Movie Reviews - 1930s postsMonday December 10, 2018
Movie Review: The Spider's Web (1938)
In its current listing, Wikipedia credits “The Spider’s Web” as the first superhero movie serial ever. It was released in 1938, two years before “The Green Hornet” and “The Shadow,” and three years before “Captain Marvel” truly ushered in the superhero age.
So what makes a superhero serial? A better question: What makes a superhero? Off the top of my head, I’d say:
- superpowers (but not necessarily: Batman)
- mask (but not necessarily: Superman)
- fights crime (but not necessarily: X-Men)
- urban (but not necessarily: Black Panther)
I might also add this:
- Born in comic books (rather than radio, pulps, comic strips)
None of those guys before Captain Marvel were born in comic books. The Shadow began as a radio narrator who was so popular they created his own radio show around him; then he took over the pulps. The Green Hornet began on radio as a modern update of The Lone Ranger, who, in Wikipedia’s classification, is a western hero rather than a super hero. The Spider began in the pulps in 1933 to compete with The Shadow—and wound up beating him to the movies by two years.
Overall, at least in their serial incarnations, these three are basically the same guy: a rich dude with no superpowers and an ethnic sidekick, who puts on a mask, fedora and trenchcoat to fight a criminal mastermind bent on taking over the city. In this, The Spider should suffer in comparison. The Shadow has the best calling card (his laugh and catchphrase), the Green Hornet has the best sidekick (Kato), and both have better masks. To modern eyes, the Spider’s mask, with holes for eyes and mouth, looks suspiciously like bondage gear.
And yet “The Spider’s Web” is slightly better than the first offerings from Shadow and Hornet. Its lead, Warren Hull, has energy and verve throughout—even before he puts on the mask and cape. He’s not overshadowed by his sidekick (see: Hornet) nor is his main power given to the villain (see: Shadow). Plus Iris Meredith’s Nita Van Sloan has it all over her female counterparts.
But the serial, like all serials, gets bogged down in the sameness of it all: the hidden villain in his lair sending out his men to implement his orders; the hero and his team working to counteract them; the police stymied and useless and suspicious of the hero; the cliffhanger, the escape, and the regroup. Repeat.
I’m curious: Has anyone with talent ever taken one of these serials—which can run 300 minutes—and edited it down to about 90-100 minutes? So it has a modern pace? So there’s less pause and bad fill and it flows? What would that look like? Could it be good?
Friendly neighborhood Spider
I first heard of The Spider in 1974, while reading Stan Lee’s “Origins of Marvel Comics.“ I was 11. Stan takes us back to the glory years. By 1962, he had created the Fantastic Four and the Hulk and was looking around for other characters to invent and promote:
In the long-dead, practically Paleolithic era when I had been on the verge of approaching teenagehood, one of my favorite pulp magazine heroes was a stalwart named The Spider. He wore a slouch hat and a finger ring with the image of an arachnid—a ring which, when he punched a foe fearlessly in the face, would leave its mark, an impression of a spider. It was The Spider’s calling card, and it sent goose pimples up and down my ten-year-old spine. More than that, I can still remember how the magazine’s subtitle grabbed me. It was called The Spider— but after his name were the never-to-be-forgotten words: Master of Men. Just play with that for a moment—roll it around on your tongue, savor the fateful, fascinating flavor—The Spider, Master of Men. My mind was made up, the stage was set, the cards had been dealt. I was no more than a puppet in the shadow show of destiny.
Yes, Spider-Man. The similarities between the two characters end with the name.
Except watching this, you do see other similarities. The Spider has webbing on his mask and cape. He’s fairly athletic, can climb easily and swings from ropes a lot. Then there’s the villain: The Octopus. He’s not a scientist, doesn’t have mechanical arms, but in the 1938 battle between The Spider and The Octopus, it’s easy to see the trace outline of the epic Spidey/Doc Ock battles to come.
The serial begins well—with villainy and the chaos it causes. We see trains colliding followed by numerous headlines about sabotage, the bombing of freight trucks, a fire destroying the airport. It’s all the work of the Octopus. Who is? Just a guy in a white mask wearing a white cloak who hobbles on a crutch to the big mahogany desk in his lair, and then, to his men—who are all cloaked in black and sitting politely in chairs in front of him—announces plans and issues threats via a raspy voice into a microphone.
