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
Leo Gorcey Bobby Jordan Huntz Hall
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

Irish-American Horror and Fantasy Movies: Snow in August (2001)

Magic is not the most extraordinary thing in the world: "Snow in August"

Magic is not the most extraordinary thing in the world: “Snow in August”

Snow in August (2001)

Written by: Richard Friedenberg, Pete Hamill (book)
Directed by: Richard Friedenberg
Starring: Peter Tambakis, Stephen Rea, Lolita Davidovich
Summary: A small but lovely magical realist film about the unlikely friendship between an Irish-American boy and a rabbi.

I was briefly tempted to put this film into my Irish-American Crime Movie section. It is, after all, about the unlikely friendship between an Irish-American teenager and a rabbi in Brooklyn in the year 1947, and both must contend with the threat of an Irish-American youth gang. But — and this is a bit of a spoiler, but I can’t discuss the film and be circumspect about the climax — in the last half hour, the boy brings a golem to life.

For those of you unfamiliar with golems, they are creatures made of clay, and the most famous was supposedly created by Rabbi Judah Loew in Prague in the late-16th century to battle antisemitism.  Judah Loew was a real man, by the way, although the story is likely a literary invention of the 19th century. The golem was the subject of a marvelous German Expressionistic film called ” The Golem: How He Came into the World” in 1920, where the creature was thick-featured and burly, with an enormous, blunt wig that really looked like it was made of clay. The golem in this film is very different: Tall, lean, and bald, colored reddish-brown, with a sweet, expressive face that most often expresses a deep sympathy for the characters. The golem also wears a red cape pinned with a button emblazoned with the image of baseball player Jackie Robinson, and there is a reason for this.

His friends are openly antisemitic, and the local Irish gang is violently antisemitic.
The film, based on the novel by Pete Hamill, is set during Robinson’s first season playing for the Dodgers, and the film’s Irish-American child, Michael Devlin (Peter Tambakis), is a fan. He’s alone in this, too; reactions to Robinson from his friends and neighbors are generally racist. For whatever reason, however, Devlin has little patience for intolerance, and he tends to respond to any expression of hatred with dismissive sarcasm. There’s no explicit reason for this, but Devlin is a very bright boy, and, moreover, even in an Irish-American neighborhood, he’s a bit of an outsider. His mother, played by Lolita Davidovich, is an immigrant from Ireland, and his father died in World War II, and Devlin is perceptive enough to know that the fact that she is a single mother and the fact that she is an immigrant has made things a bit hard for her.

It also makes him a little more friendly than he might otherwise be to the neighborhood’s other immigrants, who are Jewish. And that makes things a bit hard for him. His friends are openly antisemitic, and the local Irish gang is violently antisemitic. One in the gang beats a Jewish shopkeeper to death, and Devlin witnesses it. He’s galled, but the gang member immediately starts threatening him. More than that, there is a neighborhood code against squealing; even his mother discourages him, telling him that in Ireland, the worst thing a person can be is a quisling.

Devlin lives very near an abandoned synagogue, tended to by a friendly rabbi, played by Irish actor Stephen Rea. The rabbi asks the boy to help him out on the sabbath; he quickly enlists the boy to help him learn English, trading him lessons in Yiddish, which intrigues Devlin. However, this relationship encourages the local gang to believe that Devlin can’t be trusted, and their threats turn to terrorism, which is when Devlin turns to Jewish mysticism for protection.

The film was made for television, and often feels it. It has a nice sense of the era it is in, but it’s mostly created through costume, set design, and smart location choices, which are relatively inexpensive. The director, Richard Friedenberg, is probably best-known for his work on the Grizzly Addams series back in the Seventies, and he’s not a showy director, favoring relatively static shots in the middle distance or simply placing his characters in the middle of the frame when they have long scenes of dialogue. The script is sometimes a bit too pointed, with characters clearly expressing what a subtler fimmaker would leave as subtext, as though the audience needed the film’s moral spelled out for them.

The film is interested in how much people are alike, despite profound cultural differences.
But these are quibbles. The film is very well cast, and the unshowiness of the direction encourages expressive performances from the cast, especially Rea, who plays a character who is quietly heartbroken from his experiences in Europe. The film showcases its characters’ affection and compassion for each other, so much so that when the golem finally appears, he seems a creation of kindness and neighborliness, and not a monster. And so it feels right that the only badge the creature wears is a picture of Jackie Robinson.

The film is interested in how much people are alike, despite profound cultural differences. This is most obvious in its casting — I don’t believe it was an accident that a famously Irish actor was cast as a Jew. Loloita Davidovitch is an actress of Serbian heritage who seems born to play Eastern Europeans and Jewish women, but here is cast as an Irish woman.  And I don’t know the origin of Peter Tambakis’ last name, but it is not Irish. So even the casting serves as a metaphor for the ways people from one culture or ethnicity can sympathize with people from another.

