Hollywood films made up to the 1960s depicting Irish-American life were about poor, urban immigrants. They were also about how the Irish evolved a variant of the American dream that was uniquely Catholic.
Christopher Shannon, a history professor at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., has written a study of these films, Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (University of Scranton Press).
When I was growing up Catholic in Canada in the 1950s, I never thought of the Irish as ethnic. They were just Catholic.
You’re not alone. There are several reasons for that. One is that in America the Irish so dominated the Church that Irish and Catholic seemed the same thing, but also because the Irish in and out of the Church were the most Americanizing of the Catholic immigrant groups and that they, especially by the 1950s, tended to downplay any distinct Irishness. The ’50s were a time when they were all-American.
Did World War II have an impact?
After World War II and the Holocaust … ethnic identity was kind of tainted by this association with Fascism. So Hollywood just dropped ethnicity. Only in the 1970s did it return with the Italians, and once again it was boxers and cops and gangsters — and dancers, if you count John Travolta.
How many generations are you from the Irish America of these early movies?
My family’s from Boston. My Grandfather Shannon was an immigrant teamster, and my father followed the classic mid-century success story. His father was a manual laborer. He sends his son to college and becomes a middle manager in the 1950s when that was a pretty good job to have. You didn’t even need an MBA, and you could support a family of seven kids.
But you say in your book that the era of Irish-American movies came earlier and described a stage before that success.
The immigrant success story. But really it didn’t happen until the 1950s, especially for the Irish. Even if they seemed the most American of ethnic groups, they were disproportionately un-middle class. They hadn’t risen even compared to the Jews, who became middle-class much sooner.
So one of the main stories in the films is not so much the Irish failure to succeed but an Irish suspicion of and rejection of success — that the most important thing about being in America is not getting ahead, it’s about sticking to your community. The mainstream WASP interpretation of America is that it is a land of opportunity where every individual can make of themselves what they will. But the opportunity for most immigrants was not to be an individual. It was to survive and support a family, just not to starve.
What we see in a lot of these films is that when there is the opportunity to become rich and famous by leaving all that, more often than not, the Irish decide not to leave, to choose a kind of community stability instead.
What films would be an example of that?
In the films I look at, the clearest example that I see is in the genre of women’s films. I call the chapter on that “Bowery Cinderella” because that was the title of a rather obscure film from the ’20s, but it kind of captures the story as it is told in an Irish-American city. In the Cinderella fairy tale she gets to leave her terrible home and be rescued by Prince Charming. But in the films, this Cinderella is an Irish-American girl with a tough but loving mother. (There’s not too many fathers around — or if there are, they are drunk.)
And is that common in these films?
Yes. There usually is a family, but it is not clean-cut family values. Very rarely do you see an intact family with a mother and a father, but it is still a loving family.
The Wall Street Journal’s review of your book says the movie version of Irish America is overly sentimentalized. But the reality sounds more realistic. The missing father sounds like the current social problems with black Americans. Why was the father missing?
Death, desertion and drunkenness. Since you’ve raised the comparison to blacks, are you aware of the infamous Moynihan report on the black family? People were taken aback and maybe [the late sociologist and U.S. senator] John Patrick Moynihan himself was taken aback by the charge he was racist for blaming black poverty on the absence of fathers, because he was kind of writing it from his own experience as a fatherless Irish-American.
Were the films you study sentimental, as in unrealistic?
People say they were sentimental. But everything wasn’t nice, nice, nice. Perhaps a perfect example of this is Going My Way, which everyone says is such a great family film. It’s a family film without any families in it. The authority figures are two priests. The kids that we see are pretty much orphans. There’s a street gang that Father O’Malley [Bing Crosby] has to make choir boys out of. Well, where are their parents? And there’s the runaway girl who stops by, and he has to gently guide her toward a moral life. There isn’t the picture of a strong family like in the contemporary Andy Hardy series that Mickey Rooney was in. There is that small-town America with Judge Hardy who is a Father Knows Best figure. There is very little of that sentiment in these films.
