Futures & Pasts: The Bowery & Gangs of New York
The first thing we see after the opening credits of Raoul Walsh’s The Bowery are, I am not kidding you, the words “Nigger Joe’s”—it’s the name of a saloon, hand-painted on the window. Though we are often apt to overestimate the naïveté of past generations, leading off a movie in such a fashion wasn’t a decision that any relatively worldly person could make in 1933 without recognizing that it was an affront. It’s a rude welcoming to a rough-and-tumble milieu in which accustomed social niceties have no place.
The Bowery is set in New York in the Gay Nineties, the period when, as an opening intertitle explains, the Bowery was “The livest mile on the face of the globe.” Our introduction to the Bowery is scored to a cacophony of song: a singing waiter accompanied by a cross-eyed violinist massacres “Daddy’s on the Engine.” A flatulent oompah band blats down the street. A tenor caterwauls “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” An off-key chorus line shimmies through vaudeville club banger “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay.” And all throughout the film, snatches of the 1891 hit “The Bowery” are heard on squeezebox and rinky-tink piano. The sentimental balladry starkly contrasts life on the street, where we see a rake swatting a tart in the fanny with his cane, only the first of many instances of offhand violence against women. Elsewhere Jewish tailors forcefully waylay a potential customer, a Black Maria is loaded with whores, and a swarm of “Chinamen” pursue a tow-headed preadolescent rascal named Swipes (Jackie Cooper). Swipes in turn takes shelter behind his protector, Chuck “Mayor of Chinatown” Connors (Wallace Beery), popular owner of a saloon that boasts of serving “The Largest Schooners of Beer in the City.” Inquiring into the cause of this commotion in frightful pidgin Chinese, Connor learns that Swipes has been throwing rocks through windows all around Chinatown, and he admonishes his pupil to behave. “But Chuck, it was only a Chink’s winder!” says Swipes, who shortly after boasts of trading “cigarette pictures with da Guinea kids.” For those keeping score at home, this is three ethnic groups insulted in 10 minutes of screen time—and I neglected to mention that Connors blackjacks a boozy floozy into unconsciousness.
A 35mm print of the gleefully offensive The Bowery will be showing next Tuesday at BAMcinématek as part of a program called “Under the Influence: Scorsese/ Walsh.” The series pairs parallel movies from the two New York–born directors’ filmographies: the night after The Bowery, BAM will screen Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, his 2002 opus set in Lower Manhattan during the Civil War years.
Like The Bowery, Gangs takes place in a New York that is less of a simmering melting pot than a volatile, experimental chemical combination threatening to explode. And though The Bowery may be the Walsh film that Gangs most closely resembles, Scorsese’s film draws quite freely from other works which defined the mythology of New York during the latter half of the 19th century: not only the 1928 book from which the movie takes its title, the first of journalist Herbert Asbury’s several collections of largely apocryphal underworld lore, but Luc Sante’s 1991 compendium Low Life, and the films of another New Yorker a couple of generations Walsh’s junior, Sam Fuller. A key reference is Park Row, Fuller’s 1952 saga of newspaper circulation wars in a New York City roughly contemporary to that of Walsh’s The Bowery. Self-producing for the first time, Fuller blew his bankroll constructing a studio replica of the area around City Hall that was the locus of the city’s newspaper business, while Gangs is centered on the closed world of Manhattan’s Five Points district, built on a Cinecittà soundstage by production designer Dante Ferretti.
Gangs of New York
Scorsese understands, as did Walsh in The Bowery and Fuller in Park Row, the role that these public spaces played as stages on which ambitious men and women could assert their personalities and impose their wills on the people. His film’s antihero, Daniel Day-Lewis’s nativist bully and Tammany Hall ward-heeler Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, strides across Paradise Square with the same air of propriety seen in Chuck Connors, whose renown is in no small part based on his acumen in the fine art of face-pulping. Perhaps not coincidentally, Brendan Gleeson’s shillelagh-wielding enforcer “Monk” McGinn in Gangs bears a passing resemblance to Beery, though it’s Bill “The Butcher” who has Connors’s drive for infamy, reinforced by a talent for violence. “You know how come I stayed alive this long?” Bill explains to Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), his protégé and would-be assassin: “A spectacle of fearsome acts.”
