Saturday, April 26, 2003


A typical 30's prison movie, but set in a reform school; I assume this was the model for later films like the Dead End Kids' CRIME SCHOOL. Dudley Digges is the sadistic warden at a boy's reformatory; James Cagney is the gangsterish fellow who gets appointed deputy commissioner as a political favor for delivering votes. Cagney arrives at the reform school one night with buddy Allen Jenkins in tow, planning on putting in a token appearance and leaving, but instead he gets fired up about reforming the reformatory at the instigation of the pretty school nurse (Madge Evans). The focus among the inmates is a group of boys who, during a dime store robbery, seriously injure the store owner. Frankie Darro is the sulking ringleader who wears his bad attitude like a badge. Eventually he comes to trust Cagney & Evans, and when they institute a self-governing policy, Darro becomes "mayor," helping to preside over the school store and the court. In an odd plot twist, Cagney winds up shooting a rival in the city and has to go on the lam. While he's gone, the disgraced warden takes control of the school, clamping down hard and overriding the reforms. Soon a sickly boy who Digges has put in solitary dies and the kids, led by Darro, revolt. Fire and death result, but everyone ends up let off rather lightly, including Cagney. I imagine a year later, after the Production Code was toughened up, punishments for the "guilty" characters would have been more severe.

Cagney is good, though Evans is stilted and totally unconvincing once she falls for Cagney. But Darro steals the show. His energy, presence, and good looks should have gotten him further in Hollywood, but like so many teen actors, he never broke out of that mold, although he did sustain a career in B-movies, appearing in over 150 films from the silent era up through the late 50's. His character here is predictable, but Darro is always commanding on screen. Truth to tell, he's more likeable when he's being sullen and stubborn; he's less interesting when he straightens up. But then, so is Cagney! Jenkins is comic relief as the tough guy who becomes an unlikely "uncle" figure to the kids. Allen Hoskins, known as "Farina" in some of the early Our Gang movies, plays the lone black kid. Sidney Miller is Izzy, the lone (and occasionally obnoxiously stereotyped) Jewish kid. A good Warners juvenile crime film, worth catching for Cagney and Darro.

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