Playing Tue July 26 at 2:50, 7:00 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]
*Triple Feature with BLOOD MONEY & SAILOR’S LUCK
Twenty minutes into Raoul Walsh’s quintessential Pre-Code Me and My Gal, a jovial tugboat captain breaks away from the beer-soaked festivities and approaches the camera. “Come on!” he solicits the screen in a hearty Irish brogue, “Have a drink!” It is a testament to the film’s intoxicating, bewitching effect that the fourth wall obliteration doesn’t register as so; the audience already feels invited to Walsh’s party.
And a party it is: a breathlessly fast, endlessly inventive celebration of the Lower East Side where Walsh had grown up and the cinematic medium to which he dedicated his adult years. In his memoir, Each Man in His Time, Walsh recalls the film’s setting with a mystical reverence: “I still went to the river whenever I could and stayed as late as I dared… I can still hear the rattling winches and smell coffee beans and the tang of spices, as merchandise from foreign ports swayed in the cargo nets before dropping to the sweating stevedores. To a boy my age, the docks of the East River were a special world where every activity was new and exciting.” Here the pier also seems to embody the salty, mercurial, and visceral sensations of Pre-Code filmmaking, as described in my overview of the era.
Reiterates (Alt Screen contributing editor) Dan Callahan, “The effect is not unlike the cheerfully experimental movies Jean Renoir was making in France at the same time; like those Renoir films, Me and My Gal seems like a first movie, or the first movie ever made, or the first movie you’ve ever seen.” Manny Farber deemed his favorite Walsh film a “lunatically original, festive dance.” Jonathan Rosenbaum, who inducted it into his alternative Top 100 American films list, describes it as “a small picture, but in many ways an ecstatic one,” the result of a surefooted director given a language-drunk script, two game leads with marvelous chemistry, modest means, and 19 days to shoot. Walsh seemed to interpret the command as “Just have fun.”
Me and My Gal is a prime example of how Depression-enforced low budgets and small time frames produced a singular combination of improvisatory mischief and cocksure comprehensiveness. In a tidy 79-minute package, a gag is never forgotten, nor loses its hilarity. A policeman in the film is instructed to follow his colleague Spencer Tracy’s lead after mucking up a gangster tail – “Do what he does, the way he does it, and maybe you’ll learn something” – and precedes to repeat everything Tracy says for the remainder of the film.
But for all the film’s sense of newness, it could only have been made by well-schooled master. Raoul Walsh had been in the film industry since the teens when he oversaw The Birth of a Nation battle scenes so efficiently D.W. Griffith asserted that the South would have won the Civil War were Walsh a general. What would have been a routine gangster yarn in less capable, original hands (although the spare, real-time bank robbery is an incredible precursor of Rififi’s much ballyhooed sequence, 23 years later), becomes instead a rich, touching portrait of of a guileless community, a paean to Irish -American peasants and survivors who weather life with wiles, gusto, and saucy repartee that doesn’t quite mask their steadfast affection for each other.
For those more familiar with Spencer Tracy’s Golden Era displays of more dignified (and often white-collar) pugnaciousness, his early performances are a revelation. That beefy build and doughy mug should have been a straight ticket to character actor glory alongside regular galoots Allen Jenkins and Edward Brophy. But Tracy’s jaunty charisma, stage-trained mastery with a zippy line, and acrobatic control (see him stilt-walking alongside the tenements in the Frank Borzage classic Man’s Castle), made him a fine leading man for any studio who didn’t have James Cagney under contract. Here he is bemused cop Danny Dolan, starting a new waterfront beat that mostly entails keeping the hooch-swillers in order (“Now there’s an argument for Prohibition!”), faux wrist-slapping the Bowery boys (“Can you lick this guy?…Well, don’t let me see you fight.”), and drinking lots of coffee at the local chowder house. It is there that he meets gum-smacking cashier Helen (Joan Bennett, in rare platinum sass mode, an aptitude only capitalized upon by Walsh again in the delightful Big Brown Eyes).
Its antagonistic love at first wisecrack:
“Say, you’ve got a sweet little disposition. How would you like to go to the park with me and tramp down flowers?”
“With feet like yours you won’t need my help.”
“Let me know when you get a day off and we’ll take a nice trip to the cemetery.”
“Would love to, let me know when you’re making your last trip.”
He calls her “Red” despite her frequent protestations she’s a blonde, but its merely an irreverent indication he thinks she’s special. Other times its “bezark,” a phrase Walsh claims to have invented (and was subsequently nicknamed) which loosely translates to “prostitute.” When he denied Gloria Swanson’s inquiry into its meaning she asked if if was good or bad, he replied “some people think so.” As Imogen Smith poetically notes, this “affectionate term of abuse whose precise meaning, like the purpose of this movie, is at once impenetrable and crystal clear.” The elastic, engimatic yet earthy power of Depression-era slang strikes again in this film where even the waterfront loafer has a take on the new Pagliacci at the Metropolitian Opera.
