As author and film historian, Greg Mank, notes in The Mayor of Hell’s DVD commentary, James Cagney landed the title of ‘the Gutter Messiah’ by the New York Times for his portrayal of the racketeering Patsy Gargan. Mank further elucidates that “Warner [Bros.] producer Darryl Zanuck claimed that this [The Mayor of Hell] was a story of reformation. Reformation of young boys. Reformation of terrible conditions existing in reform schools today.” Although Zanuck’s ‘today’ is now our yesterday and The Mayor of Hell is now almost 80yrs. old, the film still has the power to effectively stir empathy for wayward adolescents from a bygone era as well as serving as an ageless lens, shedding documentational insight into the perceptions and assumptions of juvenile delinquency in the early 20th century. This cinematized clarity better enables the viewer to look past the slang-words, racial/ethnic stereotypes, and filmic cliches interspersed throughout the movie, and alerts us to timeless troubles ailing every civilization that has ever laid its foundation upon the Earth. Thus, the viewer recognizes the desolate plight of these Depression-Era youths and, in turn, is enlightened to the process behind the early juvenile court system. As social reformer, Julia C. Lathrop, notes in the Introduction of The Delinquent Child and the Home, the 20th-century mindset of a majority of Americans concerning juvenile delinquency was shifting from one of reproach and condemnable supposition to one of “a slowly matured, popular conviction that the growing child must not be treated by those rigid rules of criminal procedure which confessedly fail” (p.5).
Mank also mentions in the DVD commentary that Harry Warner—studio executive, co-founder, and eldest sibling of the Brothers Warner—insisted that every film the studio produced have a ‘moral lesson’ and that Harry had “a violent hatred of all forms of human prejudice and persecution;” to some extent, this can be seen in the multicultural mix of the gang in The Mayor of Hell, which was most definitely not the norm. As Sophionisba P. Breckenridge and Edith Abbott point out in their book The Delinquent Child and the Home, “Sometimes the gang is cosmopolitan in membership…but more often its members are of the same nationality, or the same race” (p.33). This racial and ethnic inclusiveness in the gang of youth from The Mayor of Hell not only was ahead of its time (racial and ethnic clichés aside) but was also used as a visual platform to speak to a wider audience. The misfortunes of The Mayor of Hell’s adolescents were a shared experience and pictorially compels the viewer to look past these boys' differences in customs, cultures, and skin color.
In doing so, the film makes visual Breckinridge’s and Abbott’s findings that “nine-tenths of the delinquent girls and three-fourths of the delinquent boys come from the homes of the poor” (p.74), while “Sixty-nine per cent of the girls and 38 per cent of the boys come from the lowest class, the ‘very poor’” (p.74). All of the adolescent boys portrayed in The Mayor of Hell were raised in poor, working-class homes. These 20th century statistics manifest themselves in the film via the boys' dirty visages, their shabby attire, and the peripheral glimpses into their family life during the juvenile court scene. With this in mind, several of these parental types display the vices of 20th-century city living via the dialogical and visual cues of alcoholism (Thomas’ father) and the intimation of child abuse (Jimmy Smith’s father).
Unfortunately, many of the fatherly figures in the The Mayor of Hell are blighted with licentious behavior: James Cagney’s Patsy is, at first, a gun-toting racketeer; Uncle Mike is his collusive partner in backroom handshakes with the underbelly of society; and Superintendent Thompson is not only one mean mother of a headmaster but a facts-and-figures finagling extortionist as well. In fact, beyond the anti-heroic Patsy Gargan, the ephemeral roles of Judge Gilbert and the reformatory’s Officer Wilson are really the only paternal figures who display any sort of empathy and understanding toward the boys. Additionally, beyond two pleading mothers in the juvenile court scene, there is a severe lacking of any maternal figures in the film; in fact, other than Nurse Dorothy Griffith, there are none. As the boys’ reformatory nurse, Griffith is the key visual interlocutor between Gargan and the delinquent boys as well as a constant source of compassion to not only the boys’ plights but to Gargan’s as well. She also serves as the only real voice of tempered logic and reason throughout The Mayor of Hell, but more on Miss Griffith later…
Of course, this film isn’t simply a commentary on juvenile delinquency in 1930’s America, it’s also about transformation; specifically, the dual bildungsroman of The Mayor of Hell’s two main characters, Patsy Gargan and Jimmy Smith. This metamorphotic, audiovisual exchange between Gargan and Smith is representative of both their transfigurations from the ‘bad boys’ infesting the urban cityscape to the ‘bad guy (and kid) makes good’. Moreover, these two characters share and interwoven redemption from their pasts rife with the vermin-and-lice vices of growing up in squalor and destitution. Although the name ‘Gargan’ is of Irish-Gaelic origin, it might’ve been chosen out of wordplay; Gargan does sound similar to ‘Gorgon’—any one of the three sisters (Medusa being the most recognizable) from Greek myth with snakes for hair and the ability to turn any creature that looks at them into stone. I make note of this because, as the film progresses, Patsy begins to see himself in Jimmy when he was his age and is driven to steer the paths of all the delinquent boys at the reformatory to a better future than the current crooked life he finds himself stuck with and unable to change. Likewise, Jimmy’s questionable path might result in a future similar to Patsy’s present; thus, adding a level of infinite regress mixed with slight case of ouroboric mnemonics and a filmic urgency to break the dangerous cycle; however, in Gargan’s case, the desire to change his ways is initially a subconscious one.
