Tag Archives: Irish-American

Reliving the Jazz-Age and Ethnic Passing: Boardwalk Empire and Martin Scorsese (01 February 2011)

Boardwalk Empire is the title of a new, American television series, screen-written and produced by Terence Winter who is the producer of The Sopranos, that premiered on the new Sky Atlantic channel tonight. What captured my attention most about this television series from its trailer is the fact that it is considered to be the most expensive pilot episode of television history, which is probably due to Martin Scorsese directing the first episode.

I am a big fan of Scorsese’s movies and we also discussed some of his work in class. We examined his depiction of Irish-American ethnicity in his latest gangster film The Departed(2007). I also chose to write an essay on Scorsese’s handling of the themes of identity and ethnicity in the post-9/11 context of The Departed. My in-depth research into the topic of Irish-American identity and ethnicity, from reading the critics like Diane Negra who discusses the formation and application of Irish-American identity and ethnicity pre-and post-9/11, provided me valuable knowledge that is applicable to other texts dealing with Irish-Americans such as Boardwalk Empire.

The Boardwalk Empire series is set in the Prohibition era, which is a period of American history we discussed in class last term. We examined the depiction of immigrants and the immigrant experience in Jacob Riiss’s and Lewis Hine’s photography, and the representation of Irish-American ethnicity in James Cagney’s films The Public Enemy(1931). We also discussed his performance in Angels With Dirty Faces(1938) and Yankee Doodle Dandie(1942). In a similar vein, Boardwalk Empire is also relevant to my research of American society and the immigrant experience because it deals with Irish-Americans immigrants in Atlantic City.

Boardwalk Empire is an adaption of a chapter from Nelson Johnson’s novel Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City. Enuch “Nucky” Thompson, who is based on the historical criminal kingpin, Enoch L. Johnson, is performed by Steve Buscmi who also acted in The Sopranos. This allegorical descendant of Tony Soprano is and will not be the only echo from the series. Unlike The Sopranos, however, the leading villain is not Italian-American, but instead is an Irish-American gangster who is performed by an Italian-American actor with part-Irish ancestry.

Ethnic passing appears to be a recent trend in Scorsese’s filmography as we also see in The Departed, Billy Costigan, an Irish-American state trooper who goes undercover to infiltrate Frank Costello’s mob, performed by the Italian-American actor, Leonardo DiCaprio.

Another of Scorsese’s films that will contain ethnic passing is The Irishman, which has been confirmed as a future release. The Irishman is an adaptation of Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses. Robert De Niro, an Italian-American actor, will play the leading role of the mob assassin, Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran who is believed to have committed 25 or more mob murders, and allegedly killed Jimmy Hoffa, an American labour union leader and author. Joe Pesci and Al Pacino will also star along side De Niro. Scorsese, De Niro and Pesci previously worked together on a trio of gangster movies, Raging Bull(1980), Goodfellas(1990), and Casino(1995), while De Niro and Pacino only shared screen time in Heat(1995) and Righteous Kill(2008).

With that in mind, race, ethnicity and immigration are central concerns of Boardwalk Empire. As a democratic, Nucky Thompson’s power stems from his reliance on the black peoples’ vote. The writers emphasize this in order to convey that Nucky is not a racist, unlike other whites, which may be read as an attempt to deconstruction the history of negative race relations between the Irish-American and African-American communities.


Immigration and ethnicity are conveyed through the multi-ethnic geography of the world of Boardwalk Empire. Atlantic city is an Irish ethnic enclave, New York City is a Jewish ethnic enclave, and Chicago is an Italian ethnic enclave, but things are not as simple as this as the plot reveals.

Margaret Schroeder is an Irish-American immigrant who is undoubtedly one of the best characters on the show. Her rags-to-riches story of rising from nothing is clearly meant to portray an American Dream with a nightmarish streak.

Although the social history of Boardwalk Empire may not be 100% accurate, the true beauty of it is its authentic re-envisioning and perfect replication of a long-gone, pivotal era of American history that is brought back to life with remarkable cinematography. From what I have seen so far, The Sopranos has been reborn. It may be a different era but the rules are the same.

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The Cop and Criminal in US: Irish-American Ethnicity in The Public Enemy and The Departed.

