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Thursday, July 03, 2014

Three Cheers For The Warners Irish

WB Knows Its Audience For The Great O'Malley (1937)

I never saw a campaign that so pandered to the Irish! They must have been quite a constituency among 30's pic-goers. Consider how stars and even directors proudly wore the green (if not the grin), from Pat O'Brien of this Warner programmer to John Ford, Cagney, others of the Irish community, most of whom took care of their own where jobs, needed cash, other relief, was needed. And yet Ford was years getting The Quiet Man off the ground, dominant thought being it was too sod-bound to sell. So what percentage of paying audience did the Irish represent? Enough apparently to pay ways for a Great O'Malley with negative cost of $285K. For WB, Irish translated to action, as in fist-flying and shillelaghs swung. This was image imprinted upon a people that Hollywood's Irish community endorsed and propagated, being way more flattering overall than that accorded many an other immigrating group.

The Great O'Malley is remembered mostly for drag of Humphrey Bogart through what he'd call a "terrible" picture, "one of those things we did at that goddamned sweatshop." This was Bogart talking later in life to writer Richard Gehman, and yes, The Great O'Malley would have been unrelieved, and unrewarding, drudgery for a player who'd lately shown promise in The Petrified Forest. Or maybe what Bogart found terrible, and understandably so, was fact this began as an O'Brien vehicle and ended up being so for child actress Sybil Jason, HB pretty much crowded off the frame as born loser victim of ongoing Great Depression. He's really an update on Paul Muni's beat-down everyman, parked behind a same eight ball, not the sort of part to vault Bogart into meaningful leads. And talk about hardship cards being stacked: he's out of a job, with a lame daughter in English-accented Jason (that barely accounted for), trying to pawn war medals like Dick Barthelmess in earlier circumstance, plus being a hothead not easy to root for despite tough breaks. But Bogart, of course, could give poorly built parts like this texture, even in vacuum that was The Great O'Malley.

Ann Sheridan Posing On Backlot Street for
 The Great O'Malley, Her First WB Release 
Triumph of the modest pic was conviction of its slum setting, a remarkable New York street Warners had built and dressed to effect that looks for all the world like a blighted block in Brooklyn. The place would be dirtied further to host Angels With Dirty Faces a year later, a section of backlot in continual use thanks to WB focus on pavement themes. Such backdrop made of The Great O'Malley more than a "B" by which it's been misidentified. Directing was William Dieterle, he of much that was good both before and after this occasion; like Michael Curtiz, Dieterle was put to program fillers that came under head of taking one for the team, which he did reluctantly on this occasion, according to Sybil Jason's memoir, My Fifteen Minutes. The notion of strict law enforcement takes a licking in The Great O'Malley, writing's posture being that justice should be tempered by humanity, if not mercy, arrests guided by the violator's individual circumstance. Did this represent majority public opinion at the time? If nothing else, we're reminded us that the Depression was far from finished as of 1937 when The Great O'Malley was released.

With regard to selling, it was Chin-Buster Pat vs. "Killer" Bogart, a misleading campaign in all particulars, being hewed to public perception of these two, and what we should expect in event of their teaming. Black Legion, actually filmed after The Great O'Malley but distributed first, had been a sleeper and further petrify of Bogart to forest of criminality; had the actor noticed promotion for The Great O'Malley, he'd have seen type-casting that would follow, and to some degree dog the rest of a career. "The Divil To Pay" and Pat referring to "me (Erin) ancestors ate your kind for breakfast" was copy a longer assimilated public would have to make best of translating, though everyone knew such oaths were shortcut to mayhem the fighting Irish theme promised. So what was payoff for this appeal to adherents of the ould sod? The Great O'Malley took $442K in domestic rentals, $187K foreign, for profit of $87K. It is available on DVD from Warner Archive, and streams in HD at Warner Instant.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson considers the Irish image in movies:

I suspect that a lot of non-Irish identified with scrappy Irish heroes. In fact, Irish is still a favorite default heritage for good guys.

Cagney and O'Brien characters were maybe a generation or two from Ellis Island, but they were still immigrant stock devoid of aristocratic blood and barely past poverty and oppression. This, with the stereotypical Irish toughness and sentiment, was a good fit with Americans' self image. At the same time, they were safely "white" for all their colorful speech and immigrant ways.

Weirdly, negative Irish stereotypes lingered side-by-side with the Irish heroes. Charming Irish rascals, drunken Irish brawlers, mule-headed Irish laborers, apple-swiping Irish cops, fierce Irish housemaids (not quite as sharp as their black counterparts) seemed to remain "acceptable" long after most other racial stereotypes were either defanged or erased altogether. But while other groups saw the worst stereotyping eliminated, they didn't see a corresponding boom in heroes and heroines who were explicitly not Anglo-Saxon. If the hero needed ancestors (and he wasn't the heir to something), he tended to come from Erin.

I think of those photos of The Three Keatons, showing Buster and his father in the chimpanzee-like makeup that was the standard Irish caricature. Then Keaton's own "My Wife's Relations", which has him married into a family of gigantic Irish toughs. The grotesque makeups had gone away, but the Irish remained fair game even as they were becoming American ideals.

11:22 AM  

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