Roughhouse Comedy: ‘The Cock-eyed World,’ ‘Me and My Gal,’ ‘The Bowery’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

The Cock-eyed World is a plodding, heavyhanded and rather entertaining sequel, with sound, to What Price Glory?. The Flagg-Quirt stuff is less than thrilling, partly because of Edmund Lowe’s mismatched assets and liabilities, partly because the repartee keeps reverting to the “Aw—sez you” tack. But there’s a good deal to savor at an agreeably crude level. An early bit of in-joke dialogue has Quirt lamenting the newfangled notions about how a soldier should talk—seems that it’s not right for a soldier to swear anymore. Quirt and Flagg quickly exchange insults about how the lack of swearing will reduce the other’s working vocabulary to practically nil. This sidelong reference to talking-picture taboos out of the way, Walsh, McLaglen, Lowe and friends go about the business of making a rowdy picture without benefit of its predecessor’s “silent” profanity.

Flagg keeps his pet monkey in a chamber pot; Quirt gets thumped by a jealous Russian strongman who seems to be named Sanavitch and who looses a truly Herculean spray of saliva at Quirt’s face from a range of about two feet; Quirt calls Flagg a horse’s neck and “You great big horse’s ancestor”; Flagg greets a ladyfriend with “How’s my Fanny?” and the comic stooge (El Brendel) introduces a map-bearing Latin girl as “the lay of the land” (“The what?” asks Flagg with a straight face and great interest); and yet another female strikes the stooge, a Swede, as “yoos my tripe.”

Lili Damita, Victor McLaglen, Edmund Lowe

“I’m fulla ideas,” says Quirt; “You’re fulla shellac,” says Flagg. Quirt has a favorite trick—pulling a rose “out of thin air,” but usually from the thin air that is behind the girl he’s trying to snow. Flagg hears a young lady enthusing over the stunt—”… he pull it from behind”—and seizes the opportunity, “He would pull it from behind. So, you’re still working from the back, eh?” Near the start, Flagg tells a lovesick soldier that there’s really only one dame that a fella can trust: “yer mudder.” This solemn declaration is given just enough time to seem sanctified before both men admit that their respective mudders have long since kicked the bucket. McLaglen does the Flaggmanic laughter bit at every opportunity, but about the time this seems too much, Walsh salvages the whole thing by having everybody in the vicinity look bored as hell with these all-too-Flaggian antics.

On a number of occasions, Walsh and the film pause to savor ethnic differences—different locales (including Russia and Latin America) as well as different backgrounds among the Marines. Flagg is “all American”—and he goes on to explain that he has family in Boston and San Francisco, and Irish, Italian, and several other bloods flowing in his veins. Flagg’s advance description of Latin America includes “Beautiful janes—a little dark, but okay.” And, rather interestingly (in a film by a director with a French first name and an Irish last name), the Latin American girl (Lily Damita) whom Quirt and Flagg pursue mixes Latin fieriness with constant tossing of a wild “Irish” mane. A surprising social comment and the odd fatalism of Walsh’s soldiers emerges when Flagg speculates on the role (and fate) of the Marine Corps: “Protecting big business. Big business keeps us busy.” Later, some Latin American guerrillas get hot with new guns and a “new kind of war.” “Where’d they get those guns?” “Big business,” says Flagg with gusto and irony, “big business.” The script is by Raoul Walsh.

***

Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett

Me and My Gal is almost a series of parties given in and around a story about a young cop courting a waterfront waitress and catching, more or less inadvertently, the gangster who’s blackmailing her sister. It’s a routine B-movie tale, but Walsh and company devote a minimum of time to narrative and amble off into comic digressions and easygoing rambunctiousness, often with delightful results. The cop, Danny Dolan, gets the gangster in a neatly staged climax involving a skylight, but the vitality of the film inheres in a number of sprawling comic scenes: a festive wedding party in a walk-up apartment, a livingroom flirtation scene which includes a parody of a contemporary O’Neill exercise from MGM (“Strange Inner-tube”), a nutty scene in a haberdashery with Dolan finally purchasing the hat he wore into the store, a brawling argument about a fish among a motley collection of waterfront types.

