Movie Review

The Mayor of Hell

The Mayor of Hell  Movie Poster

US Release Date: 06-24-1933

Directed by: Archie Mayo


  • James Cagney
  • Patsy
  • Madge Evans
  • Dorothy
  • Arthur Byron
  • Judge Gilbert
  • Allen Jenkins
  • Mike
  • Dudley Digges
  • Thompson
  • Frankie Darro
  • Jimmy Smith
  • Sheila Terry
  • Blonde with Mike
  • Robert Barrat
  • Fred Smith
  • Allen Hoskins
  • Smoke
  • Dorothy Peterson
  • Mrs. Smith
  • Harold Huber
  • Joe
  • Sidney Miller
  • Izzy
  • Hobart Cavanaugh
  • Mr. Gorman
  • Charles E. Cane
  • Tommy
  • Fred Toones
  • Mr. Hemingway, Smoke's Father
  • Charles C. Wilson
  • Wilson, the Kind Guard
Reviewed on: January 10th, 2013
James Cagney, Frankie Darro and Madge Evans in The Mayor of Hell.

James Cagney, Frankie Darro and Madge Evans in The Mayor of Hell.

Five years before he made Angels with Dirty Faces, James Cagney played second fiddle to a bunch of juvenile delinquents in this socially conscious Warner Bros. look at boy's reform schools. The Mayor of Hell was so popular that it would be remade by the studio two more times before the decade was out. In 1938 Humphrey Bogart took on the Cagney role in Crime School and the following year Ronald Reagan gave his rendition in Hell's Kitchen. In both cases the Dead End Kids would fill in for the diverse cast of hard-boiled youths that appeared in this original version.

The story begins with a group of tough urban boys running unsupervised on the streets. They get caught in an attempted robbery of a store. The next scene shows them in court. Each boy has a parent with them as they are sentenced to reform school. The ringleader is Jimmy Smith played by Frankie Darro. He's the titular mayor and it is worth noting that he is the only boy with both his mother and father present. There is a Jewish boy, an Italian boy, and a black boy among others. The black boy's father is stereotypically portrayed as a simpleton but he does get the funniest line in the movie. When the lawyer yells at him to, “Tell us what you know, I said! Never mind what you think!” He replies, “Excuse me, boss. I ain't no lawyer. I can't talk without thinkin'.”

Cagney doesn't make his first appearance until 25 minutes into the film. His is really a supporting role. He plays a racketeer who (for reasons never fully explained) uses his political influence to get himself appointed Deputy Inspector of the reform school. After witnessing the awful conditions and abusive treatment of the boys firsthand, plus falling for the pretty nurse, Cagney decides to do something about it.

Anyone who has seen the 2010 Norwegian film King of Devil's Island will recognize several similarities between that movie and this one. The title for one thing. As well as the fact that the inmates of a reform school overrun the place due to the inhuman conditions that caused the death of one of the boys. The climax of both movies involves a burning barn where the sadistic warden is cornered by the rampaging boys. King of Devil's Island was based on actual events that occurred in 1915 so it's entirely possible The Mayor of Hell was loosely based on those same historical events.

At any rate Frankie Darro is the real star of the movie as the toughest boy of the lot. The one that refuses to crack no matter what the sadistic warden (Dudley Digges giving a memorable turn as a guy you love to hate) throws his way. The actors playing the other boys in the reform school are all quite convincing.

The problem with the movie is that it feels disjointed, like two different pictures tied together. Cagney's scenes away from the school seem to belong in another movie entirely. I guess they wanted a big name star to bring in audiences but it never quite gels. His romance with the nurse (played by the pretty but forgettable Madge Evans) lacks any real heat.

Trivia buffs might be interested to note that although James Cagney never actually uttered the line, “You dirty rat.” in a movie.  It is spoken by a character in this movie. Sheila Terry, playing the blond moll of Cagney's partner, says it at one point while speaking to Allen Jenkins.

The climax is quite brutal for its day and is the most memorable thing about The Mayor of Hell. The final denouement, however, seems contrived and a little too convenient. Although it isn't one of his better known pictures, The Mayor of Hell makes an interesting addition to James Cagney's impressive body of work.

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