Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema

Christopher Shannon,
Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema.
University of Scranton Press, Scranton & London, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-58966-200-1
US$25.00 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by Scranton University Press)

Priests promoting a down-to-earth muscular Christianity; good-natured boozing fathers; saintly mothers working finger to the bone; pixilated soothsayer types: these were some of the ill-considered images of the Irish in American film that I’d carelessly let lie fallow in my mind over the decades. No longer. While there has never been an identifiable ongoing presence of, say, Scottishness or even Englishness in Hollywood cinema, those with long memories (a nice way of saying ‘old people’) will surely recall, nostalgically or not, the phenomenon of the Irish and American-Irish making themselves felt in a range of Hollywood films. In fact, Bowery to Broadway is the second book in recent years to address this matter, the other being Ruth Barton’s Acting Irish in Hollywood: from Fitzgerald to Farrell (2006).

Whereas the latter investigated the Irish presence through tracing the careers of nine stars who had succeeded in Hollywood, Christopher Shannon’s approach has been to examine a series of films, key representatives of their genres, and to focus on the ways in which Irishness surfaces in these films. He is also concerned to ‘place’ these characteristic surfacings in relation to the wider sense of Irish-American cultural and political life, and its place, in turn, in the shifting panorama of American life at large in the first half of the twentieth century.

It’s of course actors above all that stick in the mind as one summons up American movie images of Irishness. These films kept actors like Pat O’Brien, usually as a priest or some other respectable purveyor of ould-sod values, and Frank McHugh, bluff and rugged cops and others, in steady work for several decades. And there were stars too: big names like Bing Crosby, James Cagney and Spencer Tracy, from Irish-American backgrounds, and native Irish like Barry Fitzgerald, who was programmed to excite indulgent, undiscriminating laughter as soon as he spoke, and Maureen O’Hara, for whom Technicolor and the awful word ‘feisty’ were practically invented. I have to add a severe personal note here: neither Shannon nor Barton mentions that great beauty and remarkable actress Geraldine Fitzgerald. Faith, now, this is not good enough, to be sure.

Back to Shannon after this important digression. Shannon’s excellent book – thoroughly researched, astutely perceptive and always readable – traces the kinds of Irish presence in Hollywood films from the late 20s to the early 50s through a series of popular genres. In these films and in what he claims to be an accurate reflection of the Irish experience in America, he evokes the tension of the Irish being caught between the urge to upward mobility in the land of opportunity, on the one hand, and, on the other, the insistent allegiance to the community and family.

The book is divided into five main chapters, plus an introduction which sets out the author’s intentions clearly, and a conclusion that does more than merely summarise the foregoing five sections. Each of these examines a key genre from the point of view of how they render the Irish experience in their manipulation of genre conventions. Each takes its title from a film title which resonates provocatively. In the first chapter, Hell’s Kitchen, the title inducts us into its study of the gangster world, noting at the outset that though “Italian Americans won the battle to control the real-life world of gangsters, yet Irish Americans won the battle to represent the big-city gangster in Hollywood film” (p 1). In exploring films such as The Public Enemy (USA 1931), he draws persuasive attention to the clash of blind ambition and community loyalties, to the interaction of Irish-American cops, priests and gangsters on the make. In so far as the latter never (well, not if they’re played by Cagney for instance) wholly lose their hold on audience sympathies, Shannon argues that this is due to the residual influence of their ethnic community’s morality working on them at some deeper level.

Boxing as a typical Irish way to US cultural citizenship is the subject of the second chapter titled, City for Conquest (named for the 1940 Anatole Litvak film), in which Cagney this time plays a boxer who instinctively knows that celebrity matters less than the values of family and stability, and at film’s end his girl (Ann Sheridan) has also learnt this valuable lesson. Two other major stars who incarnated Irish-American pugilist stereotypes were scruffy Wallace Beery (The Champ, 1931, and others) and dashing Errol Flynn, whose last name qualifies him for inclusion here. In perhaps the most famous boxing film of all, Gentleman Jim (USA 1942), he plays James Corbett, real-life champ, who embraced celebrity in a big way but is finally reclaimed to his Hibernian roots. You can take the boy out of the neighbourhood, but you can’t take the neighbourhood out of the boy.