This is also dramatized in the film. Devlin proves not only to be a fan of Jackie Robinson, but also of Yiddish, which he uses when he’s around Jewish immigrants, to their delight an amazement. (He’s not the first; James Cagney spoke a little Yiddish and liked to show off the fact.) The rabbi, in turn, is fascinated by American culture. He carefully tracks baseball stats and, at one point, Devlin catches him playing along to jazz with a ritual ram’s horn. As they get to know each other, the rabbi and the boy come to realize they have something painful in common — both have lost family members to Nazis. And, as the film progresses, they share something even worse, in that both are targeted for violence.

This relationship is so carefully detailed, and genuinely sweet, that the climax of the film necessarily feels like an afterthought, less a climax to the story than a necessary denouement to wrap up the conflict of the film. And perhaps this is a failing — I’m not sure that the fantastic should feel tacked on in a film about the fantastic. But, then, in this story, the most extraordinary thing is a friendship between two characters who are superficially so different, and yet discover so much in common. No golem is going to feel more amazing, or more important, than that.

Irish-American Symbols: The Winged Fist

The winged fist of the Irish American Athletic Club.

The winged fist of the Irish American Athletic Club.

There was once an organization called the Irish American Athletic Club, and, if you know a bit about Irish-American history, you probably have heard of it. It was an amateur athletic club based in Queens, NY, that bought farmland near Calvary Cemetery and built a sports facility there called Celtic Park, which formally opened in 1901.

The logo was reportedly inspired by, and meant to subtly mock, the logo of the New York Athletic Club, which was the winged foot of Mercury.
If you’ve heard of the organization, you’ve probably heard of it because it was responsible for a group called, unflatteringly and probably never to their face, the Irish Whales. This was a large group of athletes who were oversized, both in accomplishment and sometimes in physique. Among them was Martin Sheridan, who hailed from my ancestral town of Bohola, Ireland, and was a five time Olympic Gold Medalist, taking home nine total Olympic medals, and probably would have continued to dominate amateur sports had he not been an early victim of the 1918 Flu pandemic.

The Irish Whales are collectively a fascinating group and worth their own series of entries, which I may return to later. But first I want to discuss the IAAC, and, in particular, it’s terrific logo, which you can see in the program at the top of this page: It is a winged fist emerging from clouds bearing the words “Láim Láidir Abú,” or, roughly translated, “a strong hand will be victorious” or “strong hand forever.” American flags emerge from either side of the motto, and the wings have shamrocks emblazoned on them.

It’s marvelous. I can’t think of an Irish-American logo that would look better on the back of a biker jacket or as a tattoo on a flexed bicep. The logo was reportedly inspired by, and meant to subtly mock, the logo of the New York Athletic Club, which was the winged foot of Mercury.

Best of all, the logo is a bit scary. In 2005, a man named Ian McGowan moved into an apartment called Celtic Park in Sunnyside, suspecting it was built on the site of the IAAC facility. He was right, and began collecting IAAC memorabilia. In 2007, he tried to convince the apartment’s coop board to install a plaque commemorating the organization, but was repeatedly rebuffed. According to the Wall Street Journal, some of the members were offended by the logo: “To them, Mr. McGowan explained, it evokes images of radical groups like the Black Panthers.” A commenter follows this up, saying the issue is actually “the precedent such an act would start, making it difficult for any other special interest group to be denied similar treatment.” This sounds like standard coop doublespeak to me, though, as I can’t imagine hundreds of groups were waiting in the wings with plaques emblazoned with swastikas or upraised middle fingers, and how could the board turn them down?

Whatever the case, I suspect the Wall Street Journal article helped. As far as I can tell, the plaque has yet to be installed, but in 2012, the street Celtic Park is on was co-named “Winged Fist Way.”

Irish-American Crime Films: Run All Night (2015)


The quick and the dead: Liam Neeson in "Run All Night"

The quick and the dead: Liam Neeson in “Run All Night”

Run All Night (2015)

Written by: Brad Ingelsby
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman
Summary: Neeson is game and the plotting is straightforward in this story of an enforcer looking to save his son from a mob hit, but the direction is intrusive and the action sometimes nonsensical.

To give credit where it is due, there is an elegant simplicity to the plot of “Run All Night,” and it is this: Liam Neeson has 24 hours to protect his son from a mob hit. It starts grubby, with Neeson playing an alcoholic former enforcer to an Irish mobster in New York, played by Ed Harris. Neeson is a man who is haunted by his past, when he was a notorious butcher of men, and Harris is a man who has moved past his criminal roots into semi-legitimacy. Neeson has an estranged son and Harris has a deranged son, and when the former sees the latter commit murder, the two families collide, with Neeson’s faculty for murder his only defense against the considerable resources Harris can muster. This includes rapper Common as a nearly inhuman killing machine with an unexplained yen to destroy Neeson.

