In Depression-era America, Irish actors came to dominate the silver screen. Just how did a group once so despised in the US come to be so loved – and influential – in Hollywood
Ethnicity, charming in small doses, too often becomes a cultural straitjacket. If we are French, we are expected to like cheese, wine and Moliere, even if we prefer curry, scotch and Turgenev. If we are Jewish, we are expected to revere Barbra Streisand, Woody Allen and the Coen brothers; otherwise, we are accused of letting the side down.
If we are Irish-American, as I am, it is incumbent upon us to admire all our Irish forebears who made such an impact on motion pictures during the Depression: Jimmy Cagney, Maureen O’Hara, Spencer Tracy, Pat O’Brien, Maureen O’Sullivan, Gene Kelly, Tyrone Power and Bing Crosby. I’ll take Cagney, Power and both Maureens. With pleasure. The rest of them you can keep. Especially Bing Crosby.
These musings are prompted by the publication of a thought-provoking book entitled Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic American Cinema , by Christopher Shannon, who teaches history at a college in Virginia. Its central premise is that these Depression-era movies helped persuade Americans to stop despising Irish immigrants.