The young Spencer Tracy plays Dolan with a sort of relaxed cockiness as he patrols the waterfront beat, swiping food (and sharing it with a pal), eyeing girls, coddling drunks, breaking up a fight between youngsters and then letting them finish it after all. Helen Riley (Joan Bennett) is saucy, sexy, tough, streetwise; she literally charges at various men in defense of her sister, outtalks and outsasses everybody in the film, and generally holds her own. These two approach each other with sarcasm and wit, and form the closest Walshian equivalent to the Bogart-Bacall relationships of two Howard Hawks films. But Bogart and Bacall are paragons of reserve by comparison. Holding little back, Danny and Helen come at each other with hammy delight: he sprawling over a diner counter for an unstylish kiss, she shaking her rear at the camera and strutting around the livingroom with his derby on her head. Similarly, the parody of O’Neill is used to reveal the couple’s slightly indecorous appetites for each other. They embody a simple, unabashed fleshy eroticism which seems characteristic of Walsh, but which gets its fullest expression in the films made before the inception of the Breen code in 1934.

The film’s Rabelaisian qualities carry over into tasty use of the vernacular. Dolan: “Hey, Beezock*. Park that gum.” Helen (nodding in assent), “Jake.” Dolan gives a banana to a grufty, improbably polysyllabic stevedore and says, “Wrap your kisser around that.” And some of this carries over into the ribaldry. There’s a recurring bit of mock-angry anal humor: “I’m going to hide my foot in a minute”; and J. Farrell MacDonald, playing the Riley girls’ father, tells a barely comprehensible story about a railroad engineer and a tunnel, the final line of which (“If that thing ever missed that hole!”) may or may not be a cheerfully crude reference to the fact that he is about to leave Dolan and Helen alone in the apartment.

Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett

This verbal earthiness also has to do with a populist undercurrent. What Capra tried to do in somewhat more didactic terms, Walsh’s movie tends to do through an unselfconscious celebration of a specific milieu. Me and My Gal has uncomplimentary wisecracks about bankers and politicians, and poverty makes itself felt in several scenes, but no lessons are drawn for us. Instead, a spontaneous (though by no means harmonious) fellow-feeling springs up time and again. An ebullient, butt-slapping swagger sets its somewhat anarchic tone, and the gap between its lowbrow rowdiness and Capra’s more conventional sense of bourgeois niceties is perhaps reflected in a scene where old man Riley throws a new radio out of an upper-story window. It is not a movie with any particular political point to make, but it captures a spirit which has interesting links with freewheeling Renoir films like Boudu Saved from Drowning and The Crime of M. Lange.

It is symptomatic of the film’s unpretentiousness that Me and My Gal offers a prime example of Walsh’s devotion to what Manny Farber calls “the fine art of spitting.” Here and in Gentleman Jim, in particular, various characters spit away at each other with hilariously uncouth abandon, adding to the brash physical emphasis of the comedy in both cases. But Me and My Gal is by no means artless and in fact an important part of its appeal has to do with the attention to detail. Like Edmund Lowe in What Price Glory?, Dolan pops a breath mint just before paying his girl a visit, a quietly subversive detail vis-à-vis the movies’ sanitized, odorless heroes. The gangster Duke Castenega (played by the director’s brother, George Walsh) kisses the other Riley girl, then mimes a gunshot at her ass as his victim walks away. Elsewhere, we see Castenega brooding and bored on the bed in his attic hideout: he toys with one of the girl’s hairpins and stares into space. One of several scenes involving food becomes a quietly lyrical tribute to the pleasures of eating ice cream (again the comparisons with Capra and Renoir are instructive). And Joan Bennett’s saucy embodiment of female power is echoed in an overheard police call: “…woman beating her husband.” And then there’s J. Farrell MacDonald, long before the French New Wave (and just before the end of Prohibition), turning to the camera in closeup and encouraging us all to join him in a drink. This genial gesture establishes MacDonald as the film’s presiding spirit, and shows us once and for all where its heart is.