The film has a series of vivid set pieces, included a protracted and lurid showdown in a burning and police-infested housing project that is like a miniature version of the Indonesian actioner “The Raid: Redemption.” (Perhaps unsurprisingly, “Run All Night’s” screenwriter will be scripting the American adaptation of “The Raid.”). And the film tries for a gruffness, an unglamorous workaday quality like the decidedly low-rent crime films of the 70s. Liam Neeson, at the start of the film, is intoxicated and begging money to repair his heater while working as Santa at Harris’ Christmas party; we’ll see him later hugging a space heater in his ramshackle home. Neeson’s son, played by Joel Kinnaman, teaches kids in a boxing gym. The film has them visit Neeson’s brother, played by an uncredited Nick Nolte, and the former lead actor has developed a second career playing squalid, broken men, his always-raspy voice now completely ruined. Harris’ gang, in the meanwhile, is filled with an assortment of terrific Irish-American character actors, including Bruce McGill and Holt McCallany, and it’s about the most authentically Irish-American-looking mob since “State of Grace,” which this film sometimes resembles, especially in casting Ed Harris as a mob boss.

The film tries for a gruffness, an unglamorous workaday quality like the decidedly low-rent crime films of the 70s.
But there’s something a bit daft about it all. Director Jaume Collet-Serra often lenses scenes with a flashiness that manages to be showy but distracting — he especially favors cutting between scenes by sending his camera flying through the city from one location to the next, like a cinematic version of plotting a route on Google maps. The results are a bit unreal looking, and I can imagine it might have been a useful device if the intention was to clarify where scenes were set in relation to each other, or to show that everybody lives by each other, but they instead serve no obvious function.

And the script by Brad Ingelsby is sometimes oddly stupid. Harris has a gang of several dozen men, all of whom, we are given to believe, are fairly skilled at enforcing their boss’s will. Harris sends them out into the city to find Neeson and his son, and somehow they never bother to look in on Neeson’s brother, his sick mother, or the gym where Neeson’s son works to see if there is anybody there who might know anything. The police don’t bother with this either, even though, they believe (rightly) that Neeson has murdered two cops. Even Common, who is supposed to be superlative at this sort of thing, simply skips doing basic investigation and just shows up wherever a police scanner says Neeson might be, which makes his task needlessly complicated, as now his task of killing Neeson and son also involves assaulting and shooting the cops who are also looking for them. Stranger still, none of this is necessary. Neeson has made it clear he means to kill Harris; they just have to hang around by the mob boss and wait for Neeson to show up.

A pity, because the film would have benefited from making everybody competent at what they do. Every scene would have had an enjoyable frisson of potential danger to it if everywhere Neeson went, his hunters had already arrived or were on their way. His choices would have had to be smarter, and the way he went about them craftier and deadlier. Worse still, there is very little sense of a struggle in Neeson’s character — the moment the bullets fly, he stops being a drunk and just becomes the sort of towering figure of skilled murderousness that Neeson has been essaying for the past decade. But the film would have been much tenser if it were the broken Neeson, his skills undermined by years of drinking, his head foggy and his behavior stupidly and sometimes suicidally desperate.

Despite this, there are some pleasures to be had in the film. One of them comes near the film’s climax, and I don’t want to spoil it, so I’ll just say this: It’s very similar to the ending of “State of Grace,” where a man with a gun enters an Irish bar and starts shooting. In that film, the scene ends very badly for Ed Harris. There is an almost identical scene in this film, and when the man with the gun enters the bar and starts shooting, Ed Harris behaves like he remembers the earlier film. Instead of pulling out a gun and joining in the shooting, he throws open the back door and just runs away.

I always like it when people learn from mistakes they made in earlier films.

Irish-American Symbols: Tipperary Hill Traffic Light

A watercolor by  Casey Landerkin witha  Haiku by Michele Reed from the The Syracuse Poster Project Haiku Challenge. Artist: Casey Landerkin, of Syracuse Poet: Michele Reed, of Oswego Stone throwers were rightÑ What would Tipp Hill be without that green-on-top light?

A watercolor by Casey Landerkin witha Haiku by Michele Reed from the The Syracuse Poster Project Haiku Challenge.

There is a traffic light in Syracuse, New York, that is upside down, and I always felt that this would catch on as a symbol of Irish America. The traffic light is on the corner of Tompkins Street and Milton Avenue in a neighborhood called Tipperary Hill, which, as you can probably guess from the name, was largely settled by the Irish. And why is the street sign upside down? Well … because it’s an area largely settled by the Irish.

