Frankie Darro

The Mayor of Hell (1933)

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.

Wild Boys of the Road (1933)

Wild Boys of the Road 1933

Eddie Smith (Frankie Darro) and Tommy Gordon (Edwin Phillips) are a couple of young guys who are, like everybody else in 1933, feeling the pain of the Great Depression.  At first, Eddie’s doing OK since his father has a good job, but Tommy’s mom has been out of work for so long that Tommy has to sneak into a school dance because he can’t afford to pay.  After Tommy gets thrown out of the dance, he tells Eddie that he’s thinking of dropping out of school to look for a job of his own.  Eddie tries to get Tommy a job working for his dad, only to find out his dad has also lost his job.  Eventually, the guys decide to skip town and look for work elsewhere.  They hop on a train, where they meet Sally (Dorothy Coogan), a runaway from Seattle headed to Chicago to live with her aunt.  When they arrive in Chicago, they’re greeted by police turning people away because there aren’t enough jobs in Chicago for the people who already live there.  But since Sally has a letter from her aunt, she’s allowed to stay and she tells the cops that Eddie and Tommy are also family.

Sally, Tommy, and Eddie go to see Sally’s aunt Carrie, who is thrilled to see them.  She invites them in and gives them some cake, but the comfort is short-lived.  Right as they get there, police raid Carrie’s brothel, so they hightail it back to the railroad.  But riding the rails is aw brutal lifestyle.  They’re constantly having to hide from police, girls get raped, and eventually, Tommy looses one of his legs when it’s run over by a train.  When they get to Cleveland, they set up camp and continue to look for work, but Tommy gets pretty depressed because he feels like he’s useless with only one leg.  When the campers are forced out of Cleveland, the three of them make their way to New York and things finally start to look up when Eddie gets a job as an elevator operator.  The only catch is that he needs some new clothes, so they head out to do some panhandling.  While they’re panhandling, some guys approach Eddie with a way for him to make a quick five dollars.  All he had to do was go to a theater ticket booth and hand the worker a note and wait.  He doesn’t realize he’s gotten involved in a robbery and is arrested.  But when Eddie tells the judge about all they’ve been through, the judge takes pity on the kids and helps them instead of sending them to jail or back home.

Pre-code movies were more than just hookers and gangsters, they were also often brutally honest looks at society.  Wild Boys of the Road is a perfect example of that kind of gritty realism that would go unseen again for decades after the pre-code era came to an end.  You definitely can’t accuse William Wellman of trying to glorify riding the rails here.  He is completely unrestrained in showing exactly how dangerous of a life it was.  Even though the movie is going on 80 years old, there are parts of it you can still see playing out in today’s world, especially in this economy.