The Mayor of Hell’s Kitchen Goes to Crime School

hells_kitchen_largea19393

     I was watching “Hell’s Kitchen” the other night, a 1939 Warner Brothers programmer with The Dead End Kids. They were still riding the crest of a wave of success that began with William Wyler’s “Dead End” and continued with films like “Angels with Dirty Faces,” and the lesser successful “Angels Wash Their Faces.” This is, of course, before they began deteriorating into overaged caricatures of their former selves as they continuously changed names, from The Dead End Kids to The East Side Kids to The Little Tough Guys and finally the Bowery Boys. Moving from major studios like Warners Brothers and Universal to the depths of poverty row with Monogram. What struck me about the Hell’s Kitchen was this feeling of déjà vu, I had seen the film once before but that was not why I had the feeling. Somehow, I thought Humphrey Bogart was in this film or maybe it was James Cagney. In addition, to The Dead End Kids, “Hell’s Kitchen” starred Ronald Reagan (who also appeared with the boys in “Angels Wash Their Faces”) billed way down on the list of characters after all the DEK’s!

mayorof-lbby-card

    About halfway into the film, it struck me that “Hell’s Kitchen” was similar to the Humphrey Bogart film “Crime School” made just the year before. While there are differences between the films, the similarities are striking beginning with the fact both films are directed by Lewis Seiler, and Crane Wilber is given credit for both the story and co-screenwriting on each film. Then it came to me there is another similar film, 1933’s “The Mayor of Hell” where young James Cagney plays a reformed gangster who takes over a juvenile reformatory attempting to fix a corrupt system, which was what Ronald Reagan’s almost reformed gangster father-in-law Stanley Fields does in “Hell’s Kitchen.”

 All three films contain corrupt sadistic superintendents. Both “Crime School” and “Hell’s Kitchen” have scenes where the juvenile inmates establish a self-governing system though, in “Hell’s Kitchen” it is sanctioned by the officials in charge whereas in “Hell’s Kitchen”, it quickly turns to a lynch mob mentality. In “Crime School”, Bogart, a deputy commissioner, takes over the corrupt reformatory, as does lawyer Reagan in “Hell’s Kitchen.”  In “The Mayor of Hell”, a young James Cagney plays as a reformed gangster who takes over a juvenile reformatory attempting to fix a corrupt system.

crime-school11476

    Of course, all the films have caring, beautiful leading women. In the “Mayor of Hell”, it is the lovely Madge Evans, while it is Margaret Lindsay who attempts to take care of the boys in “Hell’s Kitchen.” “Crime School’s” leading lady Gale Page is a bit different as she is the older sister of juvenile problem child Billy Halop.  One difference between the films is that “The Mayor of Hell” is pre-code while the other two films, made late in the decade, were more restricted in what they could show.                                                                                                      

    Today, remakes, sequels are almost an expected part of movie going. Can anyone imagine a summer season without a remake or a sequel?  We know creativity and the financial guts to take chances is a rare commodity in Hollywood. With these three films, we are given a snapshot that taking chances and looking how to save a buck in Hollywood is not new.  Warner Brothers recycled the same story, and in the case of two of the three films, the same actors (The Dead End Kids), the same director and the same writer, all within six years. That’s economy.

     None of the films could be called great but all are entertaining, however, “The Mayor of Hell” shines with good  performances by Cagney and Frankie Darro and “Crime School”, is well worth your time if for no other reason than it has Bogart. “Hell’s Kitchen” biggest problem is really a lack of a strong leading man. Ronald Reagan comes across as just bland. Of the three films, “The Mayor of Hell” is the only one available on DVD.  Your best bet to catch the other two films is when they occasionally appear on TCM or download on-line.

Advertisements

Playwright and Screenwriter Horton Foote Dies at 92

 foote390

Playwright, screenwriter Horton Foote whose screenplays included “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “The Trip to Bountiful”,  “Baby, The Rain Must Fall” and “Tender Mercies” died on Wednesday.  Among Foote’ s plays are “Tomorrow” (also wrote the screenplay) and  “The Young Man From Atlanta.”

