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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

THE MAYOR OF HELL (1933)

Though this Warners programmer is not without interest, megger Archie Mayo didn’t have a chance in making the bifurcated story add up. The first act promises much as a gang of junior thugs is hauled into court and sent off to reform school. The tone is surprisingly tough & legitimately emotional even as the expected tropes of a hundred prison pics come into play. (Unusually for the time, the facility is integrated and, in spite of some stereotypical ‘darkie’ humor in the courtroom, 'Farina' is allowed to be just ‘one of the guys’ for most of the film.) Then, we shift gears as James Cagney enters the scene as a political ward boss assigned to check the place out. At first, he’s utterly disinterested, but changes his tune when he sees pretty nurse Madge Evans who wants to reform the Reform School. (The whole Cagney plot tangent feels like an afterthought from some studio exec who wanted to stick Cagney into as many films as possible.) The film suddenly curdles into absolute hooey as the school becomes a happy boys’ club, a self-governing trade school for misunderstood toughs. But when Cagney needs to take care of business back in the city, the school returns to the clutches of evil warden Dudley Diggs and, before you know it, riots, murder, torture, barn fires; all hell breaks loose. And Cagney can’t get back since he’s on the lam for a shooting. The last reel is plenty exciting, if rather ridiculous, but this must surely be the one & only film that’s worse whenever Cagney's character shows up.

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