Maynooth University, Ireland
by Stephanie Rains. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
Albany: State University of New York Press, 2022, 230 pp.
In recent years, probably the most visible exhibition of Irish-American masculinities were those on display in and around the Trump administration. One of the most distinguishing features (especially to those of us watching from Ireland) was the disproportionate number of white Irish-American men who were part of Trump’s inner circle for some or all of his tenure. Even ignoring the more minor figures, this roll-call included Sean Spicer, General John Kelly, General Michael Flynn, Mick Mulvaney, Steve Bannon, Mike Pence, Kevin McCarthy and Brett Kavanaugh. The only high-profile Irish-American women in the Trump universe were Kellyanne Conway and Amy Coney Barrett, and in general the Trump administration was as marked by gender disparities as it was by its ethnicity. