There is an immediate sense The Bowery was meant to capitalize on Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper’s success in The Champ from the year prior, as well as the rising stock of George Raft after Scarface. In short, the creative paring works quite well because although Beery was the highest-paid talent at MGM, Raft proves himself to be a chipper and able sparring partner for his formidable colleague.
The world being projected and explored is the relatively distant past of the Gay Nineties, and yet still recent enough to remain as a living memory for some contemporary audiences. The movie is capped off by a prologue touting the Bowery as “The Livest mile of the face of the globe,” and here we have our entry point into the turn-of-the-century milieu.
Before The Rifleman, there was another Chuck Connors (Beery), who is a larger-than-life figure on the bowery with his bowler hat and brawny shoulders. He runs the local saloon, an expectantly raucous and bawdy place, it also carries with it a rather off-putting name. Strike one.
Of course, none of these folks care and why should they? They’re too busy knocking back a pint and ogling the floor show. And Connors is right in the middle of the daily bedlam. One of Beery’s favorite drinks is “boy-bin” in the local parlance. He’s also not above clubbing a woman who gets too touchy-feely with him.
However, for all his boisterous show of bravado, he does have a soft spot. One of the most important people in his life is Swipes (Cooper) a young vagabond he adopted off the streets whose hobbies include throwing rocks at the Chinks. Strike two. Does it need to be said that, although these elements are period, they definitely don’t play now? Well, there you are.
Despite, these immediate if realistic racial insensitivities, there is some instantly immersive world-building director Raoul Walsh synthesizes through a host of vignettes on the streets. It might only be a figment of my own mind, but there’s a reason Bowery sounds like Bowels because we’ve found ourselves in one of the lowliest, basest melting pots of the world.
But there would be no movie without our two stars. If Beery opens the film and establishes himself, then George Raft comes right on his heels making an entrance of his own as Steve Brodie (Don’t ever say I don’t give you nothin’!). What they provide the movie is the simultaneous presence of two colossal movers and shakers in the local community.
Beyond being snappy dressers, they are men of many hobbies and even bigger boasts. They’re both pugilistic promoters in the ring, and they run rival fire brigades on the side, which consequently are more like street gangs than civil servant assemblies. It’s all the better to whip up some brassy entertainment.
The street brawl in the wake of a conflagration is extraordinarily choreographed as pure fist and brick-throwing chaos. While I’m not altogether enamored with the world, the ongoing sense of atmosphere is impressive in such moments of machismo.
What’s more, they become tempered and subsequently more complicated by the introduction of another character. Because the mantle of the movie is built off the trifecta of males, and they remain the focal point. However, then one Lucy Calhoun (Fay Wray) arrives on the scene. She’s a woman from Albany — a virtuous schoolteacher — who Chuck rescues from the depths of destitution. She’s eternally grateful and offers to clean house for him. The most telling outcome is the big man’s chivalry.
It is a bit of a clash of cultures — she is not of this world — and it’s in part because of her vulnerability; he protects her from the wolves on the prowl. But if Lucy brings out another side of Chuck, the same might be said of Steve Brodie. He comes off as a brute in their opening encounter, everything we expect him to be, but then he warms and softens. And she does too.
She’s still devoted to Chuck (though Swipes can’t stand her much), but her romance with Steve starts to bloom. They have excursions out to the beach at Coney Island — romantic moments like that. The only question remaining is where will the movie go?
For those familiar with the real-life Steve Brodie, it must escalate into a bet and a dare to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, which he looks to weasel his way out of. Although, in the end, he’s forced to prove his mettle with the whole town gaping and the authorities on high alert.
Walsh expertly understands the cadence of the scene with Brodie flying across the bridge in his carriage — the policeman sprinting after him in pursuit. Meanwhile, the director cuts across the panoply of humanity — the faces we know like Wray and Cooper — and the host of onlookers who fill out the world. It’s the strangest kind of social event, and yet how it’s delivered to us builds up the mounting tension of the moment.
Ultimately, Chuck loses at the hands of Brodie (and Carrie Nation!). His bar is flipped in the process. With his pride and joy taken away from him, and his gambling debts weighing him down, he winds up living a life of poverty as Brodie ascends and becomes the new grand man about town. The balance of power — their aggressive stalemate — has finally shifted, and there is a forlornness about it. What made them such formidable rivals before had to do with them both being on equal footing. It looks like one has finally won out.
Being a proud man, Chuck isn’t quite over his vendetta, and knowing Brodie’s own wellspring of pride, they agree to a river barge face-off, man to man, just like the old days. But the most curious development is this. It’s summed up with only a few words: “Remember the Maine.” Suddenly patriotic fervor is afoot. There is a new enemy. Suddenly, the two sworn enemies make their amends.
Fay Wray is a mediator, and they agree to have themselves a lark in Cuba because with two palookas like them, the war’s bound to be over in a fortnight. So the Bowery’s greatest source of conflict simultaneously becomes its new hub of comedy and comradery as the rivalry evolves, and we get to see it turn. It’s yet another entry in the Walsh canon fully in tune with its own idea of fun. There’s never a sense this picture takes itself too seriously.
I am not sure if the director had a certain preoccupation with the Gay Nineties from his youth or what have you — his filmography is very robust and equally diverse — but the Bowery certainly would pair nicely with the likes of Strawberry Blonde and Gentleman Jim in how they so readily evoke the era. Nothing speaks to that more than John L. Sullivan and a bit of temperance imposed by Carrie Nation.