Irish-American Crime Films: ‘Neath Brooklyn Bridge (1942)

Huntz Hall and a goon in "Neath Brooklyn Bridge."

Huntz Hall and a goon in “Neath Brooklyn Bridge.”

‘Neath Brooklyn Bridge (1942)

Written by: Harvey Gates
Directed by:
Wallace Fox
Starring:
Leo Gorcey Bobby Jordan Huntz Hall
Summary:
The East Side Kids get caught up in a theft scheme in a Lower East Side that seems entirely populated by sailors.

I can’t help but like Poverty Row movies. For those unfamiliar with the term, “Poverty Row” referred to a collection of independent, low-budget movie production companies that churned out mostly forgettable genre fare from the 20s through the 50s. They are typically not very good, with lethargic direction, inconsistent performance, and are often shot on barely disguised soundstages. The storylines are often hackneyed and the dialogue unmemorable.

But forget conventional wisdom about what makes a good movie. Poverty Row films put their attention elsewhere, often taking a successful formula and toying with endless permutations. Because there was a built-in audience for this, and because they could make these films cheaply, Poverty Row studios became a sort-of primordial swamp, tearing apart elements of other films and recombining them into endless mutations. These weren’t the prestige films of the major studios, they were the Frankenstein monsters, and, as a result, you would often see things in Poverty Row films you could not see elsewhere.

As an example, in “Neath Brooklyn Bridge,” there is a bar owned by a hoodlum named McGaffey, and it is sailor-themed. The walls are decorated with ships’ wheels, while starfish and sailor’s caps hang above the bar. There seem to be sailors everywhere in the bar, dressed in costumes that make them look like extras from a live-action Popeye cartoon.

The Lower East Side was also a sailor hangout — it borders one of the world’s largest ports, and, in its earlier incarnation as Corlear’s Hook, was so famous for brothels catering to sailors that it was likely the source of the word “hooker.”
The film is set in the Two Bridges neighborhood of New York, which, for most of the film career, was Dead Ends Kids territory, and this is a Dead End Kids movie — although produced by Poverty Row’s Monogram Pictures, which had snapped some of the Dead End Kids up when Warner Brothers dropped their contracts and renamed them the East Side Kids. But the Lower East Side was also a sailor hangout — it borders one of the world’s largest ports, and, in its earlier incarnation as Corlear’s Hook, was so famous for brothels catering to sailors that it was likely the source of the word “hooker.” I rarely see films set in New York that show the world of its sailors at all, and this film is brimming with them.

In fact, two of the main supporting characters in the film are sailors. There’s a navy man, played by Noah Beery Jr., who is a grown-up version of the East Side Kids and still hangs out with them every so often — they have a basement clubhouse that seems exclusively devoted to model ships and airplanes. There is also an old man called the Skipper who is paralyzed but communicated by blinking in Morse code. Even the East Side Kids wear striped sailor’s shirts, as though this film were being marketed to the Sea Scouts, to be watched while members learned how to tie knots and and navigate by finding a pole star.

The film has a simple plot, and so I will dispense with it in a few sentences: McGaffey, The gangster who owns the sailor bar needs East Side Kid Leo Gorcey (here named Muggs McGinnis) to help him with a burglary. McGaffey kills a man and convinces Gorcey he is guilty of the crime. The gang bands together and solves the case. Spolier alert: They do this by gathering together a gang of friends and assaulting McGaffey and his lackeys in a silk warehouse, which is an example of the sort of surprisingly plotting that sometimes happened in Poverty Row films.

Leo Gorcey would be the leader of the gang for most of their work as the Bowery Boys, but in the early films he ping ponged back and forth between lead and supporting character, and it;s easy to see why, as he’s a squirrely lead. He has laconic and sometimes hesitant mannerisms coupled with wary eyes, and it feels as though his proper place in life is less to lead men than to cynically comment on their foibles, which he does often in famously mangled malapropisms.

But he’s also quick-witted and a bit of a bully, and you get the sense that he’s the default leader of the gang here. The other kids just defer to him, in part because he’s pretty bright, but in part because if they don’t, they risk a blast of his scolding wit and a sock on the shoulder. Nobody seems happy about this state of affairs — at one point he goes over to a kid making a model airplane and offers a suggestion, and the kid just hands him the model and tells him to finish it himself. Gorcey seems a bit taken aback by this, and doesn’t take to leadership easily; he spends most of the film keeping his own council, sorting things out by himself, and only enlists the rest of the gang’s help when he needs muscle.

Another of the kids, Huntz Hall, seems much more comfortable with the role he would later exclusively play — the gang’s clown. Hall was capable of more, as he showed in “Little Tough Guy,” but he had a talent for screwy goofballs, and the film gives him plenty of opportunity to goof around, including a scene in which he steals soup from ‘Snub’ Pollard, a silent film comedians. These Poverty Row films were full of slumming stars, and it’s fun spotting them in the background.

In fact, there’s one who goes uncredited who I think should be the subject of his own film: Frank Moran, who plays the bartender. Moran, the son of Irish immigrants, was an real sailor, having served in the Navy after having studied dentistry at the University of Pittsburgh. While in the military, he started prizefighting (and was a sparring partner for President Theodore Roosevelt), and he fought under the nickname “The Fighting Dentist.” He quickly went into movies, playing tough guys and criminals, including having been part of Preston Sturges’ stock company. He also played his share of sailor, including in Fred Astaire’s “Follow the Fleet” (he played “Husky Sailor”) and Raoul Walsh’s “Sailor’s Luck” (playing “Bilge Moran”).

Other roles played by Frank Moran: Dimwitted Goon, coarse slave seeking rich widow, Ape Man, Jack the Beefer, Sailor in Oyster Bed Cafe, East Side Pug, Louie the Lug, Sarcastic Townsman.
You just don’t get life stories, or resumes, like his anymore. Let me offer up a few more roles he played. So here we go; other roles played by Frank Moran: Dimwitted Goon, coarse slave seeking rich widow, Ape Man, Jack the Beefer, Sailor in Oyster Bed Cafe, East Side Pug, Louie the Lug, Sarcastic Townsman.

I think this demonstrates that a former sailor in New York could have a pretty interesting life, which “‘Neath Brooklyn Bridge” seemed to appreciate