Bright Lights Film Journal

<em>The Bowery:</em> Raoul Walsh’s <em>Gangs of New York</em>

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 has a similar showdown between dueling volunteer fire brigades, in one of several bows Martin Scorsese makes to Raoul Walsh’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 of barflies.

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 Oscar.1 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 tearjerking moments.

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 daring.

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 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 Gang. When Warners insisted on widespread salary cuts to save its precarious finances, Zanuck left to start his own studio where he could maintain control.

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 Hayworth 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 related to 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, The Bowery 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 Gentleman Jim 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?

  1. 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: p. 61). []
  2. The New York Times, October 5, 1933, p. 24. []