Bowery to Broadway
The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema
Distributed for University of Scranton Press
Before Johnny Depp and Public Enemies, there was The Public Enemy. James Cagney’s 1931 portrayal of the Irish American gangster, Tommy Powers, set the standard for the Hollywood gangster and helped to launch a golden age of Irish American cinema. In the years that followed several of the era’s greatest stars, such as Spencer Tracy, Bing Crosby, Pat O’Brien, and Ginger Rogers, assumed Irish American roles—as boxers, entertainers, priests, and working girls—delighting audiences and at the same time providing a fresh perspective of the Irish American experience in America’s cities.
With Bowery to Broadway, Christopher Shannon guides readers through a number of classic films from the 1930s and ’40s and investigates why films featuring Irish American characters were so popular among American audiences during a period when the Irish were still stereotyped and scorned for their religion. Shannon cites films such as Angels with Dirty Faces, Gentleman Jim, Kitty Foyle, Going My Way, and Yankee Doodle Dandy, arguing that the Irish American characters in the films were presented as inhabitants of an urban village—simultaneously traditional and modern and valuing communal solidarity over individual advancement. As a result, these characters—even those involved in criminal activity—resonated deeply with the countless Americans in search of the communal values that were rapidly being lost to the social dislocation of the Depression and the increasing nationalization of life under the New Deal.
“A fascinating study of Irish-American films. . . . Mr. Shannon shows that these films—some of Hollywood’s greatest creations—evoked a distinct world worthy of considered examination.”
“Bowery to Broadway makes a major contribution to the study of Irish-American ethnicity. Shannon shows that in films of the 1930s and 1940s—when the Irish were putatively embracing all of modern America’s values—the group was not only represented in Hollywood, but also offered a true-to-life alternative to modernity. In the world that Shannon retrieves, the ‘local comes first.’ He mines both familiar and nearly forgotten films to discern a cinematic tradition in which Irish-American prize-fighters, priests, vaudevillians and working girls lived in a world that countered mainstream assumptions: the urban Irish were skeptical of runaway individualism, unimpressed by the promise of personal liberation, and unapologetically Catholic. The Irish whom we meet in this immensely readable book can no longer be read as stereotypes. Shannon requires us to rethink whether Irish assimilation happened in quite the way we think it did, and sometimes, whether it happened at all. This is an essential book on the Irish in popular culture.”
“With this bold challenge to existing writings on Irish-American ethnicity, particularly within the context of theories of assimilation, Shannon explores how Irish-American films and characters of the 1930s and 1940s express a confidence in their hyphenated identities that was rooted in their sense of place. The Irish of the urban village, in Shannon’s narrative, refused to assimilate to middle-class American norms; instead they asserted their right to be at once traditional and modern, ethnic and American. Balancing lucid descriptions of the films’ plots against an incisive investigation into their positioning within both Hollywood cinema and the socio-historical background of Irish immigrant experience, Shannon has produced a study that will appeal to film historians, cultural theorists and scholars of Irish Studies alike. Bowery to Broadway is a detailed, clearly-written and thoughtfully argued study that is sure to become the standard work on Irish-American representation in the Classic Hollywood period.”
“In meticulous detail and with wonderfully accessible prose, Shannon presents accounts of essential, and in some cases not-so-essential, films that represent key elements of Irish-American life. . . . Shannon has staked a claim to a significant area of Film Studies and shown a first-rate ability to engage it.”
Introduction: The Sidewalks of New York
1 Hell’s Kitchen
2 City for Conquest
3 The Bowery Cinderella
4 The Bells of Saint Mary’s
5 The Lights of Old Broadway
Conclusion: The Suburbs of America