Monday, December 22, 2008

Frankie Darro, 1917-1976

Today marks the birth annivesary of 1930s adolescent star Frankie Darro. He played a bunch of "tough" guys in movies throughout the 30s, although his career tailed off after World War II. You can catch him on DVD in 1933's The Mayor of Hell, part of Volume 3 of the Warner Brothers "gangster" series. It's a movie that's very much a product of its time, but enjoyable even today.

Darro plays the lead of a youth gang that's constantly getting into trouble. Eventually, the gang gets into enough trouble that they get brought before juvenile court. Despite the best efforts of their parents to intervene, the boys all get sent to reform school. Unfortunately for them, this is a particularly bad reform school, as the man running it is skimming money off the top and giving the kids short shrift.

Enter James Cagney. He's a former gangster trying to reform, and he's gotten a patronage job as a Deputy Commissioner of Corrections as a result. He visits the reform school, and is horrified by what he sees, so he works to get the current headmaster (played by Dudley Digges) ousted, and have the place run along more democratic lines -- including in one interesting scene, a juvenile jury. Digges won't stand for it, though, and trie to get Cagney framed for letting the kids out to commit more crimes.

As I said, it's pretty typical stuff for Warner Brothers in the early 1930s. They spent a lot of time trying to make socially conscious movies, and this one clearly falls into that mode, even if the plot is much slighter than in movies like Public Enemy or I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. There's also those parents of the youthful offenders. They fall into every ethnic stereotype: one Italian, one Jew, one WASP, and so on. It seems humorous today, although I wonder whether immigrant parents were really as they were portrayed here. As for the stars, Cagney is fine, charismatic as always, although he's underused here. Darro is great too, being a born natural for the street punks he was playing. He looks the part, and it seems as though he could have played these roles in his sleep. Madge Evans plays Cagney's love interest, a nurse at the reform school who is responsible for Cagney's deciding to take an interesting in seeing that the school is run properly. It's necessary for the plot, but still feels phony.

All in all, you can find worse ways to spend an hour and a half -- even cinematically -- than to watch The Mayor of Hell.

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