied, regardless ofthe generous bouts of illogic that preceded it.

Though The Mayor of Hell wasn't exactly a highlight of his career,Cagney made special mention of its grueling shoot in his autobiography,Cagney on Cagney: "...I was kept plenty busy, and I mean literallyto all hours. Frequently, we worked until three or four in the morning.I'd look over, and there'd be the director, Archie Mayo, sitting with hishead thrown back, sawing away. He was tired; we were all tired.This kind of pressure the studio put on us because they wanted to get thething done as cheaply as possible. At times we started at nine in themorning. This pounding drive we kept up during my time at Warner's from1930 to 1934 on a pretty unvarying schedule."

Cagney wasn't kidding. The shoot took thirty-six days to complete, at acost of $229,000, a miniscule sum, even in those days. Many criticscomplained that the script could have used work, but Cagney's two-fistedappeal, a fiery finish, and an enjoyable supporting turn by Allen Jenkins,assured that The Mayor of Hell did decent business at the box office.Humphrey Bogart even starred in a 1938 remake called Crime School,which, for whatever reason, utilized much of the exact wording of theoriginal maligned screenplay! However, without Cagney there to steer therickety ship Bogart's smoldering brand of intensity is all wrong for thecharacter, especially if you've seen Cagney pull it off with such roughhousegusto the picture went nowhere.

Directed by: Archie Mayo
Screenplay: Edward Chodorov
Story: Islin Auster
Photography: Barney McGill
Editing: Jack Killifer
Art Direction: Esdras Hartley
Principal Cast: James Cagney (Patsy Gargan), Madge Evans (Dorothy Griffith),Arthur Byron (Judge Gilbert), Allen Jenkins (Mike), Dudley Digges(Thompson), Frankie Darro (Jimmy Smith), Sheila Terry (The Girl), RobertBarrat (Mr. Smith), Farina (Smoke), Harold Huber (Joe), Dorothy Peterson(Mrs. Smith), George Pat Collins (Brandon), Edwin Maxwell (Louis Johnston),John Marston (Hopkins), Mickey Bennett (Butch), Sidney Miller (Izzy).
B&W-85m.

by Paul Tatara

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