For a complete listing check here

New York Times Obituary

to-kill-trial

Where Are They? Baby Face Nelson (1957)

An occasional series on missing films. They are rarely, if ever, shown on TV and have never been released on video in any form. If anyone has any knowledge where these films have been shown, TV, a film festival or in a basement in your house please let me know.

 

The next film in this series is “Baby Face Nelson” directed by Don Siegel.

 

bfn-postea

 

Siegel’s other films include the original 1956 verison of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”,  “Coogan’s Bluff”, “Madigan”, “Dirty Harry”, “Two Mules for Sister Sara”, “The Shootist” and many other great films. Mickey Rooney stars in the 1957 film about the violent and uncontrollable Baby Face Nelson, bank robber and killer. His real name was Lester Gillis and he became a member of John Dillinger’s gang participating in numerous crime sprees. After Dillinger’s death outside a movie house, Nelson became Public Enemy Number 1.

 

bfn1stilla

 

The film co-stars Leo Gordon as John Dillinger who starred earlier in another rare Siegel film, “Riot in Cellblock 11.” The film also co-stars Carolyn Jones as Sue, Nelson’s girlfriend.

jones91

 

In 2006, the Film Forum in New York City had a Don Siegel retrospective and “Baby Face Nelson” was given a rare showing. Elliot Stein in a review of the series in the Village Voice, said, “a ferocious Mickey Rooney gives the finest dramatic performance of his career.”

 baby-face-nelson-pressbook

 

 The film received mostly negative reviews when first released (see New York Times review here ) however, since then the film has been praised by many film critics for Rooney’s performance and it violent action scenes. See this short review in the Chicago Reader.

 

jones

 

The late 1950’s and early 1960’s saw a rash of low budget gangster films. Along with “Baby Face Nelson”, there was “Al Capone”, “Machine Gun Kelly”,  “The Purple Gang”, “The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond” and “Mad Dog Coll.”

 

 

bfn-insert

 

 

 

In addtion to the Film Forum Don Siegel retrospective, “Baby Face Nelson” has been shown at a few other venues including a 2005 salute to Don Siegel at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The real question is when will this film be released on home video or shown on TCM?

 

In fact, many of Siegel’s film are among the missing, the previously mentioned “Riot in Cell Block 11”, the teenage gang film  “Crime in the Streets” with John Cassavetes, Sal Mineo and Mark Rydell, “The Lineup” with Eli Wallach, which had a rare showing on TCM last year and “Private Hell 36” with Ida Lupino to name a few. 

 

jones13

   

I saw “Baby Face Nelson” at the time of its original release. We (my father took me) saw it at the Loew’s Commodore on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  The Commodore in the 1960’s would gain legendary status when it became the Fillmore East  rock venue.  

   

Here is a list of the films mentioned in this post that are not available on home video.

 

Crime in the Streets

Riot in Cell Block 11

Private Hell 36

Mad Dog Coll

Al Capone (released on VHS OOP – No DVD release)

The Purple Gang

The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond  (released on VHS OOP – No DVD release)

The Lineup

Machine Gun Kelly (released on VHS OOP – No DVD release)

 

  

OOP VHS can still be found in some video stores and local libraries. Certainly worth checking out.

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) Sam Wood

I   devil-in-miss-jones2still1

  So who is the queen of screwball comedy, Carole Lombard or Jean Arthur? Arguably, it could be either one. No one could argue with Lombard’s credentials in such films as “My Man Godfrey”, “Twentieth Century”, “Hand Across the Table” and “Nothing Sacred.” Jean Authur’s batting average is a winner too with “You Can’t Take it with You”, “The More the Merrier”, “Easy Living” and “The Devil and Miss Jones.”  Tough choice. After recently viewing “Easy Living” and now ‘The Devil and Miss Jones”, I am not making any definitive statement. Truthfully, I am just happy that we have both works by these talented ladies to enjoy.                     Norman Krasna whose work spans from the 1930’s to the 1960’s wrote “The Devil and Miss Jones.” Krasna additionally wrote the screenplays for films like “Bombshell”, “Hands Across the Table” Wife vs. Secretary”, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”, “White Christmas” and “Sunday in New York.” The film was produced by Ms. Arthur’s then husband Frank Ross, and released by RKO Pictures. devil-and-miss-jones-vhs1