Roberts from the Bankers Association shows up and we get this exchange:
Roberts: Where do I fit in?
Octopus: You don’t. You will be eliminated as an obstacle. Tomorrow morning you will no longer be chairman of Roberts Co. Inc. My man will take your place.
Roberts: You’re crazy!
Octopus: I’m quite serious. ... Very soon I will have control of every key industry in this country. I will have the very nerve centers of the nation in the palm of my hand.
That last line almost calls for a “Mwa-ha-ha!” but instead the Octopus calmly shoots Roberts, then announces the next target: our hero, Richard Wentworth (Hull). Why Wentworth? Who knows? But it’s a classic example of picking on the wrong guy.
At this point, and despite the headlines, our hero is oblivious to the Octopus’ doings. He just wants to go on a trip and settle down with his new wife, Nita Van Sloan, who knows he’s The Spider. They’re in a plane that he’s flying. Are they coming back from some place? Just flying around for the day? They’re about to land when the Octopus’ men sabotage the runway, forcing them to take off again and bail out.
For a ’30s serial, it’s nonstop action for a while. The bailout leads to fistfights on the ground and Wentworth even kills a few dudes; then he says to his assistant Ram Singh (Kenne Duncan in beard and turban), “Nita just landed in the meadow. You get her into the city as fast as you can—I think the Jefferson Highway will have the least traffic.” That last bit of micro-managing cracked me up ... until I realized it was part of the plot, since Wentworth discovers the Octopus’ men plan to blow up the Jefferson Highway bridge. So off he goes in pursuit.
It may be a new series but there’s a nice in medias res aspect to it. On the plane, Wentworth tells Nita he’s putting The Spider behind him. Obviously the attempt on their lives changes things, but we don’t see him as The Spider until the last few minutes of the half-hour opener. The Octopus plans to blow up the bus terminal with a bomb on a bus. The Spider and Ram Singh clear the terminal by firing off guns. After a gun battle with the bad guys, The Spider is driving the bomb-ticking bus away, when ... boom! Except of course, in the next episode, we see The Spider leave the bus and pull down the garage door before the boom.
Here’s how all those cliffhangers work out:
|1||Bomb goes off in bus Spider is driving||He'd already gotten out|
|2||Spider and Nita on fast-falling dumbwaiter thing||Ram Singh slows descent|
|3||Spider seems electrified after being punched into bank of switches||He isn‘t. He gets up groggily|
|4||Spider is gassed||He gets up, opens window, leaves|
|5||Bank of lights is pushed on Spider, who cowers||He flattens against the wall|
|6||Car, with Spider on runner, crashes into electrical transformer||He jumps off at last minute|
|7||Door with jagged edges threatens to close on KO’ed Spider||He wakes up and rolls away|
|8||Fights O's men in car that goes into drink||He and Ram Singh jump off beforehand|
|9||Spider and Ram Singh plunge in elevator whose cables are shot out||They initiate the ”Automatic Brake Control“|
|10||He plummets in plane that's aflame||Uses high speed to put out the flames|
|11||Rockslide||Spider jumps from car in time|
|12||One side of wire Spider dangles from is cut loose||He swings into a brick wall, then drops to the ground|
|13||A motor on a chain swings toward the Spider||He jumps out of the way|
|14||Falls through trap door and dangles by rope upside down||Slips out of rope|
You pity the screenwriters. You imagine them in the writers room, exhausted, drunk, or both, saying, “OK, what the fuck can happen to him now?”
I admit being excited at the end of Chapter 12, “The Spider Falls,” when, pursued, he shimmies across a wire high above a courtyard and the bad guys—who seem unable to shoot him from like 10 feet away—cut one side of the wire. I’m thinking, “Hey, he’s going to swing to safety! It’ll be like Spider-Man!” We’d already seen him swinging several times—at the Bureau of Power & Light in Chapter 3; and onto a double-decker bus in Chapter 8—so we know he can do it. And he does—but into a brick wall. It’s more George of the Jungle than Spider-Man. But for this period it’ll do.
