The Bowery (1933)
“”CHUCK” CONNORS MONARCH OF ALL HE SURVEYED AND COULD LICK!”
Director: Raoul Walsh
Cast: Wallace Beery, George Raft, Jackie Cooper
Synopsis: In turn-of-the century New York City, Bowery bar owner Chuck and thrill-seeker Steve enjoy finding new ways to insult, prank and outdo one another, their antics typically revolving around some kind of wager.
The chances are you’ll be hard pushed to see The Bowery, Raoul Walsh’s depiction of life in the titular area of New York back in the Gay ‘90s. It certainly doesn’t show up on mainstream TV channels these days, and the version I watched on YouTube came complete with Spanish subtitles. The reason for this is its racist and sexist content, which, while offensive to our 21st Century sensibilities, is really the reason why such movies should still be readily available. To deny our collective past, or to pretend it never happened, is like attempting to rewrite history. We — most of us — are grown up enough to appreciate the social context in which movies and books that offend today’s attitudes were created, and we are where we are today because movies like The Bowery exist, not in spite of it.
Having said that, The Bowery is one of those movies in which enjoyment is repeatedly tempered by the staggeringly casual racism. At one point, a lovable young tyke called Swipesy, played by Jackie Cooper, is placated by Wallace Beery’s rough and tough character Chuck Connors, by being allowed to throw just one small rock at the Chinks’ windows. The stone knocks over a lamp that sets the Chinese laundry ablaze, and we see the men screaming for help from an upstairs window as two rival fire crews, led by Connors and George Raft’s Steve Brodie, battle it out with one another over who gets to use the nearby fire hydrant. The whole scene is played for comic effect, and the presumable death of the unfortunate Chinese is promptly forgotten once the story moves on.
Connors and Brodie are embroiled in an on-going rivalry and duel of one-upmanship which usually revolves around less harmful pranks such as Brodie’s habit of giving exploding cigars to Connors. Into their rivalry wanders pretty Lucy Calhoun (Fay Wray), an innocent girl saved from a life of enforced prostitution (presumably, anyway, the script’s pretty coy about this part of the story) by Connors who sets her up as housekeeper in the apartment he and Swipes share — much to the young boy’s disgust. In fact, Swipes is so irked by her presence that he moves in with Brodie, who also successfully makes the moves on Lucy. The rivalry between Connors and Brodie escalates to the point where Connors bets his saloon that Brodie won’t dare jump from the Brooklyn Bridge. Brodie accepts the bet, but has no intention of going through with the jump, planning instead to substitute a dummy to make the jump for him.
The Bowery was directed by Raoul Walsh, a director who had a knack for imbuing subjects like this with an infectious vibrancy. If you can look beyond the racism and violence against women — early on we see Connors smack a persistent female admirer whom he bedded the night before over the head with a blackjack to stop her from annoying him — you’ll find a fast-moving, consistently entertaining comedy which boasts warm performances from its leading players. Beery was something of a monster in real life by all accounts, but it’s impossible to dislike him in the persona of Chuck Connors, a lovable bear of a man whose enmity against Brodie never approaches anything more malicious than the level of the school playground. Raft was something of a bland leading man, but he gives one of his better performances here, and Fay Wray, fresh from screaming in the clutches of King Kong, never looked more beautiful.
(Reviewed 23rd August 2013)