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 I don’t suggest censoring it, by the way: as a historical document it’s invaluable.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…

Am I losing my sense of humour here?

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38 Responses to “The Bowery Inferno”

  1. From the description it seems as there wasn’t even any consideration that the scene would be so inflammatory (pardon the pun!) I’m not sure which is a worse statement on a society – making fun of stereotypes in such a way as the people making the jokes can be easily written off as simply racist, boorish characters or just presenting caricatures without any commentary whatever because nobody really considered such a portrayal to be offensive?

    The above seems an example of a more insidious reinforcement of characters – not even considered worth baiting and belittling, just as a sight gag as an aside to the important stuff between the firefighters.

    This casual stuff still sometimes occurs in modern films – my particular favourite is from Die Hard 2 where a planeload of British airplane passengers is flown into the ground so that Bruce Willis can think to himself “I’ve got to do something, it could be Americans next time!”

  2. I wasn’t so bothered by the Die Hard II thing — any planeload from Britain is going to be half full of returning Americans too. I guess they could have made it an internal flight just to forestall such criticism…

    I could definitely have enjoyed The Bowery fine even if all the characters were a bit racist. It’s an old film set in an even older period. Plus one can look at the seemingly casual racism in a film like Goodfellas and appreciate that it’s the characters, not the filmmaker talking. Treating the fire victims as disposable suggests a much nastier sensibility.

    And yet Walsh, an incredibly charming fellow, would probably just have chuckled if somebody brought that scene up. His happiest memory of the shoot was tricking George Raft into thinking that the stuntman was ill and he was really going to have to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge himself!

  3. The United States is a country founded on theft, rape and genocide. It is racist to the core. Why should there be any surprise that this is reflected in its films?

  4. I suppose it’s more surprising that the films so often succeed in sweeping all that under the carpet. Rather than making films that support openly the kind of landgrabbing and murderous activities that founded the land (and most other countries, although you generally have to go further back in history), Hollywood has generally been rather humanist, sometimes sincerely so, sometimes in a transparently bogus way. So a film as nakedly prejudiced as Birth of a Nation or The Bowery still has the power to shock. The filmmakers aren’t deliberately ripping the facade away to show the workings of a country — the films are hudeously inaccurate as history — but they’re unconsciously ripping the facade away from the way their own minds work.

  5. They have the power to shock NOW because of Hollywood’s skill at sweeping things under the carpet.

  6. I’m afraid Griffith is still one of my many filmic gaps, but would Broken Blossoms be an interesting addition to this discussion?

  7. Yes, in that it’s an example of low-impact racism. “Theirs was a pure and gentle love,” read a famous title card indicating that “Chinky” (Ricahed Barthelmess) doesn’t have sexual designs on our heroine (Lillian Gish at her most sublime) in any way shape of form. His capon status stands in sharp contrast to the villian who virtually rapes as well as murders her.

  8. Remember the slave trade? I don’t think we can really consider master-slave couplings as consensual. So that’s a small but substantial group of Americans who exist because of forced sex.

  9. Broken Blossoms may be using that title card to avoid problems with low-impact racism in the audience and censor boards. Maybe Griffith imagined that the characters would ultimately run off together and have Hot Sex, but he knew he’d never get away with such an implication.

    Actually, Griffith is pretty uncomfortable with the idea of female sexual desire, isn’t he? His women are always PURE, which means his heroes kind of have to be too. This kind of boring tradition of virtue is why Ben Hecht hit on the idea of writing gangster movies in the 20s, so that not everybody had to be a damn virgin. (Although Griffith had made plenty of gangster movies himself in the teens).

  10. Of course he’s uncomfortable with female sexual desire. White women are idealized in Griffith.

    The Musketeers of Pig Alley is the very first gangster movie.

  11. Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s Hollywood TV series suggests that gangster movies arose originally since so many New York filmmakers had gangsters on the payroll, protecting them from patent enforcers. On the west coast, cowboys served the same purpose, with Allan Dwan carrying a pistol to protect himself at work. It was natural that these colourful characters would inspire the filmmakers working alongside them.