Arguing against the hero
There are missed opportunities throughout—scenes that indicate a better serial. My favorite is from Chapter 13. By now Wentworth has figured out that The Octopus, who keeps killing members of the Bankers Association, is a member of the Bankers Association, and, in his living room, he holds forth before the other members of his team with the following written on a chalkboard:
“Now that Chase has been eliminated,” Wentworth says (he was kidnapped in the last chapter), “we find that our search is down to three men: Gray, the banker; Gordon, head of the power company; and Frank, head of the broadcast company.”
Imagine if we’d learned about all of these men earlier—and if they’d had distinguishing personalities or features rather than being vague background figures. Might’ve made a pretty good whodunnit. We could’ve been trying to figure out the identity of The Octopus with Wentworth. But of course that would’ve taken planning, time and talent.
Ironically, the above scene also includes an example of why vigilantes like The Spider are dangerous. After a brief discussion, Wentworth says the following: “Gray is a very powerful man in this city. Nevertheless, we must go on the assumption that he is the Octopus and let him prove that he isn’t.” Wait. Guilty until proven innocent? In such scenes, Hull’s dynamism actually works against him. He comes off as dangerous.
He was certainly a danger to Charlie Dennis in Chapter 4. Once upon a time, Wentworth helped youthful gas station owner Charlie build a radio, and more recently Charlie was able to get on the Hertzenband(?) wavelength, where he heard men talking in a kind of code; so he alerts his mentor. Wentworth listens, too, and hands Charlie money. “Buy some candy for the kids,” he says. As Wentworth is figuring out the code (the letters and number correspond to pages and words in Webster’s dictionary), and realizes it's the work of the Octopus, does he get back with Charlie? No. Who does? The Octopus' men. They figure out someone is on their wavelength, show up at the gas station and shoot Charlie dead. Then they blow up the gas station. By the time Wentworth finally arrives, he's distraught. He cries over Charlie’s corpse.
I'm kidding about this last part. It's actually worse: Wentworth never finds out what happened to Charlie. How awful is that? The kid has served his purpose in the story and can be eliminated—by both the bad guys and the writers. I get the former but why did the latter eliminate him in this sudden, brutal manner? And why blow up the gas station? Yes, it reveals the menace of the bad guys but it also reveals the obtuseness of our hero. Were scenes cut?
There's a lot of suspect actions on Wentworth's part. He kidnaps a switchboard operator who is being blackmailed by the Octopus, and questions her until she faints. Then he involves her newsboy brother, Johnny, and almost gets him killed. He often uses Nita as bait. As for The Octopus’ true identity? It turns out to be Chase—the very guy Wentworth eliminated from contention.
It's as if the serial is an argument against its hero.
One more time with feeling
Even so, “The Spider’s Web” became a big hit for Columbia. (Does anyone know how they measure serial popularity?) So much so they turned the “Shadow” into a virtual remake: businesses targeted by masked /invisible villain who turns out to be one of the businessmen; incompetent cops suspecting hero; sideplots including raygun that causes airplanes to plummet; early references to television.
Each hero, too, has a third identity with underworld ties. For The Shadow it’s Lin Chang; for The Spider, Blinky McQuade, an eyepatch-wearing con who sounds a like Popeye. He extracts relevant info from time to time. He’s so good at it, one wonders why Wentworth ever bothers with The Spider.
THE SPIDER SLIDESHOW
The Spider began in the pulps in 1933 to compete with The Shadow—and wound up beating him to the movies by two years. In fact, ”The Shadow“ serial, also created by Columbia Pictures, pretty much followed the blueprint of ”The Spider's Web.“
You have a rich guy who plays a masked superhero at night (The Shadow's mask was cooler, less fetish-y)...
...who also adopts a third identity: a man with underworld ties who extracts info from the bad guys.
Buck Rainey's ”Serial Film Stars“ references Meredith's ”ethereal charm, and attractive, restrained acting style." She certainly made this more watchable.
We never see The Octopus outside of this room. The movie may be Spider vs. Octopus but we‘ve got a long way to go to reach Spidey vs. Doc Ock.
But at least we get an early version of web-swinging.
