The Bowery Inferno
I’d wanted to see Raoul Walsh’s THE BOWERY for ages, but it’s not easy to come by. I knew it was a big influence on THE GANGS OF NEW YORK, and from the sound of things, an influence on the good bits. I also knew it was racially controversial. I wasn’t quite prepared for how it would feel to watch it.
As with BIRTH OF A NATION, it hurts. You know there’s historical distance, and with a lot of things you can watch with an ironic laugh and think “Thank God we wouldn’t dream of saying THAT anymore,” but some films break right through modern irony, bypass standard-issue offense and land in a very unpleasant place where you just feel a bit ashamed of being human.
Walsh’s film is lots of fun, or nearly, and with one scene removed it might fall into the category of ironically enjoyable political incorrectness, but with that scene, the whole film is poisoned. I don’t suggest censoring it, by the way: as a historical document it’s invaluable. (My copy turns out to come from Channel Four, which means it had an uncensored UK TV screening within the last twenty or so years…
Walsh starts as he means to go on:
But this being a tale of the Naughty/Gay Nineties (inspired by the success of Mae West’s SHE DONE HIM WRONG), we can allow this crass but period-accurate detail. Walsh follows this intro with a montage of outrageous behaviour on the streets and in the drinking dives of the Bowery, and it’s energetic, fun stuff. One can see how the creation of a sort of urban wild west influenced Scorsese’s period crime epic.
When Wallace Beery shows up like a big cartoon character with a joke accent — “I takes care o’ dat meself: poisonal!” — we warm to him. When his young ward Jackie Cooper turns up, fleeing a group of “chinks” whose window he’s smashed, it’s possible to take the racial attitudes as belonging to the characters, not the film. B. Kite once observed to me that much of Walsh’s appeal lies in his strange ability to make loutish behaviour appear charming, and he generally manages it. Sometimes the characters go too far, and this adds a bracing tinge of malaise to the fun. But Cooper’s fondness for breaking windows does seem like real racism, rather than an innocent, impish desire to destroy stuff. His ballsy, pugnacious performance, pitched to the same muggish level as Beery’s, is interesting at first, so perhaps judgement is suspended — besides, there’s plenty of time yet for character development. Give the kid a chance.
“It was only a chink’s winder.” “I know, but a winder’s a winder.”
Some good clowning ensues as George Raft turns up and begins sparring with rival Beery. Oddly, this film is the only one I can think of where both stars coincidentally have character names the same as two other stars of a later era: Beery plays Chuck Connors, and George Raft plays Steve Brodie. It has the same discombobulating effect as that bit in ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA when Robert DeNiro uses the pseudonym “Robin Williams”.
And now comes the apocalypse from which this film never recovers. A fire breaks out in a Chinese-American tenement, and Beery and Raft’s rival fire teams compete to put it out (this scene was recreated very closely in GANGS, only without the racial element). It turns out Cooper is responsible, his flung rock having smashed a lantern. As Raft and his men arrive, Cooper is sitting on a barrel which he’s positioned to conceal the fire hydrant until Beery’s gang arrive. But when Beery and co get there, the would-be rescue devolves into a riot as the opposing fire teams take to battering each other senseless. Meanwhile distraught “chinks” gesticulate from a high-up window of the blazing building. This is becoming uncomfortable.
Dissolve to later, and both fire teams have been punched unconscious, and the building has been burned to the ground — presumably with everyone inside. It would have been very easy to have shown the denizens escaping the inferno, even if they had to jump onto an awning, or something. I mean, the joke is these firefighters who are more concerned with status than with fighting fires, so the distressed victims make a point — but the joke, for me, is ruined if anybody gets killed, and the central characters totally lose sympathy. The sequence is clearly funnier if we don’t think anybody’s been seriously harmed. But the film thinks so little of these characters — they’re basically not regarded as human beings — that it can’t be bothered with an A-Team style “mercy shot”. Furthermore, Cooper is now a mass-murderer, but this is never addressed. We’re supposed to find him loveable and not be worried about his psychopathic behaviour. Although THE BOWERY has much to commend it, and I love pre-code Hollywood filth and nastiness, I’m afraid I stopped enjoying the film at this point…