The history of the representation of Irish-Americans in American cinema demonstrates a trajectory curve that mirrors their gradual assimilation (which American cinema partly contributed to) into American society. Contemporary depictions of Irish-Americans have come a long way from the stereotypical images of aggressive, alcoholic, working-class ‘Micks’, ‘Paddys’ or ‘Boy-Os’ of early American cinema, which were short-lived because of the influx of a new wave of immigrants into America who were deemed to be less ‘white’ than the Irish. As a result, the Irish were repositioned further up on the ‘white’ spectrum and were utilized as an exemplification of assimilation. Benshoff and Griffin observe that “the Irish were regarded as an ethnicity and a nationality, whereas they had previously been considered a race” (59).

In the 1930s, however, a few gangster films portrayed Irish-Americans in an anti-Irish light by depicting Irish-American criminality and their involvement in organized crime. This negative image was counter-balanced in some films by the inclusion of the image of the Irish-American law abiding citizen. Both these images are evident in The Public Enemy, with Tom Power’s policeman father and patriotic brother, and in The Departed with Costigan and Dignam who are the most law abiding despite their few deviations. This cop-criminal image of Irish ethnicity is also present in films like Gone Baby Gone(2007) and the most recent film, The Town(2010).

William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931) and Martin Scorsese’s The Departed(2007) are two examples of the way Irish ethnicity is represented simultaneously as both positive and negative on screen. As typical of the gangster genre, there is an abundance of violence in both films, which also demonstrate an interconnectivity between ethnicity and violence.

James Cagney wanted to transcend the stereotypical representations of the Irish-American by relocating that figure from the social stratum of the ghetto to the bourgeoise classes, which he achieves in ‘G’-Men (Smith qtd. in Barton 5). Cagney’s most memorable persona is that of the quasi-psychotic and unpredictably explosive gangster in The Public Enemy and White Heat.

Kevin Rockett claims that the success of The Public Enemy (1931) did for the Irish what Little Caesar(1930) did for the Italians (29). However, it also developed Cagney’s stardom with his performance of Tom Powers, the Prohibition era Chicago gangster. Despite the fact that following the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929 Italian gangsters dominated Chicago’s underworld, there is an abundance of Irish ethnic references in the film. This comes across most powerfully from the importance of the matriarchy, familial loyalty and kinship in the Irish family system.

This is clearly established with the juxtaposition between Tom’s criminality and his brother Mike’s patriotism and abidance of the law. Tom disrupts family unity by engaging in criminality and disputing with his brother, Mike, over it. Rockett contends that the disruption of familial unity is solidified by the deliverance of Tom’s dead body to his mother, at the apogee of the film (29).

However, there is also an attempt at transcending ethnic identity in The Public Enemy. The suit is synonymous with the gangster image. In this film, like the majority of other gangster films, there is a scene where Tom goes to a tailor to get fitted for a suit. This scene conveys a numer of significant transformations. Tom’s acquisition of a suit, a symbol of wealth and civility, suggests he has ascended the social ladder from working-class irish immigrant, but he falsely attains this status by criminal means. Tom attempts to masquerade his authentic working-class, Irish identity by dressing in a suit, which could be interpreted as a denial of his Irish ethnic identity in order to pass as an upper-class American citizen. As can be seen from the film, his attempts at passing is a failure, which culminates in his death.

On the other hand, The Public Enemy‘s fixation with the mother figure is the opposite in The Departed. Colin Sullivan and Billy Costigan are limbo characters who are fixated with finding a father figure and satisfying their, what James Herzog calls in his book of the same title, ‘Father hunger’ (6). Sullivan’s and Costigan’s purgatorial status is also implied from the title of the film, which is taken from a Catholic prayer for the souls in purgatory. Their liminal status is a result of their ambiguous professions. Both Sullivan and Costigan switch between the identities of a cop and criminal. However, their liminality is also a result of their hyphenated, ethnic identities because they are both Irish and American, but neither fully one or the other. To fully achieve one identity is to deny the other because both cannot simultaneously coexist.