Here, too. Did anything look cooler to kids in 1938?
Of course, the police suspect Wentworth of being The Spider, whom they suspect of being a criminal. They’re right on both counts.
Caught. Not in flagrante delicto, despite appearances.
Nita, wondering when the honeymoon can begin. *FIN*
Movie Review: Movie Crazy (1932)
I watched this one night on FilmStruck (RIP) because it was a Harold Lloyd comedy and I hadn’t seen many if those. I came away thinking I didn’t particularly like Harold Lloyd. At least I didn’t like the character he plays here, Harold Hall, a kid from Kansas City who dreams of being a movie star. When the wrong publicity photo is sent to a studio head—a shot of a handsome man—he’s invited to LA for a screen test. Havoc ensues.
Is he the anti-Marx Brothers? The Marxes brought chaos wherever they went—but intentionally. They didn’t revel in the chaos or apologize for it. It just was. They just were. They popped pretensions in part because they didn’t have any.
Harold Hall is all pretension. He assumes he’s a great actor but isn’t. He’s well-meaning but a walking disaster area. He cares about the problems he causes but keeps causing more. He huffs, surprised, at everything.
I found most of it annoying; I found none of it funny.
Yet I loved Constance Cummings as the love interest, Mary Sears, a movie star, who is first amused by the funny little man—she nicknames him “Trouble”—then intrigued because he doesn’t make a pass at her like every other man. But he’s too dim to know she’s also the Hispanic actress on the set—she’s made up Spanish for a role—and she uses this mistaken-identity to test him. He fails. Every time. He can’t stand up to the Spanish actress so he has to lie to Mary—the same woman. Eventually, she tosses him to the curb. Ah, but he lucks into more opportunities. Then out of them. Then he feels sorry for himself.
Example. He sees her walking into a friend’s house, writes a note and gives it to the maid, who gives it to Mary. She tears it up, writes him a note: “There is no need waiting out there. I have nothing more to say to you.” Ouch. Except she writes it on the back of an invitation to a dinner/dance at the Falcon Hotel in honor of such-and-such, and that's the only part he reads. He assumes she wants to meet him there. And there, in the hotel bathroom, he accidentally switches jackets with a magician, whose pockets and sleeves are lined with birds, mice, etc. Chaos ensues.
The big final set piece goes like this:
- Harold enters a phone booth to make a call.
- It’s a prop for a movie that is wheeled onto the set.
- There, Mary’s ex tells him to leave. “If I can’t have her nobody can. I’d kill her first.” Yikes!
- Harold objects but is ineffectual. The ex, Vance (Kenneth Thomson), mocks him, bullies him, kicks him in the shins, then knocks him unconscious into a wicker basket, closing the lid.
- The wicker basket is wheeled onto the set of Mary’s/Vance’s picture, where the director says to keep filming the next scene no matter what.
- Harold emerges mid-scene, he and Vance fight, and it lasts like 10 minutes, through various permutations. It’s all filmed.
- The head of the studio sees the footage, thinks it’s hilarious, and signs Harold to a contract. Mary forgives him. The End.
Not sure why this made the Criterion collection.
“Movie Crazy” is one of the last directing credits for Clyde Bruckman, who directed Buster Keaton in “The General,” and who helped develop Laurel and Hardy as a team. He was also an alcoholic who wound up killing himself in 1955, age 60. He borrowed Buster Keaton's gun, went into a restaurant in Santa Monica, and, possibly after eating a meal he couldn't pay for, entered the restroom and shot himself. Most of his work on “Movie Crazy” was apparently done by Lloyd himself. That's one of the movie's saving graces to me, the direction—that and Cummings—since we get some nice sweeping backstage shots.
Lloyd would only make four more movies: one in every even year of the '30s, and then “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock” for Preston Sturges in 1948.
Movie Review: The St. Louis Kid (1934)
Ellis and Cagney looking comfortable, despite the awkward math.
The movie is 67 minutes long and feels like it took 67 minutes to make.