But were they popular?
What resonated with audiences was a kind of warmth, even if they stopped to wonder: Where’s the father? Or, in some cases, where’s the mother?
In Kitty Foyle, with Ginger Rogers, her father is there as a moral guide to tell her to stop looking for a Prince Charming. She’s enamored of the Main Line in Philadelphia, the society elite. And he’s saying, “Don’t waste your time with them. Find yourself a good tradesman. A solid man who works hard. Don’t fill your head with dreams.” She goes against her father and pursues this rich Philadelphia Quaker who loves her but can never marry her for social reasons.
How did these stories get to Hollywood? Were they based on popular novels of the time?
That’s one of the challenges of this kind of research because there’s no clear paper trail. Most of the stories are either drawn from real figures — like Gentleman Jim is based on the real-life boxer James Corbett. But a lot of them just come from the atmosphere. They are holdovers from the stories that appeared on the Broadway stage in the 19th century with the performers Harrigan and Hart [Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart, pioneers of musical theater]. Their plays featured a lot of these stories about people trying to get ahead and not getting ahead but being better in the end.
And there was a journalist, Finley Peter Dunne, in Chicago, who in the 1890s had a series of newspaper columns where he presented himself in the voice of Mr. Dooley. In one of these, Dooley writes about an Irish thug named Petey Scanlon who comes from a Catholic family and all of his brothers and sisters turn out fine; Dunne has Dooley ask what makes one man a murderer and another a saint.
You see the same theme in the Irish gangster movies starring James Cagney, starting with Public Enemy in 1931. In [the 1938 movie] Angels With Dirty Faces, Cagney plays a gangster named Rocky Sullivan. Rocky’s girlfriend tells Father Jerry [Pat O’Brien], “He’s not a bad man,” and Father Jerry replies, “I know he’s not.” In these movies there isn’t that up-by-the-bootstraps Protestant morality that success is a matter of individual will. It’s also a matter of the grace of God.
When Rocky gets out of jail, Father Jerry suggests he get a house in the parish. He doesn’t try to get him to go on the straight and narrow, just become part of the community. First the community, then redemption. Father Jerry gives Rocky a chance to turn the boys of the Dead End Kids away from crime by pretending to fear the electric chair, sacrificing all he had left — his tough-guy reputation.
You could call this sentimental, but it is a real-life sentimentality that celebrates community.
What about the wartime movies with Bing Crosby as a priest? They seem sentimental.
Going My Way  and The Bells of St. Mary’s  were very conflicted. In both, Crosby plays a completely Americanized priest, Father O’Malley, who plays golf and who planned to be a songwriter before entering the priesthood. [In Going My Way], he’s a liberal Catholic in conflict with a very Old World priest played by Barry Fitzgerald. But the stories begin and end with the parish. Both movies are about saving the parish. They showed them to troops, and hundreds wrote Bing Crosby to thank him. For them, the films represented all that was good about America. But there were no families in them. And just a tiny reference to the war.
Were Bing Crosby’s priest movies a kind of climax of the Irish-American genre?
Yes, I trace a trajectory from the national to the local, from Pat O’Brien’s and James Cagney’s Fighting 69th in 1940 and Spencer Tracy’s Boys Town . The Fighting 69th is a kind of run-up to World War II that says, “We’re all Americans now.” In Boys Town the real-life priest Edward Flanagan is very much an Americanizing force. He’s a humanitarian. Boys Town is for boys of all faiths. At grace every boy says his own prayer. There’s an obviously Jewish boy and an African-American. Father Flanagan says, “We don’t impose our religion on anyone.” But by the end of the war, Father O’Malley is saving the local parish. It is something people really valued in America and something that has been lost since World War II.
Among Catholics too?
Yes, in the fights over doctrine after Vatican II we maybe should have put equal importance on parish life. The Catholic message in these movies is the importance of local life.
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.