  12. Nothing is swept under the carpet in “The Bowery”. On the contrary, it all hangs out. The filmmakers have hidden nothing, particularly not the ugliness of what’s going on. Now, neither is much taken seriously per se, but I think taking these social historical issues “seriously” is highly overrated… at least in the politically correct sense the adverb is usually employed. Usually, when a film tries to take these issues “seriously”, like “Crash”, it does a lot more harm than good. But “The Bowery” is a masterpiece, probably one of the greatest films ever made. This has a lot to do with Walsh’s volumetric sense of composition (so many angles chosen to illustrate the fleshy rotundness of Beery’s paunch) and Eisensteinian sense of rhythm (it sports a climactic montage sequence that is one of the finest ever crafted), and of course the grand carnival of characterizations and caricatures he and his cast and crew have thrown together. It’s not just the “chinks” that get it. Everyone gets it in this film from guffawing Germans to bobbing Eastern Europeans, to stuffy WASPs and dumb broads etc. The fact that in this universe a building full of Chinese launderers can burn down without anyone taking notice is disturbing, yes, very disturbing, and that is in part why some laugh, isn’t it? It can make one so uncomfortable there seems little else a response to have. That the filmmakers seem to have taken glee in its caricature of these poor devils poses something of a rorschach test for our liberal humanist defenses. But this is an aesthetic object to be contended with in the here and now, not to be dismissed or hidden from sight, and especially not to be relegated to the interesting-historical-artifact pile. The power of Walsh’s art frustrates any argument against it on a priori ideological grounds. It is too dynamic and complex a vision of its two historical periods – New York City in the Gay Nineties, and Hollywood just before the code. When seen in these contexts, it has multifarious social historical implications – I suggest reading the Farber essay on Walsh to get at just one of a number of these threads – and, yes, is relevant in the history of American racism, but I’m not sure it’s very productive to just label it “racist” and leave it at that.

  13. Arthur S. Says:

    Does Kevin Brownlow have evidence for that. I find that fairly fantastic. One film financed by gangsters that I know of is…”Deep Throat”. In any case I really doubt if gangsters ever had the cash to really finance a real Hollywood film.

    I haven’t seen the Walsh film above so I can’t really talk about it. Griffith in my view was a fairly 19th Century guy whose worldview was that of 19th Century Victorian fellow. His attitude to me is fairly humanist in that I do think he cared sincerely in the story of ”Broken Blossoms” which is still a very powerful film and that he really was against intolerance and violence and cultural barriers and the like.

    It had it’s limits of course and ”The Birth of a Nation” reveals the racism that he never came to terms with in himself(in a letter to ”Sight and Sound” towards the end of his life, he said in regard to an article accusing his film for racism that he wasn’t a racist and that he loved his “mammy” who raised him as a kid…well I am sure he was sincere in his love for her though he never stopped to see things from her view).

    Of course there’s the whole bit about the road to hell and the irrelevance of the quality of it’s cement but I think Griffith was a fairly nice guy an think that what happened to him towards the end of his career was awfully hypocritical on the part of Hollywood and that Griffith who made ”Intolerance” and ”Broken Blossoms” as part of his attempt to prove that his sympathies were with the oppressed(which even ”A Corner in Wheat” makes clear) was still better than most self-serving people nowadays who try to prove that they are better or that they’ve made progress by PC like removing his name from the Lifetime Award as given by the DGA. It used to be called the D. W. Griffith award until recently when they renamed it because they realized suddenly that ”The Birth of a Nation” was racist.

    ”The Musketeers of Pig Alley” is a great film by the way. And it’s also a fairly benign view of gangsters since the local family played by Lillian Gish and her beau protect the Musketeer(first and last time gangsters would be called that) and that the Musketeer earlier saved the “Little Lady” from getting date raped.

  14. Great comments.

    Arthur, in the early days of film, it was movie companies who hired gangsters, not the other way around. It’s well attested, and a lot of the comedy in Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon is based on reality, stuff he heard from old-timers or read in film histories.

    As for the mob financing Hollywood movies — have you read about The Cotton Club? A BIG-BUDGET movie with organised crime money (the mob is richer than any movie studio, btw) which resulted in people getting whacked when it went over budget. Producer Robert Evans still isn’t legally allowed to talk about much of his involvement… of course he insists he didn’t know the kind of people he was dealing with.

