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Public Enemies, Local Heroes: The Irish-American Gangster Film in Classic Hollywood Cinema

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 9, Number 4, Geimhreadh/Winter 2005
pp. 48-64 | 10.1353/nhr.2006.0014

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New Hibernia Review 9.4 (2005) 48-64

The Irish-American Gangster Film in Classic Hollywood Cinema

Christopher Shannon

Christendom College

In 1928, the Irish-American politician Al Smith went down to defeat in a presidential election that one historian has described as "the first truly great hate campaign in modern American history." Smith's nomination suggested that urban Irish Catholic America had finally come of age, but his campaign against Herbert Hoover gave new life to an ethno-religious bigotry the likes of which had not been seen since the heyday of the Know-Nothings in the 1850s. Yet Americans who rejected the Irish in politics nonetheless embraced them in culture. The twenty years following Smith's electoral defeat saw Irish Americans achieve a privileged place in the most dominant medium of modern American popular culture, Hollywood cinema. In 1945, Going My Way, a film about an Irish-Catholic priest's efforts to save a poor urban parish from insolvency, swept nearly every major award at the year's Academy Awards ceremony. The broad appeal of Irish-American stories in the Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s lay primarily in their ability to present the Irish as representative of a broader ethnic vision of the city as an urban village, fully ethnic yet fully American. The cultural rehabilitation of Irish America began in the most unlikely of all film genres: the gangster film.

For many Americans in 1928, there was little difference between Al Smith and Al Capone. One was an Irish politician, the other an Italian gangster; but as urban, ethnic "wets," both appeared equally criminal in their threat to the religious and cultural preeminence of rural and small town Protestant America. Despite the ascent of Capone as king of the real-world gangsters, the Irish-American actor James Cagney established the Irish-American gangster as the most heroic urban criminal of Hollywood's golden age. Little Caesar (1930) and Scarface (1932), the gangster films most directly inspired by Capone's life, present the gangster as a tragic hero driven to destruction by his desire for greatness; The Public Enemy (1931) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Cagney's greatest Irish-American gangster films, present the gangster as a local hero who dies a sacrificial death brought on by a primal loyalty to the ties of neighborhood. Cagney's films show how—even at their most criminal—Irish Catholics came to represent certain communal values that resonated deeply with Americans searching for signs of life in local ties threatened by the social dislocation of the Depression and the increasing nationalization of life under the New Deal.

Capone's celebrity in the 1920s, and the great cinematic achievements of such Italian-American directors as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese in the 1970s, have all but erased the image of the Irish-American gangster from the history of American popular culture. The emergence of an Irish film culture in the 1980s and 1990s has, in turn, often served to reinforce an enduring sense of Irish-American cultural inferiority bequeathed by the debates on literary modernism in the early twentieth century: critics who once asked "Where is our James Joyce?" now ask "Where is our Neil Jordan?" In Hibernian Green on the Silver Screen, Joseph M. Curran acknowledges that Irish-American films "blazed the trail for other minorities" in Hollywood; however, the seemingly inexorable march toward assimilation that frames his study overshadows his account of those early achievements.

Curran credits Cagney's gangster films with securing for the Irish "unchallenged ascendancy as the movies' favorite ethnic minority," yet Joseph Breen—head of the Production Code Administration, the studios' chosen organ of self-censorship—emerges as the representative Hollywood Irish American. Such Irish Catholics as Breen, Martin Quigley, and Daniel Lord, S.J., as well as the heavily Irish Catholic Legion of Decency, undeniably played a major role in film censorship. Still, to equate Catholic support for Victorian sexual norms with "a ringing endorsement of the status quo" obscures a whole range of cultural issues—not the least of which was Prohibition—on which Irish Catholics refused to submit to WASP norms. The last two decades have seen an explosion...