Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Pre-Code Parade: THE BOWERY (1933)

In prime time, the dear old Fox Movie Channel succumbs to evil and transforms into FXMovies, sporting recent dreck and commercials through the night. But by day the channel is its old self, which was never on a par with Turner Classic Movies -- its library is simply too limited -- but still airs old movies without ads. Last Tuesday morning it featured an infamous and exemplary Pre-Code item from Darryl F. Zanuck's Twentieth Century Pictures, the production company that took over Fox Film to give us the Twentieth Century-Fox everyone knows today. Raoul Walsh's The Bowery is exemplary because it shows Pre-Code's occasional tendency to reduce humanity to cartoon status. It can't help reminding you of cartoons: Popeye and Bluto reenacted the battle between Chuck Connors (Wallace Beery) and Steve Brodie (George Raft) for the right to fight a fire, while Brodie and his legendary leap off the Brooklyn Bridge later figured prominently in a Bugs Bunny short. The Bowery's violence is cartoonish across the board.  Tiring of one woman's emotional neediness, Connors knocks her out with a blackjack, leaving her to be dragged out by a waiter. Jealous of her male companion's attention to a singer, a woman breaks a bottle over his head. This merry misanthropy makes it hard to take offense, as we may feel we should, at the racism displayed in the picture, if not expressed by it. The late Jackie Cooper, here in his childhood glory, already an Oscar nominee at age eleven and more beloved than ever as Beery's sidekick in The Champ, plays an urchin with an irrepressible compulsion to throw bricks at Chinese laundries. Reprimanded by Connors, "Swipes" tries to minimize the offense by explaining that the victims were "only Chinks." Later, his mischief causes the conflagration that rages out of control, with Chinese denizens trapped inside, while the Connors and Brodie factions fight it out in the street. You the viewer are to sympathize with Swipes none the less. The Bowery revels in its transgressiveness. I'm sure that Walsh and his writers (including master character actor James Gleason) knew what they were about when the first shot of the film proper, following an introductory title card, is a shot of a saloon brazenly labeled "Nigger Joe's." Again, the idea isn't to disparage black people, who are actually conspicuously absent from the movie compared to the Chinese, but to show off how chip-on-the-shoulder wild and crazy Bowery people were back when Walsh was but a lad. Some of the original publicity emphasized how much tougher than the gangsters of 1933 the likes of Connors and Brodie supposedly were. That may have been true in the cartoon tough-without-a-gun sense, but the main point is that Pre-Code Hollywood could imagine a past more outrageous and sinful than its own semi-legendary present. Nearly twenty years earlier, or halfway between The Bowery and the time it portrays, Walsh had filmed one of his first features, Regeneration, on the actual New York strip. That film is neorealism compared to The Bowery, and the comparison leaves you wondering exactly how far film art, as opposed to film technology, had actually advanced in the interim. I don't mean to say conclusively that Regeneration is the better movie, but I do wonder about Walsh's changing priorities.

If audiences were invited to see The Bowery as a retro gangster picture with comedy and sentiment, the actual subject of the movie seems to be celebrity. Brodie in particular has no apparent ambition except to be famous, the most popular man on the Bowery. To do this, he must surpass Connors at every opportunity. Strangely, there doesn't seem to be any political context for their rivalry, unless you count their status as captains of volunteer fire companies. As Brodie, Raft gives the liveliest performance I can recall seeing from him, bursting into soft shoe occasionally as a personal trademark to remind us that George Raft was another Jimmy Cagney, a tough guy who did dance. That combination made both men emblematic Pre-Code performers, though Cagney continued to flourish through the Enforcement era while Raft floundered with proverbial cluelessness. The combination also brought both actors close to cartoonishness as they approached the early sound cartoon's inhuman ideal of the thoroughly syncopated man in a syncopated world. The Bowery's nostalgic setting takes some of the edge off that inhumanity, especially after the story settles down to a more sentimental level, with Connors and Brodie vying for the affections of both Swipes and gamine Lucy Calhoun (Fay Wray). Brodie's quest for fame leads him to hire no less than the great John L. Sullivan to box under a mask in order to humiliate Connors's latest prospect and win a $500 bet. It also inspires the famous bridge stunt, about which Walsh strives to keep us guessing. He shows Brodie planning to hoax it by throwing a dummy off the bridge, but we see his scheme go awry and the man himself on the bridge pursued by cops. Can we trust our eyes afterward? I won't say, but Brodie's rise from the water is Connors's fall from grace, which he avenges over an extended, clumsily authentic climactic brawl. Beery and Raft do their own fighting for the most part and it looks just as you might expect -- like a Toughman bout, the fighters flailing and flinging each other about with primal gusto. It's the opposite of fight choreography, and it works for this film. Unfortunately, the film fritters itself away afterward, ending without closure as Connors and Brodie go to war with Spain, as if Walsh intended to loop backward in his own career and reimagine What Price Glory? as a sequel to The Bowery. It can't sustain the breakneck pace and brazen audacity of its first half, but that fraction is practically worth watching in its own right as a high-water mark, or a nadir for oversensitive viewers, of Pre-Code transgression.

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