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Films o’ the Irish
A new book by a Christendom professor explores how Irish-Americans on the silver screen resonated with audiences during the Great Depression.
Christopher Shannon, associate professor of history at Christendom College in Front Royal, recently published his latest book, Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (University of Scranton Press).
“As I began my study, I quickly realized that the Irish were the most represented ethnic group in American film, yet the least represented in film scholarship,” Shannon said.
Talk of the Irish in the Golden Age of Hollywood inevitably calls to mind images of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in John Ford’s classic 1952 film, “The Quiet Man.” Shannon’s book examines a different side of the Irish in Hollywood — the urban, Irish-American films that represented the Irish during the 1930s and 1940s.
In 1931, Shannon notes in Bowery to Broadway, James Cagney’s portrayal of the urban Irish-American gangster Tom Powers in “The Public Enemy” set the gold standard for the Hollywood gangster, yet it also helped launch a golden age of Irish-American cinema. Irish gangsters shared the screen with a broad range of urban Irish characters, such as boxers, working girls, priests and entertainers.
Films such as “Angels with Dirty Faces,” “Gentleman Jim,” “Kitty Foyle,” “Going My Way” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” presented the American Irish as inhabitants of an urban village, at once traditional and modern, Irish and American.
“Irish stories that expressed doubts about the American dream clearly struck a chord with Americans who saw that dream collapsing all around them during the Great Depression,” said Shannon.
The Depression caused many to rethink the American dream, and these films offered an alternative social vision that prized communal solidarity over individual advancement, local loyalty against the rootless freedom of the frontier, Shannon argues in the book.
This was no minor “ethnic” genre; Irish urban-village films attracted the greatest stars of the era, including Spencer Tracy, Bing Crosby, Errol Flynn, Pat O’Brien, Ginger Rogers, Joan Crawford and Olivia de Havilland.
Against both the nationalizing trends of the New Deal and the rising nostalgia for the rural American past, these films affirmed the reality of community in the urban present, argues Shannon. Drinking and fighting, loving and hating, playing and praying — through it all, the Irish remained local heroes.
Christopher Shannon completed his graduate work at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and his undergraduate at the University of Rochester in New York. He has written numerous articles, reviews and essays as well as two other books, Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in Modern American Social Thought and A World Made Safe for Differences: Cold War Intellectuals and the Politics of Identity.
Buy the book
Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema, by Christopher Shannon