    Griffith was no saint, as various memoirs make clear, but that’s hardly relevant. He is a fascinating compendium of 19th and early 20th century manners and mores. His childhood as the son of a Southern soldier is key — he absorbed his view of the Civil War from listening to daddy’s drunken reminiscences, and never questioned the propoganda he’d soaked up. That makes him a victim of sorts, but still culpable for his failure to accept the truth. It would not have been possible for a well-informed person of 1915 to make Birth of a Nation.

    “Musketeers” seems to have been in use as a term for gangsters at least after Griffith’s film — there are several other crime movies that use the term.

  15. Edo — basically agree, but I was recording my own response. While I could enjoy, and be pleasurably shocked at my enjoyment, of all the bad behaviour in Gangs of New York, and many other movies, The Bowery seems to enter different territory. Yes, many different ethnic groups are stereotyped, derided or kicked around in the film. But we don’t really see any black people, so only the Chinese represent a non-white race, and only the Chinese are killed in a comedy scene. Beery is quite keen for Raft to get killed jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, but he never actually dies.

    So it’s not an equal opportunity offender, as you suggest.

    If, in this age of dead authors, we can speak of the filmmakers’ intent, I wonder if the scene is actually MEANT to be disturbing? I think it’s meant to be outrageous, but did Walsh or Zanuck or screenwriters Easterbrook and Gleason expect audiences to be queasy or upset? I think that’s unlikely, given moviemaking norms.

    So I’m not perturbed that the film portrays a world in which nobody is bothered by the incineration of “Chinks”, or that the film is a comedy — I’m perturbed that I’m not expected to care: I see no evidence elsewhere that I’m SUPPOSED to be bothered about what I’ve seen.

  16. ” I’m not sure it’s very productive to just label it “racist” and leave it at that.”

    Easy for YOU to say, White man!

    The Ku Klux Klan had fallen on hard times until Griffith’s adaptation of Dixon’s novel “The Klansman” reversed its fortunes. It was a recuitment propaganda film.

    Period.

    The last minute change of title to The Birth of a Nation applied a patina of grandeur that was in no way merited, especially as the film’s success spurred lynching like nothing that had come before.

    The Birth of a Nation is an ac of violence against African-Americans.

    I’ve no doubt Griffith loved his mammy.

    So what?

  17. For what it’s worth, I am half-Korean, half-Serbo-Croatian.

    David, I cannot object to your claims about the political instrumentation of “The Birth of a Nation”, since I don’t know the history of the film. Nor have I seen the film! It persists as one of the major gaps in my consciousness of film history. Nevertheless, if what you say is true, it is instructive. Thank you.

    For the most part my comments were specific to “The Bowery”, though one might extrapolate from them a certain sensibility, which would tend to emphasize aesthetics over the intentions and agendas of individual film artists, producers, and historians. Much cinema, and for that matter much art, that has been considered great, has also been utilized toward narrow, often nefariously political ends. Indeed, it sounds like The Birth of a Nation” is illustrative of that trend. Still, I would contend that great works of art transcend the narrow uses for which they might have been conceived. Similarly, they transcend the politics of their makers. Neither of which is to say that they in a way make up for these actions. They simply outlive them.

    I don’t know about “The Birth of a Nation”, but where “The Bowery” is concerned this is certainly true. It presents a very coherent, but nonetheless extremely complex vision of human society, society as a lower east side vaudeville. “History as rhythm”, rhapsodized Fred Camper, when a mutual friend asked him about the film. I didn’t mean to suggest it was an “equal opportunity offender” so much as that it’s politics are too irreverent and provocative to pin down. Who cares how the filmmakers MEANT for us to react? Who cares if they want us to care? In my opinion, humanism, or at least this specific brand of humanism, which suggests that we should ‘care’ about the characters in a film, that we should ‘care’ about abstract fabrications with no autonomous existence as if they were people, is deeply wrong-headed. The fact is these are not people.

