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The Mayor of Hell

James Cagney and the formative years of the American gangster movie.


In 1966, Warner Bros. grudgingly green-lighted Arthur Penn’s modestly budgeted crime drama Bonnie and Clyde for first-time producer Warren Beatty. A few weeks later, Jack Warner, the 73-year-old titan who had co-founded the studio back in 1918 and still ran it with a mostly iron hand, finally read the script and, in a pique of pessimistic irritation, scolded his production chief for agreeing to make the movie at all. “I can’t understand where the entertainment value is in this story. Who wants to see the rise and fall of a couple of rats?” Warner wrote. “I don’t understand the whole thinking of Warren Beatty and Penn … this era went out with Cagney.”

Warner’s memo has since been enshrined as one of Hollywood’s classic executive-suite head-slappers. Not only did Bonnie and Clyde become a game-changing hit, but its incendiary combination of comedy and bloody violence, French New Wave tropes, and American crime-spree iconography didn’t remotely resemble the gangster quickies that Warner Bros. had churned out in the 1930s.

The movie holds up beautifully in its new, lushly bedecked 40th anniversary rerelease, which includes a couple of soundless deleted scenes and a making-of documentary (but no commentary track, a DVD staple that Beatty disdains). It’s been thoughtfully restored, with just enough graininess left on-screen so that the frame never looks digitally Botoxed. And if after 40 years, some of those nouvelle vague flourishes are showing their age, the movie still has the power to challenge, excite, and unsettle viewers.

This was, without question, something new. But had Jack Warner, or for that matter Bonnie and Clyde’s many champions, taken another look at some of the films that “went out with Cagney,” they might have discovered that in its formative years, the gangster movie was funnier, weirder, more sexually charged, and less constricted by moralizing than anyone remembered—as a revelatory new box set makes clear.

The words Volume 3 on a DVD release usually suggest that a studio is beginning to reach into the dustier recesses of its library. The just-out third installment of Warner’s“Gangster Collection” is no exception. If you’re looking for classics—Cagney introducing Mae Clarke’s face to a grapefruit in The Public Enemy or Edward G. Robinson moaning, “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?” in Little Caesar—they’re way back in Volume 1. Here, instead, are half a dozen relative rarities that contribute immeasurably to any understanding of how elastic, adaptable, and energetic the genre had become by 1934, when the stultifying restrictions of the Production Code began to be enforced and Hollywood movies became, for a time, duller and dumber.

These movies also showcase an actor who still has the power to astound. Between 1931 and 1934, James Cagney made 17 movies, all of them for Warner Brothers. Four—Smart Money, PictureSnatcher, Lady Killer,and the irresistibly titled The Mayor of Hell—are included here. None of them is, strictly speaking, a gangster movie. But together they make it clear that rigid genre labeling is beside the point when you’re considering a period in which genres, and talking pictures, were still inventing themselves.

Cagney became an instant star with his cocky, tensile performance in The Public Enemy, a moment in which, Martin Scorsese has suggested, “modern screen acting begins.” Menacing, likable, funny, tough, brutal, careless, and nimble, he seemed to operate at a higher voltage than everyone around him. (It was tough to get near him on-screen without getting injured.) Over the next few years, Warner built movie after movie around him, usually throwing caution and coherence to the wind in order to create entertainment that could service the desires of pretty much anyone who walked into a movie house, whether they were looking for a shoot ‘em-up, a melodrama, a romance, a comedy, a caper, or just an hour indoors.

In 1931’s Smart Money—shot before The Public Enemy was released—Cagney is still a second banana, supporting Edward G. Robinson in the lighthearted story of a small-town gambler who comes to the city (that’s what it’s called, on-screen: “the City”) in search of a bigger game. This is Robinson’s show, whether he’s bullying a high-rolling bettor who may be a pimp (Boris Karloff) or telling off a double-crossing dame (“Why, you hustling little bag—I’ll have you on your knees begging for a cup of coffee!”).

But Cagney can’t be suppressed: In his brief screen time, he manages to throw some haymakers and slap around a broad. He and Robinson make a great duo, and even though one ends up dead and the other in prison, the “moral” (Gambling can make you rich! Watch out for duplicitous women! Try not to kill your best buddy by accident!) isn’t delivered with the blunt-force thud that would later characterize most Code-approved crime films.

