27 September 2005 | bkoganbing
Cagney and the kids
James Cagney, racketeer and political ward heeler, get to become a Deputy Commissioner of Corrections and visits a boys reform school. The catch is that Cagney is not in it for the graft, he genuinely wants to make a difference in the lives of the kids there because he comes from a background like their's.
The villain of the piece is Dudley Digges who is a grafting chiseler and a sanctimonious hypocrite to boot. One of the subtexts of the plot of The Mayor of Hell is that these kids are mostly immigrants and those that judge them and are in positions of power are those who are here a few generations. Note in the mess hall scene as Digges offers a prayer of thanks for the food they are about to receive, Digges is eating well, but the kids are getting quality you wouldn't feed to your pet.
Cagney has his own troubles back in the city with some of his henchmen and he has to take it on the lam. That puts Digges back in charge and setting up the film for it's climax.
The Mayor of Hell was a typical product from the working class studio. And because it was pre-Code it gets pretty gruesome at times. A later version of this, Crime School, with Humphrey Bogart and the Dead End Kids, was a more sanitized remake.
Although Cagney is fine in the lead role as is Madge Evans the school nurse, the acting honors go to Dudley Digges. Hard to believe that the same man could portray the drunken, but kindly, one legged ship's surgeon in Mutiny on the Bounty. But Digges is a fine player and a joy to watch in every film he's in.
This film is not shown too often because of the racial and ethnic stereotypes it portrays. A whole lot of minorities would be offended today. Still it's a fine film.
Interestingly enough a few years ago the film Sleepers came out and it touched on some of the same issues. I guess films about reform schools don't change in any time.