1930s Film: The Bowery, Social Sensibility and Change


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2099rCuriosity about Hollywood’s take on Steve Brodie’s claim that he jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge on July 23, 1886 drew viewers to FX Movie Channel’s recent broadcast of the seldom-shown 1933 movie The Bowery.

Produced by Darryl Zanuck and directed by Raoul Walsh, the movie also promised to show how the bare-knuckle boxer, John L. Sullivan, and the saloon-smashing reformer, Carrie Nation, fit into Brodie’s life.

In the movie set in the Gay Nineties Brodie, played by George Raft, does jump off the Brooklyn Bridge in order to win a bet with his belligerent rival Chuck Connors, who was played by Wallace Beery. Stories by contemporary reporters in the New York Times did not challenge Brodie’s claim to have jumped. However, by the time he died in 1901, the newspaper referred to him as the “alleged bridge jumper.” Controversy has surrounded Brodie’s claim to have jumped for the last 127 years.

John L. Sullivan, an early heavyweight champion of gloved boxing and probably the last heavyweight champion of bare-knuckle boxing, was played by George Walsh, the director’s brother. Sullivan makes his appearance early in the movie as a fighter managed by Brodie who wins a bet for him by knocking out Bloody Butch, a fighter managed by Connors. Sullivan does it with one punch.

Carrie Nation appears late in the movie at the head of a marching mob of angry women armed with axes and umbrellas, intent on destroying saloons. Played by Lillian Harmer, Nation orders Connors to “stand aside you son of Satan” before leading her forces into his saloon and totally demolishing it.

0733rAs entertaining as these three slices of “Hollywood history” might be, viewers with thin social-sensitivity skins probably began looking for the off button on their TV remotes as soon as the first shot in the movie appears—the camera zooms in on a saloon window emblazoned with “Nigger Joe’s.” The 1933 movie-makers clearly have not encountered political correctness yet. Their characters readily discuss “hilarious” matters concerning “coons,” “chinks,” “guineas,” and “skoits.”

The movie is filled with what a modern reviewer described as “cartoonish violence.” The slap-stick mayhem has no sexual boundaries. In one bar scene, when a drunken woman refuses to leave Connors alone to eat and drink his supper, he takes a blackjack out of his pocket and knocks her unconscious to the floor. A waiter drags her away by one arm. In another bar scene, when a man offends his female companion by being overly enthusiastic about the show girls dancing and singing on stage, she smashes a bottle across his chin and face, knocking him to the floor, backwards off his chair. The waiter leaves him there.

The cartoonish violence is an equal opportunity employer. When white firefighters from competing volunteer fire companies brawl for the right to be the first to put out a fire, Chinese workers trapped on the second floor of the burning building scream for help. The firefighters are too busy knocking each other senseless to save the workers who burn to death in the building by the time the fight is over.

The most unexpected violence in the movie involved Brodie and his love interest, Lucy Calhoun who was played by Fay Wray, fresh from her role in King Kong. When Brodie aggressively grabs her with his arms and pulls her close to him, she resists by biting him on his hand so hard she draws blood. In response, he viciously swats her across the face and says, “we’re even, you bit me and I took a sock at you.” After he apologizes and she apologizes, they promptly fall in love.

At the end of the movie as Brodie and Connors march off together to Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American War, it is clear why the movie is rarely broadcast or screened—it violates almost every social sensibility it can, for laughs. When it came out in 1933, the only objection the New York Times movie reviewer had was to the costumes which he said were “clownish.” Aside from the “coarse interludes in this production,” he said approvingly that the movie was punctuated by “ribald mirth, brawls, fights, noise, and vulgarity.”

Can playing to the lowest common denominator be really funny or should we be happy that The Bowery is seldom shown?

On the other hand, instead of wrestling with this question, maybe we should spend more time trying to confirm whether or not Brodie did jump from the Brooklyn Bridge, or examine his claims of swimming down the Hudson River from Albany to New York City in six days and one hour in June 1888, or to have jumped off the Poughkeepsie Bridge in November 1888, or to have gone over Niagara Falls in a rubber suit in September 1889.

 

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