Sullivan is desparte to evade his Irish ethnic identity so that he can pass as a fully assimilated citizen of American society. This is suggested by his exclusion of photographs-visual signifiers of the history of his Irish ethnic identity-from his new, 7th floor apartment that is architecturally aligned with the golden globe of the State House. The position of Sullivan’s apartment in the structural stratification of the building symbolises his position in the social stratification of American society. He has risen from the Southie projects of his childhood upbringing to a position that overlooks society, which is also reflected by his profession in the Massachusetts State Police because as a detective his duty is to overlook society. Colin attempts to achieve complete severance from his ethnic roots in South Boston by cutting the last remaining sinew connecting him to it. Sullivan kills Costello-who is appropriately wearing a T-Shirt with ‘Irish’ written on it- to terminate his Irish ethnic past, but total eradication is only possible with his own death. The close up shot of the rat in line with the State house on the ledge of Sullivan’s apartment balcony suggests that a rat has simultaneously infiltrated the hierarchical social strata of American society and its law enforcement system.

In terms of a post-9/11 context, The Departed‘s reference to the absence of an appropriate father figure could be read not only psychologically, but also in political terms as suggesting the absence of an appropriate leader in the American patriarchy. During the aftermath of 9/11, George Bush was overly preoccupied with establishing ‘us-and-them’ binary oppositions in order to vindicate his ‘War on Terrorism’ and his attempt to take economic control of the rich oil resources of the Middle East.

The Departed‘s reference to the absence of a patriarchal figure in society, the ambiguity concerning patriotic loyalty, the blurring of the lines between good and evil, as suggested by the opposition of cop and criminal, could be perceived as a critical commentary on the post-9/11 historical context.

Consequently, both The Public Enemy and The Departed are prime examples of how Irish-American ethnicity is represented on screen in a positive and negative light by juxtaposing the Irish-American criminals against the Irish-American law-abiders and enforcers, which is another way for America to exemplifying the good and bad immigrant that has been portrayed since early American cinema in films like The Black Hand(1906).

Works Cited & Consulted

Barton, Ruth. ed. “Introduction.” Screening Irish-America: Representing Irish-America in Film and Television Dublin: Irish Academic P, 2009. 1-14. Print.

Benshoff, Harry M. and Sean Griffin. America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2004. Print.

Herzog, James. Father Hunger: Explorations with Adults and Children. New Jersey: Analytic P, 2001. Print.

Rockett, Kevin. “The Irish Migrant and Film.” Screening Irish-America: Representing Irish-America in Film and Television Dublin: Irish Academic P, 2009. 17-44. Print.

 


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Silent Star Breaks Sweetheart: The Irish-Immigrant Cinderella Story of Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley (1918) (12 October 2010)

Release date: 11 March 1918.
Director: Marshall Neilan (Irish-American).
Starring: Mary Pickford, Norman Kerry and William Scott.

Mary Pickford stars as Amarilly Jenkins, the Irish tenement dweller in the ethnic neighborhood of Clothes-line Alley, as the title of the film suggests. The linking of Amarilly with her ethnic neighbourhood is another example of conveying the ethnic geography of America, and the symbiotic relationship between urban setting and ethnic identity. In the film, the city is coded as a community, but it is also coded as a potentially dangerous place. This is conveyed by the exoticism and threatening nature of Chinatown where Terry gets shot at randomly, which is exemplifies America’s xenophobia from the influx foreign nationalities.

Pickford’s performance vindicates the vast fandom she attracted. Even though she is not performing as the American sweetheart, which is a persona molded by her fans, her star persona shines through Amarilly’s poverty-stricken veneer. Young observes that Pickford associated her Irishness with such virtues as hard working, resiliency, matriarchy and humour (65). These qualities are evident in her role as Amarilly and other characters she played.

The plot of the film is a fish-out-of-water tale with quasi-Cinderella overtones. The upper-class, gentleman falling in love with the poor, working-class girl is a familiar trope that has been rehashed many times since in movies like Pretty Woman(1990) and Maid in Manhattan(2002) to name but a few. Like the majority of movies employing this trope, an event occurs so the path of the poor, working-class woman converges with the upper-class man. This develops in Amarilly when Gordon is taken home by Amarilly after a fight breaks out. The fight scene that Amarilly engages with is comical because Pickford fully embraces the fighting-Irish stereotype. In a humorous and melodramatic fashion she pretends to roll up her imaginary sleeves and punches the air with her fist while jeering on Gordon and the other men as if she were one of the men about to engage in boxing.