    “The Bowery” does not presume to tell us how to feel about “Chinks” burning to death. It surely plays the scene a certain way, finds the site of “Chinks” burning very hilarious, but we get to react to that treatment however we feel. Frankly, I find “Gangs of New York” much worse in this regard. It’s weighted by a sense of historical responsibility and, frankly, of cynicism and guilt, which places us in a moral position superior to the barbarism we see on screen. “The Bowery” has no such pretensions.

  18. David is right. When told that the film would inspire race riots, Griffith said (according to camera assistant Karl Brown) “I hope to God it does!” meaning either that it would be good publicity, or that he intended it as a call to arms for white folks. Either interpretation is appalling: the movie bears out the second.

    There are a few “sympathetic” black people in TBOAN– slaves, who choose to remain servants. This is what Griffith means when he says he’s not racist: he doesn’t automatically hate all black people. Ie, they’re fine, in their place.

  19. Edo, I appreciate your point of view. You need to see Birth of a Nation because it’s a pretty extreme case. The fact that the Klan were using it as a recruiting film until the ’70s shows how “exceptional” it is — no other film had been made in the intervening 60 years that could be used to replace it. I would say that divorcing it from its social impact and its makers intentions is impossible. It is in many ways an impressive aesthetic feat, although Griffith achieved far more nuanced and interesting work. It’s one case where to address it on aesthetic terms appears totally inadequate compared to the glaringly obvious political crime it represents.

    Kevin Brownlow, who defended Leni Riefenstahl, acclaims the film aesthetically but even he has to temper that praise with condemnation for its world-view.

    You’re right that the anarchic, balletic world of The Bowery is a different realm. It’s not concerned with promoting one view as right or wrong. It does seem to ACCEPT views that I’m horrified by.

    In some films, caring about characters is part of the pleasure the film can afford, in some it’s irrelevant. I don’t propose any system for watching films, other than being open to the experience and finding what you can of interest. If The Bowery were all anarchic violence it’d actually be easier to take, but the sentimental stuff with Fay Wray and Jackie Cooper bringing out Beery’s “loveable” side is a big part of the problem — we’re supposed to care about whether Beery gets the girl, but not about the flaming Chinamen.

  20. David, I respect your point of view as well. Your points remind me of exchanges I had with Kent Jones at Dave Kehr’s blog a couple months ago. While I accept that caring about characters is a pleasure to be found in some films, I guess I simply have a different conception of what ‘caring about characters’ really constitutes: more an emotional response to aesthetic effects achieved by formal elements, which in sum total allow us to intuit a sense of ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’, rather than actually developing a relationship to the film as we would to a person. Anyway, I’m glad you’ve at least seen “The Bowery”. It seems this film is ill-remembered, particularly among Walsh films.

  21. The Bowery turns up in discussion more than it gets screened, not doubt in part due to the inflammatory content. I think all Walsh fans should get the chance to see it and make their own minds up, it certainly exemplifies many of his best qualities.

    I agree that of course one’s “relationship” with a movie character isn’t like knowing a real person. It’s quite an interesting area. Lots of people cry at the death in Terms of Endearment, but they don’t go on to grieve afterwards. Our emotional responses are real while the film is on (and physical responses can be measured, as in the text subjects who became detectably angry at the injustice in Paths of Glory) but seem to mostly fade like illusions afterwards, leaving only that part of the emotion connected to our aesthetic appreciation of the film. And we say, “That was good!” Which hardly anybody says after a real deathbed farewell.

  22. Raoul Walsh played John Wilkes Booth in The Birth of a Nation.

  23. Good point! I can’t believe I missed that link. He’s good at being villainous.

  24. I do appreciate your sharing your discomfort with this sequence. This scene disturbed me greatly when I saw the picture long ago at the Thalia in New York City. The crowd at the screening was quite amused by it. I understand how utterly over the top the scene is, and I do grasp that it was fully intended by Walsh to be that way. I’m no stranger to dark or politically incorrect humor. But for me, this just left a terrible feeling, and I couldn’t enjoy the rest of the film. I thank you for your thoughtful analysis.

  25. That duplicates my experience exactly! I don’t blame those who laughed for insensitivity, they just have, presumably, a better ability to distance themselves, as the film requires. But yes, a horrible sensation is felt if you take it seriously for one second.

