Cult Movies

Cult Movie Essentials: The Bowery (1933)

The Bowery is a 1933 film about the Lower East Side of Manhattan around the start of the 20th century, It is directed by Raoul Walsh and stars Wallace Beery and George Raft.

As the film opens we meet, saloon owner Chuck Connors (Beery), finds that his rival, Steve Brodie (Raft), has thrown a musk melon at his window. The happy-go-lucky Brodie explains that he threw the melon on a dare. As Connors threatens to fight him, the two learn of a fire in neighboring Chinatown. Both men call upon their volunteer fire brigades, and wager $100 on which will be the first to throw water on the fire.

Although Brodie is first to arrive, he finds Connor’s young pal, Swipes McGurk (Cooper), sitting on a barrel placed over the fire hydrantpreventing Brodie from using it first. Connors arrives and the rival fire fighters brawl as the fire reduces the building to a smoldering ruin, presumably incinerating the crowd of Chinese trapped inside who had been screaming for help at the window. Brodie vows revenge on Connors, leading to a $500 bet that afighter, whom Brodie calls “The Masked Marvel,” can beat “Bloody Butch” a prizefighter managed by Conners. Conners accepts, and the “Marvel” knocks out Bloody Butch with one punch. After the fight, the “Marvel” is revealed to be John L. Sullivan (George Walsh).

Connors meets a homeless girl named Lucy Calhoun (Fay Wray) and takes her to his apartment, where he lives with Swipes, and lets her spend the night. In the morning, he is pleasantly surprised (and Swipes annoyed), to find that Lucy has cleaned up the place and cooked breakfast. Swipes later locks Lucy in a closet and, when Connors finds her, spanks him. Humiliated, Swipes packs and leaves. That night, Brodie invites Swipes to move in with him, which he does. Finding out about Lucy, Brodie attempts to seduce her, thinking that she is Connors’ mistress. She bites his hand, drawing blood, and after learning her identity, he apologizes and asks if he can call on her. They soon fall in love, and Brodie reveals his ambition to run a saloon bigger than Connors’.

When two brewers offer to sponsor him if he can bring his name into prominence, Brodie decides to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge as a stunt. Connors bets his saloon against a free burial that Brodie won’t survive. Scheming to avoid actually jumping, Brodie gets a life-sized dummy made up to look like him and arranges for Swipes to throw it off the bridge at the time of the jump. As a crowd of 100,000 gathers at the bridge, Swipes finds the dummy missing. Swipes observes, in dialogue that sounds eerily current to the modern ear, “They were hip to us so they copped it.” Despite Swipes’s pleas, and left without any other option, Brodie vows to make the jump anyway, so that no one can say he didn’t take a dare. Meanwhile, temperance activist Carrie Nation and her band of women arrive at Connors’ saloon to tear it down with axes and hatchets. When he sees Brodie lifted in a parade after making the jump, however, Connors encourages the activists to destroy the saloon, which they do.

Brodie re-opens the refurbished saloon, and when war is declared against Spain, Connors enlists in an effort to get away from the Bowery, where he is no longer a big shot. When he returns to his apartment to pack, he finds that Swipes has returned and reconciles with the boy. Professional rivals of Brodie’s then find Connors and deceitfully tell him that Brodie did not actually jump from the bridge, showing him the dummy. Connors demands Brodie give his saloon back. Brodie denies using the dummy, and the two have a long fight on a barge in the East River to settle their differences. After Connors returns victorious, he is arrested for assault and battery with intent to kill. Brodie, however, refuses to implicate him. As Brodie recovers, Connors visits his hospital only to begin another fight, but Swipes stops them and urges them to become friends. After they shake hands, Connors dares Brodie to join him in Cuba. At a parade for departing soldiers, Connors tells Lucy to kiss Brodie goodbye, and after she does, she also kisses Connors. The men lament not being able to say goodbye to Swipes, but they soon see, to their delight, that he is hiding in an artillery box on the supply wagon just ahead of them.

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