***

George Raft, Jackie Cooper, Wallace Beery

The Bowery is a raucous, rambling affair. Occasionally it seems designed as a weepy vehicle for Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery, but it’s also a delightfully uncouth period piece with much of the rough comedy of earlier Walsh films (What Price Glory?, Me and My Gal) and some of the Gay Nineties atmosphere of later ones (The Strawberry Blonde, Gentleman Jim). Chuck Connors (Beery) and Steve Brodie (George Raft) carry on like Flagg and Quirt transplanted to the Bowery, with the rivalry sprawling over several saloon businesses, the local fire brigades, the attentions of Swipes (Cooper) and a prim young lady (Fay Wray), and Brodie’s famous leap off the Brooklyn Bridge. Why do Connors and Brodie go at each other like that? “We both want the same things,” says Steve quite simply. As in Gentleman Jim later on, the joy of fighting is practically an article of faith, “A great scrap”—”The best I ever had, I was unconscious for three hours”—”I lost three teeth there and three there. It was swell….” In one of the film’s bigger scenes, the two rivals’ fire brigades mix it up colossally while a Chinese laundry burns down.

The film opens with several gutsy glimpses of Bowery lowlife (including “Suicide Hall”—a whorehouse). Eventually Chuck Connors is discovered having his shoes shined; soon he is eating dinner and telling Jackie Cooper to steer clear of the dames because “It’s a man’s woild.” At that instant, a floozy enters to remind him that they’re great friends after “what you done to me the other night” at so-and-so’s place. Swipes giggles and Connors, grouchily embarrassed, promptly knocks her cold with a blackjack. A waiter who happens to be passing by with a tray of glasses hardly breaks stride as he drags her off by one arm on his way through. Elsewhere, Connors chastises Swipes for throwing rocks through windows. “Aw, they was only Chinks’ windows,” says Swipes. “A window is a window,” says Connors, and besides, “It ain’t refoined.” As he says this, in closeup, he grandly blows his nose on his hand.

Such comedy is at the heart of a film whose humor sometimes borders on the outrageous. The Chinese laundry fire, for example, is caused by Swipes and the scene concludes with a view of two orientals in coolie outfits screeching through a broken window (implication: burned to death). Indeed, one of the most intriguing elements of The Bowery has to do with a consistent juxtaposition of uninhibited humor and painful realities. It is a comedy, and yet the laundry and its occupants burn, Swipes runs away out of confusion over the contradictions in Connors’ code of manly toughness, Lucy Calhoun (Fay Wray)—a nice girl with literary aspirations—is on the verge of residence in “Suicide Hall,” and Connors ends up enlisting for the Spanish American War without having the faintest idea what it’s all about. If the film’s intentions are ironic, there’s certainly nothing somber about them. And yet the juxtaposition of humor and hurt is too consistent for us not to feel a disquieting originality that links The Bowery with the New Wavish mixtures of modes in the Sixties.

Raoul Walsh directs ‘The Bowery’

Connors’ ups and downs and foolish risks suggest parallels with Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) in The Roaring Twenties, and George Raft’s jaunty, fancy-pants strutting as Brodie anticipates Errol Flynn’s incarnation of the title character in Gentleman Jim. As in a good number of Walsh films, much attention is paid to singing, dancing, fighting and eating, and history and roughhouse romance are made to mingle. John L. Sullivan (brother George Walsh again) puts in an appearance, and Carrie Nation, at Connors’ invitation, hacks up his saloon after he has lost it on a bet with Brodie. The populist undercurrents of Me and My Gal recur, especially in a sequence where Walsh, building up anticipation for Brodie’s jump, gives us a series of closeups in which a wide variety of ethnic types make a wide variety of quick reactions to the whole thing, some of them straight into the camera. Walsh uses a similar device for an astonishing moment of social protest in the otherwise routine Big Brown Eyes (1936) and for a sequence in Gentleman Jim which implies that the whole country has been momentarily united—by the Corbett-Sullivan fight in New Orleans.