  26. I just saw THE BOWERY and I have to say that while that scene is highly disturbing and shocking, I don’t think it’s racist or that it damages the film.

    There are many stories in that period of New York history like that and the savage brutal treatment of minorities and indifferent cruelty to them is common. When a film shows this and shows how casually it was done and treated with then it isn’t being racist, It does however challenge how we look at these characters. The perspective of the film is to focus on the Irish working-class community. The film is based on Walsh’s own memories growing up in that period and a lot of the stuff in this film happened and Raft’s character Steve Brodie is a historical figure who supposedly did or did not jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.

    The characters played by Beery and Raft are no role models and us identifying with those characters is what gives that scene it’s power.

    Besides all this there is the fact that very, very few American films really showed minorities or cruelty towards minorities and that makes THE BOWERY very rare. Was Keaton racist when he did the bit with the Tong Gang War in THE CAMERAMAN? Of course Walsh showing that scene doesn’t make him necessarily anti-racist either but he certainly is complex enough to show this kind of violence being a casual part of society.

  27. There is this group called A_Film_by which I just came across and one of the posters hotlove66(who is Bill Krohn) talks about the BOWERY, here’s the link. It lacks a little context but the middle paragraph is fairly clear.

    http://movies.groups.yahoo.com/group/a_film_by/message/8092

  28. I think how we interpret the film’s attitude is key: nobody’s denying that what it shows is disturbing. And the style in which it shows it is comedic, which is disconcerting, but could potentially be read in different ways. And while the characters responsible are the protagonists, it’s not certain that the film intends us to find them admirable.

    I can only say that, for me, Walsh doesn’t successfully distance himself from a view of the Chinese as subhuman and inconsequential. The movie is so tied to its protagonists’ viewpoint, for one thing. But also in the objective view of the camera, these Chinese characters are cast and ordered to behave as stereotypes. In Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, the very similar scene doesn’t cause the same distress, because although the firemen treat the victims with scorn, the filmmaker doesn’t type them in such a way as to reduce them to cartoon characters.

    As for Keaton, although he can be insensitive by modern standards, and the blackface routine in College makes me cringe, I certainly don’t think he ever did anything as alarming as this.

  29. Arthur S. Says:

    Have you seen NEIGHBORS he has a KKK gag in that. I only mentioned Keaton as a point of comparison. I don’t see that scene in CAMERAMAN as being racist in any way. In fact, Keaton’s films are remarkable for showing minorities. Like one of his shorts is very pro-Native American and it ends with him giving a very long kiss to one of the girls.

    I don’t see how the Chinese are shown as sub-humans in that scene. For one thing they seem to be played by actual Chinese extras and them screaming for help is a very human thing to do in that fire. It’s true that Walsh doesn’t show us things from their point of view but what he does show is them being hassled and harassed by the Irish rather than the other way around. And neither Beery or Raft are paragons of virtue. In fact there is none, save for Fay Wray maybe, who comes in after that incident is over.

  30. Because Keaton is only concerned with presenting jokes beautifully, he’s often politically incorrect but rarely offensive at all, because he’ll make fun of anything.

    I think the fact that the Chinese characters apparently perish, and the film carries on as if nothing had happened, is in itself enough to suggest the film does not take them seriously. I think the casting suggests this too — they have a stereotyped appearance, as if they’ve been carefully selected to create an image of “Chinamen” familiar to the audience’s prejudices. None is handsome, elderly, female or a child. They are comedy characters, but comedy characters who burn to death. This is unusual. Chaplin would knock over a fat man, but he wouldn’t incinerate him…

  31. Well never forget what John Barrymore told Walsh,
    “Your idea of fun is burning down a whorehouse.”

    Then Walsh true to form, hijacked Barrymore’s corpse after a memorial service just to scare Errol Flynn.

  32. I heard it was Zanuck: “A sensitive love story? Raoul Walsh’s idea of a sensitive love story is to burn down a whorehouse.”

    Walsh’s account of the Barrymore incident edns with the undertaker saying “If I’d known this was for Errol Flynn I’d have put him in a better suit.”

