Raoul Walsh's Gangs of New York
They spit! They swear! They smoke in bed!
Back in 1933, The Bowery scored a big hit, introducing Darryl
Zanuck's new independent venture called Twentieth Century Pictures,
yet this nostalgic comedy of boozing, bowler hats, and bathing beauties
in the 1890s rarely surfaces on television or video, let alone in big-screen
revivals. One look at the first shot and the film's disappearance is
no wonder: the camera opens on a saloon window emblazoned with "Nigger
Joe's," and then proceeds to step on every ethnic and racial sensitivity
it can find.
From urchins throwing rocks at "chink" shop windows, to references
to "guineas" and "coons," to two Jewish rag merchants physically dragging
an unwilling customer into their shop, the script by Howard Estabrook
(Hell's Angels) provides a fiesta of equal opportunity offensiveness.
A pair of brewery barons who gargle their "r"s like vaudeville Germans
are less disturbing, though, than a sequence of Chinese workers trapped
in the flames of a burning laundry and screaming for help while rival
fire brigades brawl in the street, ignoring their cries.
If this sounds familiar, it's because Gangs of New York
a similar showdown between dueling volunteer fire brigades, in one of
several bows Martin Scorsese
makes to Raoul
's film. Where Scorsese's
grim plot of revenge is set in 1863, an entire generation earlier, Walsh's
deals with two historical celebrities whose exploits and rivalry filled
tabloid headlines in the Gay '90s, New York rogues Chuck Connors and
Steve Brodie. Screenwriter Estabrook pits them against each other in
a series of challenges, the most extravagant and well-known being a
dare to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.
Wallace Beery, a Mr. Potato-Head of an actor, shows plenty of uncouth
swagger as the Irish blowhard Connors (and he speaks Chinese!). while
George Raft, he of the shoe-polished hair, plays slickster gambler Brodie.
In the sparring-partner tradition of late silent-period hits like his
own What Price Glory? (and its two sequels) and Howard Hawks'
A Girl in Every Port, Walsh has these two fight, spit, smoke
in bed, and engage in fisticuffs, all while managing their saloons full
Although Beery was well established as a silent screen villain (memorably
menacing Louise Brooks in William Wellman's Beggars of Life
he only achieved popular stardom in 1931 when he turned sentimental
to play a dim palooka in King Vidor's The Champ
. When pug-faced
Jackie Cooper squeezed tears out of the big lug, Beery won a Best Actor
. As insurance to nail
down the success of The Bowery
, Zanuck adds Cooper as "Swipes,"
the tough-but-lovable orphan, aka "the little squirt," whose sole plot
function is to soften Beery and reprise some of those Oscar-winning
For romance, blonde Fay Wray (fresh from the fist of King Kong) shows
up as an innocent novelist. A beauty for Beery's beast? No, actually
just a trophy to be passed back and forth between the leading men (and
showing the same lack of chemistry as Scorsese's romantic leads). When
Wray pulls on a flimsy robe to cover her scanties to answer the door,
gentleman caller Raft tries to make a move on her. The way the battle
of the sexes worked in 1933, when she rebuffs him, he gains respect
for her and proposes that they "get serious," missing a chance for pre-Code
Wray maintains her dignity no mean feat in such boisterous company
but she keeps a guarded quality, as if she had reason to distrust
her director or co-star. Actually, it's redheaded tart Pert Kelton,
as an untalented but bawdy showgirl, we want to see, even if she's singing
"Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay." Wray and Kelton, blonde and redhead, innocent
and experienced, embody those familiar ladies, the Madonna and the Whore.
As critic Otis Ferguson remarked elsewhere, we hope this tradition is
"a diaper that we have put away for good."
This backhanded salute to turn-of-the-century New York was Darryl Zanuck's
choice to stake the success of his foray into independent production.
Zanuck had parlayed some scripts for dog star Rin Tin Tin into a job
as head of production at Warner Bros.
, and then pushed the studio into
concentrating on its torn-from-the-tabloids dramas, showcasing proletarian
stars like Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar
, James Cagney
in Public Enemy
, and Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain
. When Warners insisted on widespread salary cuts to save its
precarious finances, Zanuck left to start his own studio where he could
Later, after Twentieth-Century merged with the bankrupt Fox studio
in 1935, The Bowery
served as Zanuck's template for numerous
Technicolor musicals (from Hello, Frisco, Hello
to Coney Island
to My Gal Sal
) that kept Alice Faye, Betty Grable, and Rita
in bustles throughout the 1940s. Although he was born in 1902, Zanuck
clearly relished the turn-of-the-century decade with nostalgia. To get
some sense of perspective, the 1890s of The Bowery
1933 roughly the same as Jailhouse Rock
relates to the present.
