By Peter Duffy
In the final moments of the gangster film “Little Caesar” (1931), Edward G. Robinson’s Rico Bandello, mortally wounded by gunfire, utters his dying words: “Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?” The critic Robert Warshow used this scene to argue that, in the gangster genre, the mobster’s “whole life is an effort to assert himself as an individual, to draw himself out of the crowd, and he always dies because he is an individual; the final bullet thrusts him back, makes him, after all, a failure. ”
In “Bowery to Broadway,” a fascinating study of Irish-American films, Christopher Shannon notes that Warshow’s insight, even if true for Italianate works like “Little Caesar” or “Scarface” (1932), did not apply to “The Public Enemy” or “Angels With Dirty Faces,” both starring James Cagney, the rogue prince of Irish America. In the seconds before he is strapped to the electric chair in “Angels With Dirty Faces” (1938), Rocky Sullivan (Cagney) cries out in fear, leading the newspapers to write that he died a coward’s death. But it was all an act, done as a favor to Rocky’s boyhood friend, Father Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien), who was worried that the boys back in the parish would continue to see him as a hero worthy of emulation. Instead of the destructive individualism of Rico Bandello, Mr. Shannon argues, Rocky Sullivan “dies a sacrificial death that affirms the primacy of neighborhood ties.”
According to Mr. Shannon, this “subordination of the individual desire to communal duty” was a hallmark of the green-tinted Hollywood films that flourished roughly from the 1920s to the end of World War II. The movies were typically set in what Mr. Shannon calls an Irish-American “urban village.” The neo-Gothic church loomed over the landscape. “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ra” was never far from anyone’lips. Alcohol was imbibed without censure. The heroes were gangsters, song-and-dance men, tart-tongued working girls (“Bowery Cinderellas,” in Mr. Shannon’s phrase), boxers and, of course, priests. When Pat O’Brien didn’t play the wise and good-humored man of God, Bing Crosby had the part. Or Spencer Tracy.
In the world of these movies, community is all. The local eclipses the national. Stability and security are favored over risk and opportunity. Cagney’s gangster character in “The Public Enemy” (1931), Mr. Shannon says, is like a good Irish-American civil servant, rising to the top of his organization through dutiful and loyal service, not double-dealing and treachery. Even when a protagonist leaves the old neighborhood, he never truly abandons it. In Raoul Walsh’s “Gentleman Jim” (1942), the biopic of the boxer James J. Corbett (Errol Flynn), the Corbett family does move off the San Francisco waterfront but not without bringing along their goats.
The bad guys are often moral reformers—described variously by Mr. Shannon as WASPs, Protestants or progressives—who speak in “culturally foreign tones” and are ready to condemn what they don’s t understand. In “Boy’s Town” (1938), the story of Father Edward Flanagan’s home for boys in Omaha, Neb., Spencer Tracy’s Father Flanagan must contend with the skepticism of a newspaper man whom Mr. Shannon sees as a stand-in for those who would “forever accuse [the real-life] Flanagan of an overly sentimental, unscientific approach to the problem of youth.” In the movie “Bowery to Broadway” (1944), it is the members of the Murray Hill Society for Social Reform—a perfect bluenose name—who call in the police to halt a performance by the song-and-dance protagonist.
If community is all, then loyalty to it is essential. In “The Fighting 69th” (1940), which tells the story of New York’s 69th Infantry Regiment during World War I, James Cagney’s character, Jerry Plunkett, is uninterested in fully joining the film’s version of the Irish-American urban village. He sneers at the regiment’s chaplain, Father Francis Duffy (Pat O’Brien again), calling him just another “dominus vobiscum salesman.” He blasts his fellow soldiers as “flannel-mouthed Micks that go around singing Molly Malone all the time.” But he will come around. After he commits disastrous acts of ineptitude and cowardice on the battlefield, he returns to his Catholic faith, joining Father Duffy and the other men in reciting the Our Father. He then redeems himself on the front lines with thrilling acts of heroism.
Mr. Shannon, a professor of history at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., argues convincingly that this rich genre has been slighted for too long. While the Irish “are the most represented ethnic group in American film,” the academic establishment, he suggests, prefers to dwell on “the Irish-Catholic role in film censorship.” (Think of the Legion of Decency’s effort to impose a moral code on Hollywood productions.) Later generations of Irish-Americans have also turned up their noses, part of a revolt against “lower-middle-class Irish-American Catholicism.” Mr. Shannon shows that these films—some of Hollywood’s greatest creations—evoked a distinct world worthy of considered examination.
But he may hurt his case by failing to provide even a limited critique of the long-lost community he so admires. Describing a scene in “Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley” (1918) where two characters are mocked for their pretensions to individuality and refinement, Mr. Shannon puts in a good word for “the Irish art of begrudgery,” the much-noted Celtic practice of ridiculing anyone in the community who had the temerity to stand out. He calls it a “time-honored way that traditional cultures enforce community standards. ” In his eagerness to celebrate the communal over the individual, Mr. Shannon may have forgotten that everything wasn’t always so perfect in the old neighborhood.
Mr. Duffy’s s latest book is “The Killing of Major Denis Mahon: A Mystery of Old Ireland” (Harper Perennial).