I cannot find contemporary accounts, so I’ll print the legend. As story has it, when Syracuse began installing traffic signals in 1925, members of the largely Irish Far Westside neighborhood rebelled at placing a red signal above a green one, as green symbolizes Ireland and red symbolizes England. Young Irelander poet Thomas Davis wrote a poem on this very theme called “The Green Above the Red,” which reads, in part, as follows:

Full often when our fathers saw the Red above the Green,
They rose in rude but fierce array, with sabre, pike and scian,
And over many a noble town, and many a field of dead,
They proudly set the Irish Green above the English Red.

So, as the tale goes, locals broke the street lamp, and continued to do so until it was hung upside down, to the satisfaction of locals and the frustration of color-blind motorists.

Is it true? The Syracuse Post Standard went searching for evidence and found it in short supply:

If the light truly went up in 1925, there was a strange period of silence before it became a well-loved community institution. Almost certainly, for example, there were two John Ryans involved in putting the green on top – “Huckle, “ the city alderman, and John M. Ryan, who ran the city’s traffic signal system. …

Indeed, the first reference to green-over-red in The Post-Standard was apparently in 1949, when the paper reported that Mayor William O’Dwyer of New York City stood beneath the light to greet the famous Walker triplets – two sets of triplets who grew up in the same family.

But if there is little documentary evidence, there was no lack of locals who claimed knowledge of the story, and knowledge of who was involved:

One of the key players in the tale was “Dinty” Gilmartin, a one-legged Irish immigrant who ran a grocery store at that Tipp Hill intersection. The stone throwers used to hang around Gilmartin’s store, and The Post-Standard in 1960 referred to Dinty Gilmartin, then 90, — as the “guardian of the famous green-over-red traffic signal.”

“I heard all the stories, “ said Bob Gilmartin, 80, Dinty’s grandson. He was told that the stone throwers didn’t stop at breaking glass. They also targeted trolley cars passing near Gilmartin’s store, and they found a way to push the cars off the tracks as another means of forcing the city to put the green light back on top.

The Times Union also spoke to a rock-thrower on  March 17, 1989, 81-year-old Richie Britt, and this is the story they got:

“We watched the light being put up. The next morning it was busted. We wanted to have the green on top, it was that simple,” said Britt, who was 14 at the time and destined to become a folk hero.

“It went on for a couple of weeks. We probably busted it seven or eight times. Then the city decided to put the green above the red and that settled that,” Britt said in a still defiant tone.

“Everybody knew about it and nobody said anything. My mother could see me tossing rocks looking out her window; she was quite an Irish lady,” Britt said. “Even the cops, most of who were Irish, they’d blow their horns so we’d scatter before they got there.”

Though none of the youths were ever arrested for breaking the traffic light, Mayor Young “officially” exonerated the nine surviving “stonethrowers” just before the 1987 St. Patrick’s Day parade, at which they served as grand marshals.

Delightfully, the park includes a life-sized statue by artist Dexter Benedict of an Irish-American family, with the father pointing out the street light to his wife, daughter, and son, the latter of whom has a bit of a sly look, perhaps because of the slingshot in his back pocket.
There is now a park adjacent to the street named “Stone Throwers Park,” and the city’s website lists the supposed stone throwers: “A monument was erected to forever memorialize the original group of stone throwers: Jocko Behan, Richie Britt (from the story above!), James ‘Duke’ Coffee, Patrick ‘Packy’ Corbett, Kenny Davis, George Dorsey, Mikis Murphy, Stubbs Shortt, and Eugene Thompson.” Delightfully, the park includes a life-sized statue by artist Dexter Benedict of an Irish-American family, with the father pointing out the street light to his wife, daughter, and son, the latter of whom has a bit of a sly look, perhaps because of the slingshot in his back pocket.

Now, it’s not sure that we can trust all of the claims about the traffic signal — there is, as an example, no evidence that John F. Kennedy ever visited it, despite the story being often repeated. But his brother, Robert, did visit in 1966. It’s become a regular stopping point when Irish and Irish-American bigwigs visit Syracuse, such as Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who posed under the signal light in 2005.

The traffic signal has, unsurprisingly, become a symbol of the Irish-American population of the area, and so will sometimes make its way on to pins and brooches, and it seems like the sort of thing that could find a wider following. Believe it or not, there is a pretty wide selection of traffic light jewelry, and it’s pretty simple to take one and flip it over. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a deep cut — unlike a shamrock or a claddagh ring, it’s not the sort of thing that most people are immediately going to recognize. But there’s an appeal in that as well — like the black star pins that anarchists wear or the pins that Esperanto-speakers wear (which is a green star; what is it with stars?), the upside down traffic signal could be an in-group thing.

If you’re wearing one, and you see someone else wearing one, just offer up a quick nod. You both know what it means: If there’s ever a time when circumstances require it, when the Irish-American cause demands it, you’re ready to pick up a rock and throw it.