After rescuing the chowder house drunk from a dip in the East River, Dolan gets a promotion to detective. With the extra change in his pocket and a dandy Derby on his melon, he gains the confidence to more assertively court Helen. He meets her tugboat captain pa after he throws the radio out the window at her sister’s wedding reception and Dolan the good-natured dick has to calm down the rowdy.revelers. He tells Helen he’ll see her later, and she purrs “Yeah, a lot later,” but follows him out the door for some further jabbing. She knocks his hat back on straight, he tells her to spit out that gum, a gestural exchange they repeat throughout the film as a request that they not be hard-boiled with each other. They may never get class, but through romance they just may get something grander.
While Helen has been slinging hash, her more prim sister Kate (if keeping her natural hair color and laying off the chewing gum is code for gentility) works in the local bank – but ultimately proves the black sheep of the family for whom Helen is constantly, loyally concerned. Her marriage to a bespectacled, gentlemanly pansy is the occasion for the festivities near the beginning of the film; but she simultaneously gets reacquainted with a former flame, notorious mob boss Duke Castenega (Walsh’s brother, George). Duke’s prison escape dots the headlines of the local paper the characters are often seen reading. Buzzed on brandy she succumbs to Duke’s advances and demands for the bank safe combination, cooing her nostalgia for their good times of yore. Kate spends most of the film in a flighty hysteria; whether she is harboring a sincere flame for her lover, turned on by the dalliance with criminality, or merely playing along to assure her survival is never overtly indicated. The ambiguity and fluidity of her plight adds unexpected nuance to the gangster subplot.
Times are tough of course for everyone, each day requiring drastic choices and sacrifice. Walsh’s urban hood of colorful roustabouts doesn’t live in a vacuum – discussing current events like local boy Al Smith’s failed bid for the presidency (“There’s enough Smiths in the phonebook to elect ‘em.”). Pot shots at the bank are a dime a dozen (“There’s a hot one – a bank robbery.” “Yeah, who’d the bank rob this time?” “One of these days they’ll steal the White House in Washington!”). Later, a background police broadcast announces a routine case of domestic dispute, of a woman beating her husband.
But the Depression’s presence isn’t always so nonchalantly comical. At the beginning of the film Dolan stumbles upon a weeping man attaching his dog to an anchor – death by drowning a fate better than dutifully starving alongside his master. Dolan agrees to take the pet off his dirty overworked hands so matter-of-factly it is a chilling indication of how routine such an encounter is – the only thing Dolan can do to help is take his best friend. The grateful owner wanders out of the film alone never to return, but leaves an affecting imprint on the rest of Me and My Gal. The cute mutt ends up with Kate’s paralytic father-in-law, a war veteran rendered mute and incapacitated by some unspeakable trauma. Forever lingering in the frame with a forced grimace, only able to convey the gangster’s whereabouts in his attic through a blinked Morse-code message of desperation, he is yet another relic of the bruised zeitgeist.
When Dolan comes a courting Helen at home he boldly pulls her into his lap and brings up the picture he caught the night before, “Strange Innertube or something” (a jab at far daintier studio MGM’s Eugene O’Neill adaptation Strange Interlude). “Oh yeah,” she remarks, “where characters say one thing and then minutes later say what they really mean.” Forty five years before Woody woos Annie Hall, Walsh provides a hilarious peek at the character’s own wildly contrasting interior monologues:
“Walsh’s idea of a tender love scene is to burn down a whorehouse!” allegedly joked studio chief Jack Warner, but as his memoir (revealing a lifelong yen for a Russian lion tamer) and delicately conceived films like The Strawberry Blonde reveal, Walsh was a romantic in a roustabout’s guise. Later Helen and Jimmy ring around a riverside barrel, in a demonstration of Walsh’s fine ability to capture his actors’ physical interactions. They finally quit the pussy-footing tease and discuss the oppressive, binary-laden politics of “romance these days.” For a dame, they’re either “fresh” or “slow;” for a poor lug either “no good” or “old-fashioned.” They happily agree to navigate the grey area together (and are effectively liberated from propriety, racing home later when they realize Helen’s pa won’t be home for another hour).
The proto-screwball pyrotechnics of their kids on the playground flirtations assure a life always on their toes – and on the level. But unlike screwball, which elevates its madcap protagonists above the fray, abiding by their own rules and virtues apart from the collective, Me and My Gal presents Jimmy and Helen as healthy byproducts of a specific community, one that already weathered hardship back home and crossing over, and is prepared through thick and thin (and with a few mugs of ale) to make the most of this place called America. Manny Farber calls Walsh “nothing less than a poet of the American immigrant,” and he is also a superlative craftsman. Me and My Gal in many ways embodies how movies should be: thoroughly lived in evocations with one foot in genre familiarities and another in relatable human dynamics and the realities of the times. Blasphemously unavailable on DVD, it is not to be missed at Film Forum.