This image of the rough-and-tumble, tomboyish Amarilly, which is a symptom of living in the dog-eat-dog world of the immigrant tenement, juxtaposes sharply with the image of the upperclass, social butterfly that Mrs. Stuyvesant Philips’ attempts to create, as part of her upper-class Pygmalion experiment. Amarilly’s make-over involves the washing away of the filth of the tenement, but this process is also an ethnic cleansing, as the defining, physiognomic features of her Irish ethnicity-her wild, frizzy hair-are cleansed, tamed and contorted in order to conform to the WASP stands of beauty and to see if she can be equated with upper-class society.

The differences between the two ethnic groups-White Anglo-Saxon Protestants and the poor, working-class Irish immigrants-is accentuated at the society dinner. The dance the Jenkins performed during the dance scene symbolise their Irish ethnic identity and implies the stereotype of the Irish as dancers, which is intermingled with the stereotype of the fighting-Irish from the ‘Round 1’ and ‘Round 2’ inter-titles that are displayed between each round of dancing. Their ability to dance is seen as an innate thing. However, the inability of the society matrons to perform the other’s dance suggests one’s inability to perform another ethnic identity. As can be seen, Amarilly’s make-over doesn’t make her an upper-class, WASP lady because it is inauthentic. Her true ethnic identity cannot be contained under the false facade Mrs. Philips has applied to her. Even though her previous Irish-American comic dress is striped off her and replaced with the frilly dress of civility, her ethnic identity prevails, which suggests that ethnicity transcends materiality, and is not something that can be worn and discarded like a piece of clothing.

This is also apparent from Amarilly’s family who despite having dressed up for the occasion of the dinner, cannot retain the demeanor of upperclass civility for long. Ma Jenkins inadvertently offends one of the matrons by questioning her about if she does laundry and her reaction suggests her working-class background (Young 72).

Ma Jenkins is performed by Kate Price. As well as Pickford, she is a truly amazing character because of her depiction of the stereotypical Irish mother-figure, which is both humorous and sentimental. Her ability to raise a family in a foreign country without a husband demonstrates her resilience and strength, but it is also a reflection of what some immigrant mothers endured. Shannon maintains that Irish immigrants had the “weakest family structure of any of the major European immigrant groups” (81).

Although seriocomic-romance films are not a part of my favorite genre viewing-list, I admire this film for its realistic portrayal of the Irish immigrants’ experience, the film’s setting, which replicates tenement dwellings and the depiction of the prejudicial treatment of immigrants by the upper-class, WASP community, which is predicated on their socioeconomic and ethnic status. In this film, however, Irishness is represented in a certain way, which stems from theatre and vaudeville. Despite the all-too-predictable happy-ending of the film that provides us a glimpse of Amarilly’s life five years into the future, where her clothes and the act of performing leisure time- as they appear to be on a Sunday drive in the country-implies the elevation of her social status from gutter-snipe to Bourgeoise, middle-class, and her assimilation into mainstream American society. Leisure time-the act of retreating to the pastoral-is associated with authenticity because one retreats to the pastoral in order to be renewed. This is apparent in other films such as Deliverance(1972), Grizzly Man(2005) and Into the Wild(2007). In Deliverance the retreat to the pastoral of the remote, Georgia wilderness is an attempt to reassert masculinity, which is a problematic goal as can be seen from the film.

Works Cited & Consulted

Barton, Ruth. ed and intro. Screening Irish America: Representing Irish-Americans in Film and Television. Dublin: Irish Academic P, 2009. Print.

Shannon, Christopher. “The Bowery Cinderella: Gender, Class and Community in Irish-American Film Narrative.” em>Screening Irish America: Representing Irish-Americans in Film and Television. Dublin: Irish Academic P, 2009. 77-90. Print.

Young, Gwenda. “Funny Girls: Early American Screen Comdiennes and Ethnicity.” Screening Irish America: Representing Irish-Americans in Film and Television. Dublin: Irish Academic P, 2009. 61-76. Print.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wBTg-Qo378&feature=related%5D


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