The other three major chapters – entitled Bowery Cinderella (named a bit obscurely for Burton King’s 1927 film), The Bells of St Mary’s (Leo McCarey’s 1945 heart-tugger) and Bowery to Broadway (a 1944 musical directed by Charles Lamont) – follow the pattern of the earlier two. That is, there is a detailed account of films which archetypally enshrine the narrative and character paradigms that Shannon has identified. Once or twice you may feel that there is more plot description than is strictly necessary, but just as this cavil is about to assert itself Shannon retrieves his position with an astute analysis that goes beyond description. In his account of films starring Mary Pickford (Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley, 1929) and Ginger Rogers (Kitty Foyle, 1940), Shannon traces the way their plot-lines move towards an affirmation of ‘the cultural superiority of working-class Irish’ over the more materialistic aspirations of the wider community. In Kitty Foyle, this point of view is encapsulated in Kitty’s final choice of a classless doctor (James Craig) over an upper-class socialite (Dennis Morgan) who, bounder that he is, only wants to make working-girl Kitty his mistress.

Probably the most famous priest in Hollywood history is Father Bing Crosby, who won an Oscar for his Chuck O’Malley in Going My Way (USA 1944), a character and film so popular that they spawned a successor in The Bells of St Mary’s (USA 1945) in the following year. Crosby’s relaxed persona as the young priest sent to help out the aging Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) at St. Dominic’s ushered in a new film version of the Irish-American: neither gangster nor boxer, committed to his church but tolerant and easy-going, winning over delinquents by gentle persuasion. (Mind you, delinquents have come a long way since then, till we have the hoons of today.) As Shannon’s analysis convincingly argues, the Crosby films established the possibility of being “fully Irish and fully American” (p. 146). The respective endings of the two films are worth noting: in Going My Way, he slips quietly out of the reunion he has organised of Father Fitzgibbon with his ancient Irish mother (Adeline De Walt Reynolds), Shannon noting that “the priest/cowboy headed off to clean up another parish” (p. 148), while in The Bells of St. Mary’s he only leaves the parish, presided over by Sister Ingrid Bergman, when he has assured its future. These were images to warm the hearts not only of Irish Catholics but of middle America at large in the troubled days of World War 2.

The final chapter, which, like the book at large, takes its title from the Universal musical starring Jack Oakie and Donald Cook as rival Irish-American showmen, is ushered in by an account of Yankee Doodle Dandy, Michael Curtiz’s 1942 biopic of the Irish-American song-and-dance man who triumphed on Broadway in the early twentieth century. The film, which was a huge success (with Cagney again), “helped to establish a link between the ethnic stage and the All-American screen” (p. 154). Ignoring Cohan’s wobbly Catholicism, the film brings him – and the Irish-American on the screen – together with President Roosevelt, through the common bond of the Democratic Party. Other film musicals with Irish-American themes are cited, and the chapter closes on the titular film whose title indeed can be seen as a metaphor for the Irish infiltration of the American entertainment scene, from Irish-American community to all-American acceptance.

Shannon’s book finishes with a reflection on how things changed in the post-war era. The search for cultural identity was no longer crucial with the election of John F. Kennedy, with his Irish-Catholic roots, as President. In this America of the early 1960s, as Shannon wittily concludes, “the dying Irish ghettos of New York, Boston and Chicago have taken on something of the status of tribal homelands” (p. 206). His study is as careful and scholarly as one could wish; it is also fresh, lucid and enjoyable, and one cannot always say as much for academic publishing.

Brian McFarlane,
Monash University, Australia.

Created on: Sunday, 7 November 2010

About the Author

Brian McFarlane

About the Author

Brian McFarlane

Brian McFarlane is the author or editor of over 20 books and hundreds of articles on film and literature and related matters. He co-edited the Oxford Companion to Australian Film and was compiler, editor, and chief author of The Encyclopedia of British Film, and most recently he published his memoir, Real and Reel, a light-hearted record of a lifetime’s obsession with the movies – and with writing about them. He is an international authority on British cinema and on the adaptation of literature to film. In Australia he is known as a regular reviewer in The Age, Australian Book Review, Metro and Inside Story. He lives in Melbourne and is currently serving as Adjunct Professor, Swinburne Institute of Social Research, Swinburne Institute of Technology and as Adjunct Associate Professor at Monash University.View all posts by Brian McFarlane →