The Mayor of Hell
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James Cagney may have played a lot of loose-cannon gangsters in his day, but his aggressive big-screen image was quite the opposite of his real-life personality. He's long been considered one of the nicest, most generous men to ever achieve icon status in Hollywood. Nevertheless, the feistiness that drove his characters had to exist somewhere in his real-life makeup, and it usually revealed itself when he dealt with the mechanics of the studio system. Cagney wasn't shy about complaining when he felt he was being over-worked. In fact, he had a reputation among studio executives for doing just that.
The Mayor of Hell (1933), a brutal potboiler that's saved by Cagney's cocksure performance, is a case in point. Shot very quickly, and on a shoestring budget, it was hardly the kind of thing that this would-be hoofer hoped to be stuck doing for the rest of his career, no matter how popular it turned out to be. Cagney stars as Patsy Gargan, a gangster who pulls a few strings to get himself appointed as "deputy inspector" of what turns out to be a corrupt reform school. When he arrives to assume his post, Gargan sees that the school's charges are being viciously mistreated by several guards, under the supervision of sadistic Warden Thompson (Dudley Digges.) After falling in love with a nurse (Madge Evans) who wants to do right by the boys, Gargan quickly turns things around at the school. However, he eventually abandons the kids and returns to his thuggish ways, which leads to a climax that left period audiences more than satisfied, regardless of the 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 literally to 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 his head 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 the thing done as cheaply as possible. At times we started at nine in the morning. This pounding drive we kept up during my time at Warner's from 1930 to 1934 on a pretty unvarying schedule."
Cagney wasn't kidding. The shoot took thirty-six days to complete, at a cost of $229,000, a miniscule sum, even in those days. Many critics complained that the script could have used work, but Cagney's two-fisted appeal, 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 the original maligned screenplay! However, without Cagney there to steer the rickety ship Bogart's smoldering brand of intensity is all wrong for the character, especially if you've seen Cagney pull it off with such roughhouse gusto 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), Robert Barrat (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).
by Paul Tatara