Not many films today are so directly pitched to the lowest common denominator,
in cheerful celebration of ignorance. When Beery decides to join the
army at the start of the Spanish-American war, he is revealed as illiterate,
only able to sign an "X" on his enlistment papers. In fact, he has to
ask, "Who's we fightin'?" Playing along with the entertainment values
here, Raoul Walsh actually knew better: as early as 1915, his still
affecting Regeneration gave a serious look at a social environment
scarred by unemployment, alcoholism, malnutrition, and child abuse that
produced the criminal gangs.
Although the no-frills production shows only a soundstage New York,
does trot out other colorful historical characters,
including Carrie Nation (who leads her "army" to wreck a saloon) and
pugilist John L. Sullivan (played here by Walsh's brother, George).
Almost a decade later, Walsh revisited the period in two of his best
entertainments, the noisy Strawberry Blonde
in 1941 and the lively
in 1942, where Errol Flynn also encountered John
L. Sullivan, only played by Ward Bond. (Scorsese's film also reproduces
a big boxing match on a river barge, a stratagem to evade land-based
police that figures in both the Beery and Flynn pictures.)
If Scorsese's rival gangs strain for mythic grandeur as they brandish
their meat cleavers, Walsh aims only for slapstick history, cartoonish
violence with the pace of a pinball machine. His males are braggarts
whose emotions stay on the surface: if they have interior lives, Walsh
isn't interested in them. They might be overgrown schoolyard bullies,
grinning but with bottles in their fists, except they've never been
to school. Puffing out his chest like Foghorn Leghorn, Beery might as
well climb on a fence and cry "cock-a-doodle-doo."
The only crime
in their world is cowardice, while the highest value is enlightened
fair play; thus, Raft refuses an offer of drugs, refuses to use brass
knuckles, and refuses to finger his pal to the police, yet has little
compunction about hoodwinking and slugging his rival. When he agrees
to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge for a bet, it is only because a dummy
will be substituted at the crucial moment. When the dummy gets stolen,
Raft really has to jump. At this point, with unintended irony, the filmmakers
try to get away with substituting a real dummy. It's not really Raft
jumping, but then it's not really the Brooklyn Bridge either, just a
composite of stock shots.
With all the bluster and juvenile horseplay, nobody on Walsh's mean
streets seems to work much (and how is it that Beery's character came
to own a saloon anyway?). But what's most striking is the physicality
of the behavior, with lots of hitting all around, not only of women
but by women too: butts get slapped, the orphan gets spanked, a wife
smashes a bottle right into her husband's face, and Beery wields his
blackjack to bean an annoying drunken floozie.
Of course, the racist and sexist content in The Bowery challenges
whether the Gay '90s were quite so jolly. The charitable view that
the racial slurs are authentic to the period, examples of multicultural
seasoning and the joy of the vernacular positions the film as a window
to the Ellis Island era, when waves of immigrants from insular cultures
were first encountering each other. It's certainly a record of new speech
idioms and lost slang, like "spondoolix" (that's money or cash) .
Did audiences seventy years ago hear the casual race-baiting with the
same exhilarating release from phony verbal fig leaves as TV viewers
did later when Archie Bunker let his prejudices hang out? In a contemporary
review, New York Times' critic Mordaunt Hall seemed unfazed by the language,
and much more interested in the costumes which he terms "often clownish
conceptions of those of the past."2
Any movie that features a running gag of exploding cigars was probably
not intended as social commentary, yet it cannot escape history. Surely
the heroes of The Bowery served as the seeds for the next generation's
gangsters: when Prohibition arrived, their connections and distribution
base made them naturals for making a killing as bootleggers (or politicians).
However, Walsh loves all his rambunctious males, portraying them warts
and all, and never pushes the viewer into judgments, even when his heroes
are authentic murderers, as in High Sierra and White Heat.
In interviews, Walsh often repeated Jack Pickford's wisecrack about
him, that "your idea of light comedy is to burn down a whorehouse."
With no sting of reality intended, The Bowery
is best enjoyed
in this spirit, straightforward and untroubled by complexity, for its
energy and sunny disposition. But even as a pencil sketch of history,
you can't help wondering, was it really necessary to burn up those Chinese
workers in the laundry too?
Officially, Beery tied with Fredric March (for Dr. Jekyll and Mr.
Hyde) for the Best Actor Oscar of 1932, but more than one source
claims this was a cheat. One version says that "Louis B. Mayer was confident
that Beery would win and was aghast when Fredric March's name was announced.
Mayer and his minions marched backstage to check out the matter and
learned that Wally had lost by one vote. Mayer influenced the Academy
that one vote was so minimal a win that a second Oscar should be bestowed.
Thus for the first time in the brief history of the Academy Awards,
a tie was announced." (James Robert Parish, with Gregory W. Mank, The
Hollywood Reliables, Westport, CT: Arlington House Publishers, 1980:
2. The New York Times, October
5, 1933, p. 24.