The Bowery, Park Row, and Gangs are all interested in publicity and self-promotion in American life during the era of yellow journalism and ballyhoo, the direct progenitor of our own modern mass-media culture. Thanks in no small part to headlines and those cigarette pictures that Swipes is trading in, celebrity was suddenly possible on a heretofore unknown level, and certain of the same real-life characters crop up in these three films: P.T. Barnum is on one of Swipes’s pictures, and in Gangs we hear tell that Barnum’s Museum has been burned to the ground. New York Tribune founder and publisher Horace Greeley appears as a character in Gangs, and as a sacred name spoken in hushed tones in Park Row. And in both Park Row and The Bowery, one Steve Brodie appears. Brodie was a real historical figure who achieved genuine fame in summer of 1886 for jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge and surviving—a feat he may or may not have really pulled off. He’s played in Park Row by George O’Hanlon, and in The Bowery by George Raft, the actor with the cunning greyhound face, famous for his gangster roles and gangster pals.
The Bowery, that opening intertitle explains, is “the cradle of men who would later become famous,” and fame is Brodie’s foremost ambition. We meet him before his name-making jump, when he’s a sharper angling to replace Connors as the Bowery’s big man. This competition for the limelight, for the honor of being the foremost man in the Fourth Ward, is at the center of the film. Appearances count for everything in the public theater that is the street; as Connors puts it to Swipes, he’s always got “a reputation to t’ink about.” Connors and Brodie are both showmen, stewards of their own legends-in-the-making abetting the authorship of tall tales about themselves as they move through life, ever conscious of their own press. (“Read all about me, me eyes is tired,” says Connors to one of his ever-present cronies, while the ascendance of his chief competitor is announced by the headline “Steve Brodie Becoming Popular on the Bowery.”) Even in the Gay Nineties, it seems, there was an art to building your brand. Brodie always announces his entry into a room with a little signature soft-shoe, and both men have their own catchphrases: Brodie’s is “Don’t ever say I never give ya nuthin’,” while Connors is prone to repeating himself (“T’ink nuttin’ of it, t’ink nuttin’ of it”; “Poifect, my lad, poifect.”), a precursor to GoodFellas’ Jimmy Two-Times.
Connors and Brodie’s ongoing struggle for reputation and adulation is the narrative spine of The Bowery, which is constructed as a series of bouts. When Connors becomes a boxing promoter, taking up the management of a pug called Bloody Butch, Brodie arranges for heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan, “The Boston Strong Boy,” to retire Connors’s fighter with one punch. When confirmed bachelor and misogynist Connors takes up with Lucy (Fay Wray), a clueless innocent who’s been cast helpless onto the mean streets, Brodie starts paying her court. (It’s not much of a competition, as Beery resembles porridge molded into human form.) Connors is far more rattled, however, when Brodie wins away the loyalty of Swipes, with Beery showing something uncomfortably close to the hurt of a spurned lover. (This was the first of several pairings of Beery and Cooper, who would respectively play Long John Silver and Jim Hawkins in the following year’s Treasure Island.)
Aside from this, the most disturbing battle in the Connors-Brodie war occurs when their volunteer fire brigades come to blows over who gets to put out a burning building on Mott Street, and receive the attendant credit for heroism. As Connors and Brodie’s cliques turn away from the fire to clobber one another with brickbats, Walsh cuts repeatedly to three Chinese men hanging out a window of the burning building, their cries for help falling on deaf ears. After the last cutaway, there is a wipe to a shot of the building’s charred remnants. There’s no indication as to the ultimate fate of the residents of that Mott Street building, but given the uncomfortable proximity of the flame the last that we saw them, it’s not hard to guess. The fire-brigade brawlers are splayed out all over the trash-festooned street, looking for everything like hungover revelers after a spree. It’s a tricky scene to parse; I can tell it’s horribly racist, but I’m not sure who it’s most racist towards. If Chinese men are seen as expendable, white men are seen as uncouth, undisciplined idiots.