It still has its charms. I like looking at the old gas stations and drug stores. The small-town magistrate is named Jeremiah Jones (Arthur Aylesworth), and for some reason his name is hyphenated on his office door: Jeremiah-Jones. Was that a thing? Meanwhile, with his cut-off shirt sleeves and old-time truckers/postman cap, Cagney looks like an early template for a rejected member of the Village People.
Tit for tat
He plays Eddie Kennedy, a truck driver forever getting tossed into jail with or without his buddy, Buck (frequent Cagney foil Allen Jenkins). Generally: Buck starts a fight he can’t finish, Eddie can, Eddie winds up in jail for a night or so.
Question the movie never raises: Why does this always happen to them?
Answer: They’re sort of assholes.
As the movie opens, Buck is bailing Eddie out again; then they drive their truck back to company HQ, but box in a guy in his car. He complains, they taunt him. Seems unnecessary but that’s what they do. Turns out the guy is their new boss, who now has it in for them, and gives them the route between St. Louis and Chicago. I guess it’s a bad route? Cubs fans on one side, Cards on the other.
And we‘re off and running. Outside the small town of Ostopolis, Eddie is forced to brake abruptly and they’re rammed by the car behind them, driven by feisty Ann Reid (Patricia Ellis, “Picture Snatcher”). She gets mad, insults them, they do the same (Cagney with a leering grin). Then a would-be shining knight, Brown (Addison Richards), shows up, and it’s like with the boss all over again. He decks Buck, Eddie headbutts him, prison.
It turns out Brown works for a company that’s shortchanging dairy farmers, so Cagney concocts a story before the magistrate—also a dairy farmer—that that’s what the fight was about. Why, if he were a dairy farmer, Eddie says, he wouldn’t take any of that crap. Several things happen as a result of this story: 1) Eddie gets released; and 2) he inspires the dairy farmers to go on strike and set up blockades to prevent the trucking company from bringing in out-of-state milk. And one of those truckers is Eddie.
At the same time, Eddie is involved in a tit-for-tat battle with feisty Ann, who runs a diner in Ostopolis. Eddie insults her, she douses his ham and eggs with Tabasco sauce. He rams her delivery truck, she makes him pay for the wasted eggs. It's meet felonious.
Then it gets a little creepy. After he gets 10 days for a fight with a striking dairy farmer, Eddie slips out of his cell—it’s like Mayberry if Otis ran the jail—and confronts Ann at the diner as she’s closing up. She’s obviously afraid but he sticks around with his leering grin. It’s way creepier than the movie seems to realize. But they wind up a couple. Because Hollywood.
This is where the plot finally kicks in. To protect its trucks and profits, the company hires goons who threaten the striking farmers with guns. Then late one night, Farmer Benson (Robert Barrat) stands up to them. He’s shot and killed. Which is just when Ann drives by in her car after her first “date” with Eddie. The next morning, Ann is missing, her car is next to Benson’s body, and everyone knows she was out with Eddie—who had it in for the farmers. So the cops charge Eddie.
If this were a Paul Muni Warner Bros. movie, he’d get railroaded and it would end on a downtrodden downbeat note. But it’s Cagney, so he and his trucker pals find the real killer, free Ann, and suddenly he and Ann are signing a hotel register as Mr. and Mrs. Eddie Kennedy. But when the hotel clerk doubts their nuptials, both take offense, and both wind up behind bars. Buck says Eddie might get 10 years. Eddie wraps his arms around Ann and says, “Can you make it 20?” Fade.
Not a bad end to an otherwise lame movie.
16 going on 17?
You know who impressed? Barrat as Farmer Benson. He has a slow dignity to him—like something out of a Dorthea Lange photograph. He was in everything from “The Life of Emile Zola” with Paul Muni to “Mr. Ed” on television. Plus seven Cagney pictures. He died in 1970 and is buried in Martinsburg, West Virginia, near where my mom lived.
And as good as Patricia Ellis is, as with “Picture Snatcher” there’s some awkward math there. According to IMDb, she was born in 1916, which means she was 18 at best during the making of this picture. (She was 17 at best, more likely 16, romancing Cagney in “Picture Snatcher.”) And while her contemporaries continued acting until the ’70s or ‘80s, her acting career was over by 1939 when she was 23. “I was just getting into a rut in Hollywood,” she’s been quoted as saying. “I want to start a new career—singing.” She did, for two years, then according to her obit in The New York Times, “gave up her career in 1941 when she was married to George T. O’Maley, now president of Protection Securities Systems, Inc., a subsidiary of Interstate Securities.” The obit is from 1970. She was 53. Cancer.