The Bowery concludes in characteristic fashion. Connors, down on his luck and spurned by Lucy Calhoun, signs up for the Spanish American War just to “get out of the Bowery.” Only later does he ask, “Who are we fighting?” and the question does not have a pleasant effect on the fellow enlistee with whom he’s talking. At the very end, Connors gives his blessing to the Brodie-Calhoun romance, but in a way he’s the winner, since he and Brodie are about to leave New York together (so much for love?). Beery dips his pinkie in his gun barrel while Raft and Wray kiss goodbye, the two men march off together to the Spanish American War without Lucy Calhoun, and Swipes, the little cutey, is right alongside in an ammunition box. This clutter of farce, sentiment, adventure and satire speaks for the whole, such as it is, of The Bowery. But to clean up the film’s loose ends and nasty lapses might have been to kill it altogether. Its unique flavor and spirit are inseparable from its rawness.

* With regard to the expression ‘beezock’ in Me and My Gal: In his autobiography, Walsh cites ‘beesark’ as a word he invented for prostitute. ‘Beezock’ and ‘beesark’ are not necessarily the same thing (Helen Riley also calls Danny Dolan “beezock” once he’s employed the term), though the resemblance is unmistakable; but in neither case is the term one of contempt. In fact, Walsh notes that some of his Hollywood chums called him “beesark”.

THE COCK-EYED WORLD
Fox, 1929. Scenario: Raoul Walsh, after a story by Laurence Stallings, Maxwell Anderson, Wilson Mizner, Tom Barry; dialogue: William K. Wells. Cinematography: Arthur Edeson.
The Players: Victor McLaglen (Flagg), Edmund Lowe (Quirt), Lili Damita (Mariana Elenita), Lelia Karnelly (Olga), El Brendel (Olson), Bobby Burns, Jean Bary, Joe Brown, Stuart Erwin, Ivan Linow, Soledad Jimenez, Albert “Curley” Dresden, Joe Rochay, Jeanette Dagna, Warren Hymer, Con Conrad, William K. Wells.

ME AND MY GAL
Fox, 1932. Screenplay: Arthur Kober, after a story by Barry Conyers and Philip Klein. Cinematography: Arthur Miller. Art direction: Gordon Wiles.
The Players: Spencer Tracy (Danny Dolan), Joan Bennett (Helen Riley), Marion Burns (Kate), George Walsh (Duke Castenega), J. Farrell MacDonald (Pop Riley), Henry B. Walthall (Sarge), George Chandler (Eddie), Adrian Morris (Al), Will Stanton (an inebriate), Frank Moran, Noel Madison, Jesse De Vorska, Bert Hanlon, Emmett Corrigan, Billy Bevan, Frank Atkinson.

THE BOWERY
Fox, 1933. Screenplay: Howard Estabrook and James Gleason, after a novel by Michael Simmons and Bessie Rogow. Cinematography: Barney McGill. Art direction: Richard Day. Music: Alfred Newman.
The Players: Wallace Beery (Chuck Connors), George Raft (Steve Brodie), Jackie Cooper (Swipes), Fay Wray (Lucy Calhoun), Pert Kelton (Trixie), George Walsh (John L. Sullivan), Oscar Apfel, Ferdinand Munier, Herman Bing, Harold Huber, Fletcher Norton, Lilian Harmer, Tammany Young, Esther Muir, John Bleiffer, John Kelly.

Copyright © 1975 Peter Hogue


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