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.