    Multimillionaire and camera shy John Merrick (Charles Coburn) is so rich he cannot even keep track of his holdings and only discovers that he owns Neely’s Department Store when he sees a photo of a stuffed dummy look alike hanging in effigy on the front page of the morning newspaper.  Merrick played to perfection by Coburn decides to go undercover, in his own department store to weed out the union agitators. He takes a job in the shoe department on the fifth floor, the heart of the unrest, however to his shock; Merrick is seen as an incompetent by the section manager, Mr. Hooper (Edmund Gwenn) and is given a low-level job selling slippers instead of shoes. Here he meets salesperson Mary Jones (Jean Arthur) who is in love with union leader Joe O’Brien (Robert Cummings), recently fired due to his unionizing activity. Also on board is Spring Byington, as Elizabeth, an age appropriate love interest for the undercover millionaire.  All believe Merrick is broke; Elizabeth even shares her Tuna popover lunch with him when he informs her that he does not eat lunch, which she believes is just a cover up for him not having any money. Soon Merrick is being included in clandestine union meetings where all assume he is on their side. Through his first hand experience at the store working with and being acquainted with his employees, especially Mary, the grumpy Merrick becomes more compassionate and understanding toward them and their cause.

    The film’s themes center on class distinction, specifically between the rich and the working class and also looks at the division and treatment between the store’s management and employees. The film’s pro-unionist outlook presents management as stiff, uncaring and autocratic. By the end of the film, Merrick is a changed man; he even falls in love with Elizabeth, while his management team comes off as a group of idiotic yes men. 

 devilmissjones1   True, the ending is unrealistic forcing its way to a typical happy Hollywood resolution however “The Devil and Miss Jones” is so charming that it can be easily forgiven for such a menial sin. The movie shines with mostly fine performances, Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn, both received Academy Award nominations for their work. And you have to give Jean Arthur credit for not bolstering her role, letting Coburn shine even though her husband was the producer. Bob Cummings, who was just starting to move up in the cinematic world (the following year he would star in Hitchcock’s “Saboteur”), is somewhat engaging as Arthur’s rabble-rousing boyfriend; I could only take him in small doses. Spring Byington, is sweet and delightful as Coburn’s love interest. Edmund Gwenn, still a few years away from his classic role as Macy’s Santa in “Miracle on 34th Street”, captures the low-level manager type who handed a morsel of authority, judges himself superior to all, treating his employees as disposable trash. The cast also includes S.Z. “Cuddles”Sakall as Merrick’s inept butler and William Demerest as a store detective.

    The chemistry between Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn is unmistakable and worked so well they made two more films together, “The More the Merrier” and “The Impatient Years.” The more I see Arthur the more enticing I find her, and that offbeat sexy voice!

    Oddly enough, staunch conservative Sam Wood directed the pro-union film. Wood’s career started in the silents, where he worked as an assistant to C. B. DeMille and eventually graduated to directing greats like Gloria Swanson in “Under the Lash”, “Her Husbands Trademark”, “Beyond the Rocks” (with Rudolph Valentino)  and  “Don’t Tell Everything (with Wallace Reid) among others. When sound came, Wood’s career continued in high gear with films like “Raffles”, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, “Pride of the Yankees”, “Goodbye Mr. Chips” and the Marx Brothers MGM classics “A Day at the Races” and “A Night at the Opera.” 

    Despite a grand opening at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, “The Devil and Miss Jones” did not do well financially. Whether the socially conscientious pro union theme discouraged some patrons or the growing tension about the U.S. entering World War II (seven months later Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese) that kept patrons away, I’m not sure. It’s possible that during those troubled times a comedy with a serious theme was not what the public was looking for.