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Posted May 13, 2010 | comments Leave a comment

Ties that bind: Professor pens book about Irish-Americans in classic films

By Josette Keelor - jkeelor@nvdaily.com

FRONT ROYAL - It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time that led Christopher Shannon to write his latest book, "Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema" (University of Scranton Press). The associate professor of history at Christendom College in Front Royal has written books before, but nothing like this.

"I never studied film in any extensive way," he said recently of his days working at the George Eastman House museum in Rochester, New York. A University of Rochester graduate, Shannon stumbled upon the wealth of information the film archives had about classic Hollywood cinema. "I just started watching the films in the archive when I could."

Before long, he realized a link he believed that other writers had not yet pursued, examining the way in which Irish-Americans were portrayed in films of the '30s and '40s.

Beginning in the Great Depression, many Irish-Americans had begun to rethink the American dream when they realized the pursuit of fame and fortune had left them with little in the way of happiness. They fell back on the community around them that shared their common culture and found that maintaining the past was more important than changing the future.

"I started to discern a story here," Shannon said. "There's something more going on, there's a story of community."

The idea of community was a central theme to movies of the genre, he said. The Irish-American culture was dependent on the physical proximity of one family to another. Neighbors watched out for one another; children in every family grew up together. Even families at war with each other could bond over the common factor of their shared culture, often tossing aside their differences in the name of community welfare.

"It's not who you are, it's where you are," Shannon said of the mentality of identity.

These societal elements can be seen in movies as varied as "The Public Enemy," "Angels with Dirty Faces," "Going My Way" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy," says a news release from the public relations office at Christendom College.

The movies, whether they portray gangsters, boxers or priests, are about "normal people trying to survive," -- what sociologists call the urban village, he said.

Also of Irish descent, Shannon felt himself drawn to the back story of the movies of Spencer Tracy, Bing Crosby, Errol Flynn, Pat O'Brien and Maureen O'Hara, among many others.

"There hadn't readily been that much written about Irish-Americans in film," he said, so he studied what he could find and, over a few years, wrote about them himself.

He published the book to illustrate not only something he felt other writers had failed to pinpoint but also to convey to the public the importance of community in everyone's life.

Something that today's American culture sorely lacks, he said, is a sense of community. Promotion of the individual has generally been more important than the prosperity of the community -- a mindset he said relates back to the fundamental truth of the American dream.

"People have lost an appreciation for their rootedness in place," he said.

The movies he discusses in his book reiterate the idea that when people leave their community or abandon their culture in pursuit of personal success, everyone ultimately suffers, he said.

"Families are great, but families cannot do it alone," he said. "[Communities] in which families can sustain across generations" are the ones that succeed. "I think all Americans have suffered because of [the loss of] that."

The title of his book refers to the Dutch word "bowery," which means, basically, "the poor-man's Broadway," he said. It was the entertainment center of the New York poor, the most urban part of New York City, he said.

Even though the book focuses on movies that were made more than 60 years ago, Shannon believes that his readers will be able to relate to the ideas expressed throughout.

Many films today still relate back to the basic ideas of community welfare, he said, such as 2006's "The Departed," which depicts the Irish Mafia in the ghettos of Boston -- "a world where people are thickly connected," he said.

He has become interested in how modern writers have returned to that place in America's past to continue portraying similar ideas. It is difficult for them to feature current societies like the ones before them "because the Irish in a way assimilated," he said. They, like many others, now honor the American culture, which promotes a combining of traditions instead of preservation of individual cultures.

After the 1940s ended, Hollywood, too, moved away from the themes that removed focus from commercial and financial prosperity.

"Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema," now available on Amazon.com and Borders.com, was released in March in time for St. Patrick's Day.

"I'm no dummy," Shannon said, laughing.

He plans to hold book signings in the near future at local bookstores.

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