by Allan Fish
(USA 1933 92m) not on DVD
When it’s on the strict QT
p Darryl F.Zanuck, Raymond Griffith, William Goetz d Raoul Walsh w Howard Estabrook, James Gleason novel Michael L.Simmons, Bessie Roth Solomon ph Barney McGill ed Allen McNeil m Alfred Newman art Richard Day
Wallace Beery (Chuck Connors), George Raft (Steve Brodie), Fay Wray (Lucy Calhoun), Jackie Cooper (Swipes), Pert Kelton (Trixie Odbray), George Walsh (John L.Sullivan), Lillian Harmer (Carrie A.Nation), Herman Bing (Max Herman), Harold Huber (Slick), Oscar Apfel (Ivan Rummel), Ferdinand Munier (Honest Mike), Irving Bacon (Hick), John Kelly (Lumpy Hogan), Charles Lane (doctor), Charles Middleton (detective), Lucille Ball, Paulette Goddard,
In his film guide Leonard Maltin says of The Bowery that it has something to offend just about anyone. When it showed in New York recently, a friend asked me why this film was not available on DVD and I could only say to him whether he stayed awake during the film or not. In a US where Song of the South still cannot be given a legitimate release, how would the politically correct brigade feel about a film which, in a matter of minutes, features a young boy on the run from Chinamen after throwing a rock through their window? His guardian takes him to one side and talks to him. “Now listen here, Swipesy, you’ve got to stop throwing them rocks through Chinamen’s windows or I’m gonna have to throw you out…” to which the kid responds “but Chuck, it was only a Chink’s window.” Only a few minutes later and said guardian is lecturing him once again in his bar, firstly about his swapping his cigarette cards of hard men for those of Lillian Russell and co., to which the kid replies “they aint good lookin’ like the skoits!” He is then told to go home, only to protest “I promised to stop by Nigger Joe’s”; so the guardian takes him to task again; “what have I told you about that coon?” Indeed, the first image you see in the film is the window to some dive with the words Nigger Joe’s on it. Even now, you’re left uncomfortable.
Said guardian is Chuck Connors, who runs his own saloon in the eponymous rough area of New York in the late 1880s and who looks after Swipes, a small boy who he picked up out of the gutters eating from garbage cans. Chuck’s big rival is Steve Brodie, and both have set up rival fire brigades and fight to claim ownership by getting to fires first. One such fire erupts after Swipes throws another rock through a Chinaman’s window and starts the fire by hitting a gas lantern. Brodie’s lot get there first, but Swipes hides the fire hydrant so Connors’ crew can use it, and then the two fight over who gets to put the fire out while the poor Chinamen remain trapped in the inferno. Then the rivalry really comes to the boil when Lucy Calhoun turns up and Chuck falls for her, only for her to fall for Steve. And then when Steve bets Chuck he can jump off the Brooklyn Bridge and Chuck loses his saloon and everything else to his rival when he does.
As one can easily see, it’s deeply offensive stuff taken from the viewpoint of the 21st century, but also quite hilarious in a guilty pleasure sort of way, and shot in the same rambunctious, boisterous way that Walsh always shot his pre-code packages. One can imagine censors the breadth of the land getting into a tizz, not so much at the racial remarks but at the ogling camera. Look at how it hovers over the cleavage of the chorus girls in Connors’ bar or how, when Lucy answers the door, she’s in her underwear to show off her pins before putting on a dressing gown. Beery and Cooper had the sort of rapport honed in the likes of The Champ at MGM and here transported to Fox they are just as perfect, while Wray, though given little to do but look delicious, is as fetching as few could be at the time. Raft, too, is on top form as the happy-go-lucky Brodie, equally perfectly matched against Beery’s braggadocio. And then there’s Kelton, hilarious either when drunk or singing ‘Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-De-Ay’ (actually not composed until 1891 while the real Brooklyn Bridge jump took place in 1886) with that Oirish voice sounding like a cat in heat after a night or three on the town. Look out, too, for Dr Sugarman’s Painless Dentist, whose poor victim is seen kicking about through his shop window.