By 1933, Cagney was a much bigger star than Robinson, and hastily contrived productions were being built around his explosive physicality and motormouth momentum. Picture Snatcher opens with his release from prison after a three-year stretch; he heads straight for the tailor and the tub (“I’m gonna stink pretty!”), then tells his old gang he’s going straight, taking his cut of their ill-gotten gains and becoming a tabloid photographer with a camera that’s “just like a gun—trigger and all!” In a breakneck plot, Cagney finds time for a car chase, a sneak snapshot of a female electrocution (“I’d give my right eye and a thousand dollars for a flash of that woman in the chair!” barks his editor), a romance that begins in a ladies’ bathroom, and a massive machine-gun shootout.

Just as Picture Snatcher combines gangster mayhem with the screwball bite of The Front Page, 1933’s The Mayor of Hell merges the crime picture and the social-justice movie. “Hell” is a juvenile work camp where bad street kids go to get worse; its “mayor” is Cagney, who gets the job running the place as an act of corrupt political patronage and then discovers he’s got a reformer’s heart. Within a year, the substance of this picture—its cheerfully vague socialist streak (the kids are encouraged to render their guards irrelevant by turning their prison into a kind of inmate-managed co-op) and its enthusiastic brutality (including the gruesome killing of the despotic old warden)—would be verboten.

The delirious anarchy of movies like Lady Killer would also be tamped down. That’s a shame, since it’s one of the most winningly loony movies Cagney ever made. By 1933, the peak of the public-enemy-No.-1 era, real-life gangsters were even bigger celebrities than the stars who imitated (and sometimes inspired) them; this movie allowed Cagney to be both. Briefly: Fired for running a craps game at work (he’s a movie-house usher), Cagney becomes involved in a gambling racket, lams it to L.A. after a burglary/assault, gets a job as an extra in a prison movie, becomes an overnight star (with the aid of a scam fan-mail campaign that he engineers), lives the high life wooing a famous actress, attracts the attention of his old gang, is wrongly arrested, and ends up in yet another tommy-gun free-for-all before flying off to get married. That epic plot, which unfolds over all of 75 minutes, also finds room for half a dozen movie-industry parodies and, literally, a barrel of monkeys. As in many of these films, Cagney is half-criminal, half-hero, and it’s a delight watching him work every angle within that gray zone.

And then Hollywood lowered the boom. After the Code was enforced, crime movies, with few exceptions, were mired in a period of toothless earnestness from which ambiguity was banished until the first stirrings of film noir in the early 1940s. Warner was reduced to cautionary tales like 1937’s Black Legion, a feature-length sermon in which an embittered small-town, working-class Joe (Humphrey Bogart, pre-stardom) joins a bedsheeted ultranationalist group that runs “foreigners” out of town. We learn that lynch mobs are bad, though the dogmatic screenplay manages to avoid any mention of what the Klan was really about or which minority they were actually targeting.

Speaking of which, be warned: The depiction of African-Americans in the pre-Code Cagney movies is appallingly offensive. Every shuffling “Yassuh, boss” stereotype of the age is on display. Black servants and sidekicks are given names like “Suntan” and “Snake Eyes” (a character whom Robinson treats as a lawn jockey, even rubbing his head for luck). As for women, they exist to be slapped in the face, dragged by the hair, and kicked in the ass, all for laughs. *  With freedom inevitably came irresponsibility and a set of stereotypes that Bonnie and Clyde’s creators left behind when they rediscovered what gangster films could be—as well as some things that, even in the Wild West of the pre-Code ‘30s, they never could have dreamed of becoming.

Correction, April 8, 2008: The article originally noted that in addition to being racist and sexist, pre-Code gangster movies were also homophobic, citing as evidence a line from Lady Killer, in which cops threaten James Cagney by saying, “We’ll run you in as a fag, and that’ll mean 30 days in the tank.” In fact, the line is, “We’ll run you in as a vag, and that’ll mean 30 days in the tank.” Vag, as in vagrant. ( Return to the corrected paragraph.)