When Patsy Gargan (James Cagney) first arrives as a deputy commissioner of the state’s reform school, he has no idea of what he’s in for. He doesn’t even take the job very seriously at first, he only got the job as a favor and only cares about the money. But when he sees the appalling way the school is being run, he changes his tune very quickly. During his first visit, a boy named Jimmy (Frankie Darro) makes an escape attempt and cuts himself badly and falls off of the barbed wire fence. The school’s warden Thompson (Dudley Digges) tries to dismiss just how badly he had been hurt, but nurse Dorothy (Madge Evans) insists he needs medical attention and Patsy agrees.
Patsy talks to Dorothy about the school and finds out it’s worse than he even thought. Thompson rules the school with an iron fist, he regularly denies the boys medical treatment, and the food is barely edible. He listens to her suggestions about how to improve the school and takes them to heart. Patsy sends Thompson away for a while and turns the school around. To teach the boys responsibility, he lets them set up a sort of mini government, complete with a judicial process and elected officials. He brings in better food and most importantly, he treats the boys with respect.
The school has never been better than it was with Patsy’s rules. He gets through to those boys in a way nobody else ever has. But then Thompson returns and tries to sabotage Patsy’s success. He bribes a couple of the boys to try leaving the school so it looks like they’re trying to run away, but they come back on their own free will. However, Patsy is a former racketeer and when he gets into a fight over some old business, he accidentally shoots a man and goes into hiding. Thompson takes the opportunity to undo all of Patsy’s rules and the boys think Patsy has abandoned them.
The boys aren’t happy and when Dorothy is fired for complaining about the quality of the food, Thompson fires her. Things reach a breaking point when Thompson forces a boy that he knows is very sick to spend a night in a drafty solitary confinement cell and he dies. The boys begin to riot, complete with torches, and put Thompson on trial for murder. Meanwhile, Dorothy has gone to tell Patsy about what’s been going on and he comes rushing back to the school. When he gets there, he finds out that Thompson has died after being chased onto a rooftop and falling. But once again, Patsy can talk sense into the boys when no one else can and puts a stop to the madness.
Mayor of Hell gets off to a bit of a slow start, but stick with it because it does pick up after a while and builds to a very wild finish. The riot scenes are absolutely spectacular and pretty terrifying. The anger that all those boys were unleashing absolutely radiates off the screen. But if you’re a big Cagney fan, you might be disappointed by how little he’s actually on screen. Cagney doesn’t show up until almost half an hour into the movie. He gets top billing, but the real stars of the movie are all of the boys. Even Dudley Digges figures more prominently into the story, so if anything, Cagney is actually playing third fiddle here.