Or was she 51? Wikipedia says she was born in 1918, which makes the above math even more awkward.
Anyway, not much to “The St. Louis Kid.” Just history.
Movie Review: Hell's Kitchen (1939)
This was Warner Bros.’ third attempt to make this story in the '30s: first with James Cagney in ’33 (“The Mayor of Hell”); second with Humphrey Bogart in ’38 (“Crime School”); and here, in ’39, with Ronald Reagan.
Immediately you go: Wait, what? Cagney to Bogart to ... Reagan? Was Warners trying to make Reagan the next gangster hero or something?
Nah. The role Cagney and Bogart played (former tough kid from the neighborhood + social reformer + romantic lead) is broken into parts. The former tough kid is now Buck Caesar (longtime character actor Stanley Fields), who’s a kind of comic-relief Al Capone. The social reform is a necessity: Buck has to go straight and give back to the community or face eight years in the pen. Reagan just gets the romantic lead.
Actually, he’s not even that, since there’s no romance here. There’s just two good-looking people who could be romantic leads. If the story got around to it. But it doesn’t.
So what’s Reagan? He’s Buck’s college-educated nephew and mouthpiece. He’s second banana to the second banana.
I can’t help but think of Jack Warner’s famous line upon hearing Reagan was running for governor of California in 1966: “No, Jimmy Stewart for governor; Ronald Reagan for best friend.” In the 1980s, when this anecdote was constantly bandied about, I thought it meant Reagan was friendly or something. Nah. Warner was actually casting the damn thing. Stewart is your lead, he was saying. Reagan ain’t your lead. He’s never your lead.
God, if only the rest of us had just listened to Jack Warner.
Street vs. white-collar
There’s actually a few differences between the Reagan versions and the other two—besides breaking the lead role into parts.
The Cagney/Bogart versions begin with the kids and the crimes that landed them in reform school. The star doesn’t show up until about 15-20 minutes in.
That’s reversed. We begin with Buck Caesar’s suspended sentence, his declaration before his gang to go straight, leading to objections and obvious future mutiny from his lieutenant, Mike Garvey (Frederic Tozere). Then Krispan (Grant Mitchell, quite good), the superintendent of Hudson School for Homeless Boys, comes hat-in-hand for a donation. He gets it—but more than he bargained for. Caesar’s nephew, Jim (Reagan), suggests Buck actually get involved in the school, since it’ll look good with the judge. He does. Which is a bummer for Krispan since Krispan’s corrupt as hell.
It’s funny when you think about it. Basically Al Capone joins him and Krispan’s reaction is, “Hey, I’m trying to break the law over here!” But that’s the ’30s Warner Bros. ethos. Street criminals have personality, and they’re the product of their environment. White-collar criminals? Those bland sons of bitches are just assholes.
Now that I think about it, the stars of this one do show up 15-20 minutes in: the Dead End Kids. But unlike the earlier films, we never see the crimes they commit; they’re just in the reformatory. They roll out of the truck like the Marx brothers, then they’re beaten. Our sympathy is immediately with them.
They also have a leader now. Or was Billy Halop their leader in “Crime School”? I don’t remember him front and center so much—just angry that Bogart was schtupping his sister. But I guess that was his general role; gangleader. Oddly, his name doesn’t ring out for me like Leo Gorcey’s or Huntz Hall’s. Maybe because they had longer, more successful careers? Bowery Boys and such? I did see Halop regularly, though, even if I didn’t realize it: He played Munson, Archie’s taxicab boss, in “All in the Family." In 1976, aged 56, he died of a heart attack.
Margaret Lindsay as Beth gets the sob sister role, encouraging the boys toward self-government—Tony as mayor, Leo Gorcey as police chief, Rosenbloom self-nominated as treasurer. She also references “Boys Town,” from rival MGM, as a rationale for it. Was that movie the reason this reboot came so quickly on the heels of “Crime School”? If so, they neglected to find their Spencer Tracy. Reagan wasn’t it.