    Flynn, in his autobio, says he’s rather ashamed of partying with a dead man.

  33. Arthur S. Says:

    Walsh probably had that weird approach to life from his own experience from recording newsreel of Pancho Villa to apprenticing under D. W. Griffith and then having lost his eye to a jackrabbit(which he refers to in HIGH SIERRA).

  34. Yeah, he had a genuinely action-packed existence.

  35. [...] reminiscent of Walsh’s dubious ethnic humour in THE BOWERY, this movie in which all the characters are non-caucasian, casts real non-caucasians only as slaves [...]

  36. Michael Powers Says:

    Interesting exchange. I have to say that I agree with Edo’s comments 100%, which seldom happens, and I wish that I could correspond with this person. I’ve seen both “The Bowery” and “The Birth of a Nation” in full-sized theatrical projections quite recently and I really think the latter film gets a bad rap, surprisingly enough, especially since Griffith explains his thinking in a card at the beginning of the movie. Walsh also directed “Regeneration,” the first full-length gangster movie, the same year he played John Wilkes Booth in “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), which was shot on location in the Bowery and, along with Walsh’s “The Big Trail” (1930), remains one of the few movies that can stun the viewer with the costumes alone, it’s so jaw-droppingly realistic. The rags worn by the cast members in early “Regeneration” scenes astonish modern audiences by going far beyond anything we would imagine, just as Tyrone Power, Sr.’s grimy outfit in “The Big Trail” shocks us because no clothing quite that real-world filthy ever found its way to a movie screen again. But that’s all an aside, of course.

    It’s intriguing that Wallace Beery’s role as Chuck Connors, another actual historical character, was so similar to the bar-owner played by his older brother Noah Beery, Sr. in “She Done Him Wrong” earlier that same year. After spending years wondering which one came first, I finally looked up the release dates and was surprised to see that the Mae West/Cary Grant vehicle was released in February and “The Bowery” appeared in October of 1933, far enough apart to conjecture that “She Done Him Wrong” influenced “The Bowery,” a far more energetic and masterly film.

    Walsh’s autobiography, “Each Man in His Time,” remains one of the great reads, an adventure story that puts one in mind of Robert Louis Stevenson. He rode with Pancho Villa, filming him for a movie company, and his description of peasants knocking corpses’ teeth out with rocks to harvest the gold fillings in the wake of a firing squad ranks with the Mott Street fire in “The Bowery” for sheer darkness, and had the studio projectionists back in L.A. vomiting into the trash cans.

    I think “The Bowery” is indeed one of the greatest and most entertaining movies ever and that Wallace Beery has to be the most underrated actor (by modern viewers) of all. In his day, he was deservedly the highest-paid actor in the world (his contract at the time of “The Bowery” stipulated that he be paid $1 more than any other MGM contract player, which the studio regretted when they had to match Garbo’s stupendous contract after signing her). No Beery film in the sound era ever lost money (his huge silent film career began in 1913), largely due to his godlike status among American Southern audiences in the ’30s and ’40s (he was the favorite actor of everybody I knew who came of age during that era), and I suppose everyone reading this blog knows about what apparently happened in the parking lot of the Trocadero in 1937.

  37. Indeed we do.

    Well, the aspect of The Bowery that bothers me is probably a combination of the burning Chinese and the sentiment surrounding Jackie Coogan’s character. If the film were simply a burlesque in which all human suffering were mocked, the incineration of some unoffending citizens would be part and parcel of a cavalcade of amoral activity. But since the film appears to sincerely want us to weep for the little boy who actually murdered those poor people, I struggle to see it that way.

    As for Birth of a Nation, nothing about the opening titles explains to me how Griffith justifies inverting historical facts: in his movie, black men lynch whites, and prevent them from voting. At the “happy ending”, order is restored not by everybody getting the vote, but by the Klan barring the way to the polling booths for the black people.

    Griffith’s plea that he wants to show the horror of war doesn’t remotely cover him here, and I have to suspect he chose the Civil War for his project partly because he didn’t consider black emancipation worth fighting for. He was quite happy to celebrate WWI a bit later with Hearts of the World.

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