His kneejerk compassion for the boys sentenced to the reformatory school is, at first, sheep-clothed in shrewd politics and, soon afterward, in the courtship of Nurse Griffith. Once Superintendent Thompson and his goose-stepping lackeys are removed from the reform-school mise-en-scene, the enamored Patsy agrees to the innovative approaches that Dorothy wishes to institute at the reformatory. Whether this is done due to a like-minded cohesiveness between the new superintendent and the nurse or simply because of Gargan’s impassioned cupidity for Miss Griffith is debatable; regardless of the reason, it’s at this point in the film that Patsy’s transformational growth as a character emerges. Gargan is soon seen in the mess hall blithely unaware that he’s exuding a fatherly influence over the boys while simultaneously—and rather knowingly—showing a kindred respect for them due to his own impoverished, misguided background. After dinner, Gargan has a two-tiered cake brought out in celebration “of a new kind of school. The self-government republic.” The boys’ dirty faces look on in confusion and awe, as the cocksure Gargan conveys to the delinquent youths that they are people too.
Of course, this ‘self-governing republic’ that Griffith and Gargan are introducing to and enacting into the reformatory school were experimental and innovatiove approaches that William “Daddy” George had established in the late-19th century when he founded the George Junior Republic in Freeville, NY. In his chapter titled “Delinquent Children” from The Oxford History of the Prison, Steven Schlossman writes, “The organizational centerpiece of the Junior Republic was inmate self-government…regulated mainly by their peers, who were elected to the institution’s offices of president, senator, representative and so forth” (p.377). This parallels Gargan’s speech describing the new way things will be run at the reformatory: “Just suppose this is a city…we have a mayor, a treasurer, adistrict attorney, and a chief of police.” Patsy then calls for the boys to nominate their fellow peers as candidates for each position. Further similarities between Gargan’s and Griffith’s approach to reformation of the refomatory’s rules and those of George’s continue as Patsy announces to the boys, “There’s gonna be a store where you can buy things, but the only way you can buy anything is by working.” This is comparable to William George’s establishment of “such community institutions as banks [and] stores…In addition, the Junior Republic issued its own money and expected every inmate to earn his keep, including the costs of food and lodging” (Schlossman, pp.377-378).
Ultimately, the message that The Mayor of Hell conveys to its viewer is one of illumination to the plight of the children of the poorest of the poor, and of breaking the cyclical nature of the downtrodden beast –regardless, if it’s man or boy—and exploring alternatives to the ineffective status quo that was strangling the 20th century life out of the denizens of the dire, concrete cityscape. It might also be argued that the Gargan’s role as ‘Gutter Messiah’ is ironically spreading a spiritual message of secularized transcendence from the meager dwellings of a post-Industrial Revolution hell into the airy confines of American socioeconomic normalcy, but that’s a topic for another paper altogether and I’m already over the required number of pages.
Breckinridge, Sophonisba P. and Abbott, Edith. The Delinquent Child and the Home. New York: Charities Publication Committee. 1970.
Schlossman, Steven. “Delinquent Children.” The Oxford History of the Prison. New York: Oxford University Press.1995. pp. 363-389.
The Mayor of Hell. Medium. Warner Bros. Home Video, 2008.