Another big difference between “Hell’s” and “Mayor/Crime”? The big ice hockey game in the middle. It’s part of the efforts of Mike Garvey and Krispan to bankrupt Buck Caesar and get him out of the way. Works. Caesar lays down a $5k bet, but his boys are losing 7-0 in the second period, when Jim/Reagan finds out the opposition Gladstone team is full of ringers. Like an idiot, he tells Buck, and Buck tries to throttle Garvey—right in front of the judge, too, who had just been congratulating himself on a job well done with Buck. Yet another difference. The earlier judges were sober and dull but generally right.
With Buck on the lam, Krispan eliminates the self-government crap then engages in true movie villainy: he locks up, Joey, a kid with a cough, in a freezer, and tells his guards to shoot the boys’ dog, Spud. Spud gets away, Joey doesn’t.
I like the scene where Leo Gorcey’s Gyp confronts Krispan:
Gyp: Joey’s dead.
Krispan: What? You’re crazy. You’re lying.
Gyp: That ain’t gonna bring him back.
Third of three
I don’t think they kill Krispan—as in “Mayor.” Rule of law and all that. Buck returns, Jim/Reagan promises justice will be done, etc. The movie ends with “Auld Lang Syne.”
“Hell’s Kitchen” is the weakest of the three films, suffering, as it does, from a lack of adult supervision. Splitting up the Cagney/Bogart role weakens both sides of the character—like Kirk in “The Enemy Within.” And give me Madge Evans over Margaret Lindsay.
As for the 40th president of the United States? He displays athleticism in the ice-skating scenes and ... that’s about it. But he does have a kind of straightforward scolding quality. I.e., this gray area isn’t gray, it’s the way the world is, so act accordingly. Didn’t exactly work here, but it would kill 40 years later.
The scold before the shucks.
Movie Review: The Mayor of Hell (1933)
Some kids are sent to a reform school that’s run like a corrupt prison, but two well-meaning adults—including a former gangster from the neighborhood—help save them.
Believe it or not, Warner Bros. made this movie three times in the 1930s—each time with their star of the moment. Here, it’s Cagney. In 1938, it was “Crime School” with Humphrey Bogart. A year later, Warners made “Hell’s Kitchen” with Ronald Reagan.
Wait, Ronald Reagan? As a former gangster?
Yeah, not quite. More on that another time.
The star isn’t really the star anyway—the kids are. Here, they’re somewhere between Our Gang and the Dead End Kids. They’re teenagers like the latter but diverse like the former. It’s a rainbow coalition of early 20th-century stereotypes: emotional Italian, money-conscious Jew, bug-eyed black kid.
This last is played by Allen Hoskins, who played “Farina” in the Our Gang comedies. The Jewish kid, Izzy (Sidney Miller), is just as outré but feels less problematic. Sure, he winds up running the company store, but his lines are the lines Jewish authors would give their characters decades later. “What I’m making in here I can put in my right eye” he says. “I’ll fix you, ya gonif,” he says. It’s a type produced from within rather than imposed from without.
You know what I liked about this one? The kids aren’t the only ones who start out on the wrong side of the law.
As Patsy Gargan, the new deputy commissioner, Cagney doesn’t show up until 25 minutes in. He rolls into the reformatory with his drunk pal Mike (Cagney foil Allen Jenkins) and Mike’s blonde moll (Sheila Terry), offers a drink to the movie’s villain, Superintendent Thompson (Duddley Digges), then wonders how “to make things look regular.” He asks Thompson to turn in his reports for him. He’s a crook—a cheap ward heeler, as someone calls him. His job is a sinecure in a corrupt administration.
What changes him? For starters, he runs into a younger version of himself, Jimmy (Frankie Darro of “Wild Boys of the Road,” who played the young Cagney in “Public Enemy”). He’s on the lam, gets caught, is whipped and ordered back into solitary.
But what really changes him, of course, is a woman, Miss Griffith (Madge Evans), the school’s pretty nurse. She insists Jimmy gets medical attention. Patsy agrees. She insists what’s truly needed in the school is self-government. Patsy agrees. Then he makes a pass at her.
