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Brooklyn in Film

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On The Waterfront – 1954

by Prof. Joe Dorinson

Coney Island, a special place for “R and R,” beckoned to moviemakers. In many ways a freak show in the early years of mass entertainment, it became a vital part of popular culture–and, of course, fodder for the movies. A 20th Century Fox movie starring Betty Grable capitalized on both name and association. Perhaps, the best film inspired by Coney was a semi-documentary, The Little Fugitive about a little Bensonhurst boy, Richie Andrusco who runs away from home and school. Made in 1953, it won rave reviews among the cognoscenti.

Coney’s Brooklyn neighbors invited cinematic treatment too. The Brooklyn character answered deep-rooted needs in the kaleidoscope that is American culture. Often pegged to the lowest common denominator, shades of Phineas T. Barnum, Hollywood moguls offered national audiences a proliferation of dumb blondes, laconic cowboys, precocious children, refined Englishmen, and a host of other gargoyles. They took certain recognizable traits and magnified them as the Brooklyn New York type.

This lovable but inept character–Jimmy Durante in many roles and Jack Carson as the dumb cop in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)–triggered laughter, sold tickets, and invited repetition. A cinematic version of a Broadway hit play by Joseph Kesselring provided Frank Capra a last chance to display his gift for frenetic comedy before World War II and his conversion to arch-propagandist for the war effort. The movie starts with a brawl sparked by a bad call in Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ baseball team. “Brooklyn,” the narrator warns “is a place where anything can happen and usually does.” Starring Cary Grant as a suave theatre critic, the movie features an ensemble of brilliant thespians: Josephine Hull, Jack Carson, Peter Lorre, Raymond Massey (impersonating Boris Karloff), et al. Grant’s two dotty aunts are eliminating the homeless problem by poisoning stray males with elderberry wine laced with arsenic. Uncle Teddy (after Roosevelt also a bit daft), who believes that they have succumbed to yellow fever, inters the victims. Although Grant escapes the genetic curse of madness that dominates the family when he discovers that he was adopted at birth, the movie promotes the notion that lunacy, exemplified by the Brewster family, grows in Brooklyn.

Victor McLaglen personified an endangered species, the working class male as sandhog, not fugitive, in Under Pressure. While many actors have assayed the role of comic proletarian, no one outperformed William Bendix in this personification. Born in Manhattan, Bendix probably acquired the manner from his Brooklyn-bred mother. Before he rose to The Life of Riley, Bendix played Tim McGuerin in Brooklyn Orchid (1942) followed by The McGuerins of Brooklyn (1942) and Taxi, Mister (1943). In the original, Bendix portrayed an upwardly mobile yet earthy, muscular cabdriver whose attempts at gentility flunk the Emily Post test. Peering into a mirror while his prissy valet, Stirling tries to transfigure him into “my fair gentleman,” McGuerin bellows: “Stoiling, I feel like a joik!” Regaining self-esteem, he saves a “dame” bent on suicide by reshaping her self-image, shades of Henry Higgins. In Don Juan Quilligan (1945), big Bill appears as a barge captain who maintains two wives in two different ports, Brooklyn and Utica, New York. Does bigamy also grow in Brooklyn? Even as a knight in King Arthur’s Court flanking the Connecticut Yankee, Bendix could not escape his New York roots. Bendix polished his persona in World War II films, particularly Wake Island (1943),Lifeboat (1944) and Guadalcanal Diary (1943). In the latter, he is felled by enemy fire. As this former Brooklyn cab driver lies dying, he hears over the short-wave radio that his beloved Dodgers have won a critical game. He dies, happily.

Even as we faced global war, as an Oscar-winning reminds us, life is beautiful in B films. A mailman, smitten by the love bug, is fired. Aided by his friends in Joe and Ethel Turp Visit the President (1939), he regains the job and the girl. The Turps, characters created by Damon Runyan and played to perfection by William Gargan and Ann Sothern, are true romantics in the tradition of Lord Byron, Hector Berlioz, and Lucille Ball. They face the future happily ever after the red tape is unsnarled and love conquers bureaucracy.

As unsung war hero, the Brooklyn soldier surfaced as a vital force, élan vital in the national melting pot. In countless films featuring the universal platoon, the type-casted New Yorker is courageous, colorful, and continually–indeed compulsively–funny. Equal to any challenge, battle-tough and street-smart, he rises to rank of sergeant, no higher. Did this betoken a lack of ambition or was it a logical expression of the egalitarian spirit? His aspirations never matched his courage. Somewhat complacently, in 1945 as war ended, he sang: “Goin’ back to Brooklyn–to be a bum for the rest of my life.” The late poet laureate of Brooklyn, Norman Rosten complained: “The Brooklyn boy became the village idiot of show biz. All over the world wherever our cinema culture surfaced, gullible foreigners learned to laugh at the slob from Brooklyn, and pretty soon we were all slobs.”

On the flip side of the comic coin in cinema, one discovers that criminality also flourishes in Brooklyn. Out of the Fog (1941) featured an evil thug, John Garfield who preyed on Sheepshead Bay fishermen. In Wonder Man (1945), Danny Kaye played twins: one, an entertainer, who is murdered by the mob in Prospect Park; the other, a nebbish who avenges his brother’s murder. Kaye’s dual role deftly captures the schizoid qualities of the local type. When Irving Shulman’s best selling novel, The Amboy Dukes was translated to the silver screen, the movie downplayed ethnicity but highlighted garbage, ramshackle housing and pervasive punk violence. Retitled City Across the River (1949), the film featured Steve McNally as a two fisted heroic cop (in stark contrast to current imagery) who gallantly tries to clean up Shulman’s begrimed Brownsville.

