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Five members of a teen-age gang, including leader Jimmy Smith, are sent to the State Reformatory, presided over by the melodramatically callous Thompson. Soon, Patsy Gargan, a former gangster appointed Deputy Commissioner as a political favor, arrives complete with hip flask and blonde. Gargan falls for activist nurse Dorothy and, inspired by her, takes over the administration to run the place on radical principles. But Thompson, to conceal his years of graft, needs a quick way to discredit Gargan... Written by
Rod Crawford <firstname.lastname@example.org>
A Typical Hokey-But-Entertaining Early '30s Cagney Film
This is a typically fast-moving entertaining movie of the early 1930s. When you have James Cagney in the lead, these "pre-Code" films are even better: just fun stuff to watch. Usually, when films are "dated," it's a negative but not so with films from 1930-1934. Yeah, with the slang and the attitudes, dress, hairstyles, etc., they are dated but that's a big part of the fun. These films have an edge to them that almost always are fun to view.
They also have a corniness which is appealing and fascinating. You see people - like the juvenile delinquents pictured in this film and their goofy parents - that you just don't see in any period but this one (early '30s). Early on this movie, the kids go before the judge and you sit and just laugh at these crazy characters that appear in court on behalf of their kids, one after the other. Yes, we get the stereotypical emotional Italian father; the Jewish dad; the Anglo-Saxon mom and a few other moms who all, in dramatic form, plead theirs is "a good boy." Even though things are predictable in some cases, you don't mind because everyone in here is so much fun to watch.
This also teaches you that kids were punks 75 years ago, too, stealing, robbing, mugging, lying - hey, that's the human condition. This movie debunks the theory that "people were nicer back in the old days." No, people have always been rotten or good. The degree was aided by their environment, parents, financial situation and other things. Here, we get a bunch of "Dead End" kids who wind up in Reform School.
The ridiculous and stupidly-liberal storyline has kids acting immediately like angels once they run the show at the reform school; not punished in the slightest for causing a man to fall to his death and setting the institution on fire (the explanation: he was a meanie and deserved it. So much for real justice and reform.); and "Patsy" shooting a guy bit never having to even be questioned by police because he's the good guy! Notice the subtle anti-religious dig in which the only guy seen praying is the evil "warden." That's no coincidence, no accident. That sort of negative-association things has been going on ever since the Hays Code was canned in the late '60s and was seen, as you see hear, in the Pre-Code early '30s.
Dudley Digges, by the way, is outstanding in his "bad guy" role of "Mr. Thomson." I especially his voice was very effective and could picture him playing one of those similarly-evil roles as an institution boss in a Charles Dickens film adaptation. Cagney played his normal role, the take-no-guff tough guy who gets the pretty girl, "Dorothy Griffith," played by Madge Blake. Frankie Darro also was effective as the leader of the boys, "Jimmy Smith." Just the looks on Darro's face alone made his character believable. Some thing he was the real star of the film, but I'll still go with Cagney. The rest of the reform school kids weren't too believable and they were really ethnic stereotypes, but they were all fun to watch.
I thought the most interesting part of the film was the first 20 minutes when we saw how bad these kids were and witnessed the good and bad and stereotypical parents in the court after the kids were arrested. Those scenes are pure 1930s Dead End Kids stuff. They always showed the kids to be bad news at the beginning of the film, but by the time the story was over they all looked acting more like Wally and Beaver Cleaver - hardly rough "delinquents." It's very far-fetched but it works, entertainment-wise.
Overall, a hokey but very entertaining movie, typical of Cagney films and those of the early '30s. Almost all of them rate at least eight stars for their entertainment value.
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