Here are the books she owns:
- Fundamental Principles of the Juvenile Republic
- Self-Government for Juvenile Correction
Immediate thought: Was the screenwriter...? Yes. Edward Chodorov was a member of the Communist party. In 1953, he was fingered by Jerome Robbins and wound up blacklisted after he refused to cooperate with HUAC.
Delayed thought: Wait, self-government? Why does Patsy think this is a good idea? Isn’t he part of a corrupt government machine himself? I guess the key is the “self.”
Anyway, it works. The kids get real food, they clean the joint up, and even elect our titular mayor (Jimmy, of course). One kid, Pete, gets hungry and steals a chocolate bar from the company store. He winds up in front of the “Supreme Court.” Farina is his defense attorney and another tough mug is the judge. Justice is dispensed. It’s all super-cutesy.
Of course, the forces of corruption try to fight back but the kids are too strong. Patsy is the one who screws it up. One of his men, Joe, tries to take over his racket back in town, so he shows up to reclaim it. A gun goes off, Joe winds up in the hospital, Patsy’s on the lam. At the school, Thompson takes back the reins and it’s back to pig slop for the kids. Even Nurse Griffith resigns.
The ending is fascinating and menacing. Thompson forces Johnny (Raymond Borzage), a kid with a croup-like cough, into solitary after he doesn’t squeal; he dies there. When Thompson gets the news, he’s stunned, and rushes to the infirmary ... where all the kids are waiting. From director Archie Mayo (or Michael Curtiz, who did uncredited work) we get like a minute-long silent sequence in which Thompson stares at the kids faces—who are, by turns, sad, then increasingly angry—and, realizing his predicament, he struggles to get out as if fighting against the current. He makes it, but the kids know the tide has turned. It’s the tsar all over again.
If that scene reminded me of some part of “The Blue Angel”—the nightmarish quality of trying to move and being locked into place—the rest recalled “Frankenstein.” The kids, wielding torches, chase Thompson onto a barn roof, then light the barn on fire. Trapped, screaming, he jumps, hits a wire fence, bounces in the air, and lands in the slop of a pig sty—dead. I actually laughed out loud. Those commie writers don’t fuck around.
And where’s Cagney in all this? Hiding out. But he shows up at the end to convince the kids to put out the fire and face the authorities—who, in ultimate bow-tie neatness, declare it was Thompson’s own fault that he died. Meanwhile, Joe lives, Patsy gives him his racket, and he and the pretty nurse return to run the school. Ain’t life swell?
Come back to the five and dime, Frankie Darro, Frankie Darro
One of my favorite things about watching these movies is finding out about the players.
Frankie Darro is so good in this, so graceful and present, one wonders why he wasn’t bigger. Was it the fact that he never grew tall? Fifteen years later, he was still playing a newsboy in “The Babe Ruth Story.” But he kept acting, and he’s the subject of a biography published in 2008.
The villain? Dudley Digges? He not only played the original Casper Gutman in the 1931 version of “Maltese Falcon,” he directed “Alexander Hamilton” on Broadway in 1917. It was the biggest Hamilton play of all time ... until recently.
I think I got most lost in Sidney Miller’s story. In 1938 he played opposite Mickey Rooney in “Boys Town,” they became friends, and Miller wrote songs for him. (He’s got 28 soundtrack credits.) In the 1950s he helped revamp the first iteration of “The Mickey Mouse Club” and in the ’60s became a regular director of sitcoms: “My Favorite Martian,” “Get Smart,” “The Monkees.” (He’s got 38 directing credits.) He also kept acting (146 credits). I once saw him in an episode of “Barney Miller” in the mid-70s. He’s also the father of Barry Miller, who played the gay kid in “Fame,” and one of Travolta’s friends in “Saturday Night Fever.” IMDb can be such a rabbit hole.
At 90 minutes, “The Mayor of Hell” is longer than most of the early ’30s Cagney movies, but then Cagney isn’t in it much. But his ethos is. It’s the Warner Bros. ethos: Never rat on your friends. Sadly, it’s a lesson that Jack Warner, one of the first and loudest to testify before HUAC, never learned.