Do contract killers and violent psychopaths thrive in “our town”? Hollywood answered affirmatively. Witness The Enforcer (1951) with Humphrey Bogart as the ultimate tough guy, On the Waterfront (1954), The Mugger (1959) and Murder Inc. (1960). In the latter, Peter Falk portrayed Abe Reles, a crazed killer whose weapon of choice is an ice pick. Wearing a floppy raincoat and mumbling a la Marlon (Brando), he turned informer. While under police custody, Reles jumped–or was pushed (take your pick)–from a window in Coney island’s Half-Moon Hotel. Upon learning that, paraphrasing Eugene O’Neill, the Ice Man came, his associates quipped: “This ‘boid’ could sing but he could not fly!” Later, Jack Nicholson upheld Prizzi’s Honor (1985). Director John Huston played the Mafia for laughs but in the climactic scene, Nicholson’s inamorata, Kathleen Turner, also a contract killer who sizzles with “body heat” is sacrificed on the altar of necessity coupled with expediency. ‘Tis a far, far better thing, the movie affirmed in action, to honor your father than to cherish your wife. In this world of Brooklyn comic opera, men are still on top.

Nevertheless, women carved out a vital niche in Brooklyn-oriented films. That luscious lump of libido, Mae West wiggled her famous fanny while inviting male suitors up to her apartment. She evaded heavy-handed censors with cleverly crafted puns and double word plays. Ann Sothern played a brassy Maisie who rises above her white collar role; Judy Holiday, a dizzy blonde Billie Dawn who arises from intellectual slumber with the aid of an intellectual Pygmalion, Lana Turner, a vulnerable “Flatbush;” Rosalind Russell, a Yiddishe Mama on a cruise with a gentleman from Japan; and a moon-stricken Cher, in search of love. All of these earthy New York women, rooted in Brooklyn, seek fulfillment in a loony tunes environment.
The Brooklyn woman–“Broad” as in “Broadway Baby”–took flight in 1928 with Alice White in Show Girl (1928) followed by Alice Faye in Girl from Brooklyn (1938), Betty Grable in Coney Island (1943) and in Sweet Rosie O’Grady (1943), Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl (1944) and Joan Blondell in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945). A magnificent movie based on a poignant novel, A Tree… cultivates a recurrent theme, namely, the pursuit of success and upward mobility. This quest sparks a conflict between Brooklyn (initially rural) and Manhattan (always urban). Thus, “making it” with Norman Podhoretz and that other “walker in the city”–Alfred Kazin inexorably leads to exodus: across the river and into the asphalt. The film, brilliantly directed by Elia Kazan before he aped Victor McLaglen as “the informer,” ends on the roof of their Williamsburg tenement where Francie (Peggy Ann Garner) and Neeley, her brother (Ted Donaldson) share secrets and voice dreams. Seeking reassurance, the adolescent Francie wants to know if she is pretty. Tactfully, he responds: “You’ll pass.” The dirt below recedes from view as the camera pans on New York’s magnificent skyline signaling “the green light” of Fitzgerald’s “orgiastic future.” Successful at last, the Nolans will leave Brooklyn for Queens where their stepfather owns property.
The Brooklyn Bridge serves as both conduit and metaphor. Millions watched John Travolta cross over the Bridge in Saturday Night Fever (1977) in quest of a new life. As Joseph Gelmis demonstrates, this famous landmark played a role in movies of every genre. Johnny Weismuller took the plunge from the Bridge in Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942), Frank Sinatra crooned a love-song to the Bridge in It Happened in Brooklyn (1947), he danced across it with Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin in On The Town (1949) and Meryl Streep as Sophie chose to drink champagne with Peter MacNichol as Stingo and Kevin Kline as Nathan on a high perch in Sophie’s Choice (1982).
Escaping from Hollywood clichés, New York filmmakers developed their own style. They used authentic New York locations and established local actors. Witness Marty (1955), Twelve Angry Men (1957), A View from the Bridge (1962) and The Pawnbroker (1965). Developed and directed under the aegis of Sidney Lumet whose father Baruch starred in Yiddish theatre, this genre mixed television technique, city lights and street scenes. Film historians, Gerald Mast and Bruce Kawin attribute this unique approach to cinematographer, Boris Kaufman. Television and theatre helped to restore New York to a place of centrality in American filmmaking.

“Making It” continued to fascinate filmgoers. A new wave of such movies issued from The Lords of Flatbush (1974). A bittersweet nostalgic nosh offered a taste of Brooklyn, circa 1957. Sylvester Stallone fashioned his Rocky persona flanked by future stars, Perry King and Henry Winkler. Stallone is trapped into marriage with his pregnant girlfriend. When the leader abandons Brooklyn and his buddies, the old gang disperses. Paul Mazursky escaped from Brooklyn and a predatory mother in Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976). The best of this bunch, Annie Hall (1977) won Oscar honors across the board for best picture, director and screenplay. Alvy Singer emerges from Coney Island where he lived with bad vibrations emanating from the famous roller coaster and domineering parents, heavily salted with Jewish flavor. Brilliantly, Allen vividly contrasts Jewish-Goyish, New York-Los Angeles, Brooklyn-Manhattan sensibilities. Rejecting Los Angeles, he jibes: “I won’t move some place where the only cultural advantage is that you make a right turn on a red light.”

Suggested reading:
Readers seeking more comprehensive information on Brooklyn films should explore The Brooklyn Film, edited by John B. Manbeck and Robert Singer, issued in 2003 by McFarland & Company.