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!
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.
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.