A variation on the brawling fire brigades scene appears in Gangs of New York. There are no doomed Chinese this time, but casual violence abounds in Scorsese’s film, like the rock caromed off an unsuspecting Irishwoman’s face just as she disembarks in the Port of New York. This brutal pie-in-the-face is so blunt and abrupt that, in the half-dozen times that I saw the movie theatrically, I heard more than a few shocked half-laughs. The film is funny, queasily funny in the way that Scorsese’s movies habitually are—anyone expressing surprise that The Wolf of Wall Street was an outright comedy only showed that they hadn’t been paying much attention. I can think of no director who populated his filmography with stand-up comedians as Scorsese has, including comedian protagonists like the latter-day Jake LaMotta and Rupert Pupkin, and actual stand-ups in acting roles: Las Vegas legend Bernie Allen in Raging Bull, Henny Youngman in GoodFellas, and Don Rickles in Casino. Even the grandiloquent monologist Bill “The Butcher” is a sort-of insult comic, with a gift for turning the memorable phrase. “On the seventh day the Lord rested,” he opines to Amsterdam, “but before that he did, he squatted over the side of England and what came out of him… was Ireland.” Elsewhere, watching a black man dancing in tune to an Irish fiddle, Bill describes the scene as “rhythms of the dark continent, thrown into the kettle with an Irish shindig, stir it around a few times, poured out as a fine American mess.”
Gangs of New York
Between putdowns, Bill enjoys striking the elegiac tone, knowing well that his day is coming to a close, that the New York public is changing, and that fame is fleeting—and Connors too feels the fickleness of his audience. Brodie does his famous stunt on a dare from Connors, and wins his saloon in the process. This elevates Brodie to top dog on the Bowery, and reduces Connors to the status of has-been. He only recaptures his reputation by besting Brodie in a disputed bout of fisticuffs, though the rivals reconcile with a newfound mutual respect based in the vigor of the contest. (This is echoed in Gangs, in Bill’s nostalgic remembrance of his great, departed rival “Priest” Vallon: “That was the finest beating I ever took…”). As The Bowery closes, glory-hounds Connors and Brodie have swapped their gambler’s finery for the uniform of Uncle Sam, and are marching together towards the Cuban front of the Spanish-American War. Martial heroics are another surefire way to stay in the newspapers, a fact well-understood by the most famous American of the first decade of the century to come, Theodore Roosevelt.
Walsh, who was born in 1887, certainly must have remembered the sinking of the Maine in Havana Harbor and other key moments in the public life of the period he is depicting, though as son of a successful men’s clothier, his own social background was squarely between Roosevelt’s and Connors’s. Walsh was steeped in his native city’s stock of history-turned-legend, and had begun depicting it as early as 1915, reenacting the 1904 wreck of the paddle steamer General Slocum in his film Regeneration, which was shot on location in the streets of the Lower East Side. The tumult of those streets evidently left an indelible impression on Walsh, and in works contemporaneous to The Bowery, like Me and My Gal (32) and Sailor’s Luck (33), he would try to reproduce the riotous atmosphere and contentious racial jibing of the overcrowded, hot-headed LES. In their democratic bustle and buckshot-blast offensiveness, Walsh’s pre-Code works are simultaneously some of the most and least racist movies ever made in America. The Bowery is a trampling, brawling, insensitive film, but there can never be any doubt that Walsh loves this scene, guys with names like “Googy Cochran from Joisey City” and “Mumbo,” German brewers speaking Katzenjammer Kids patois, and everything else that composes what Bill calls the “fine American mess.” (The nearest modern equivalent to Walsh’s Pre-Codes might be HBO’s Eastbound & Down, with Danny McBride’s sacred monster hero Kenny Powers.)
The Bowery was released in fall 1933, a scant few months before Joseph I. Breen arrived as new head of the Production Code Administration and began more vigilant policing of the Motion Picture Production Code. It is safe to say that Walsh’s movie, if it had been greenlit at all, would not have been made in anything like its present form after mid-’34, for among the points on the 1927 Hays Code that were now to be really and truly off-limits included “willful offense to any nation, race, or creed.” On the face of it, this may seem like progress, though it is telling that on the same list one also finds that “Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races)” is verboten. It was an elegant solution to Hollywood’s problem with race relations—cut out race relations altogether!
Today there is no czar of cinematic morality with Breen’s pull, but we are still very much in the age of ballyhoo and circulation wars, and the Internet’s chattering classes have discovered that outrage is big business. It is amusing, then, to imagine The Bowery released today, along with a flotilla of think pieces asking “Does Raoul Walsh endorse Chuck Connors’s behavior?”
The Bowery and Gangs of New York screen March 25 and 26, respectively, at BAMcinématek.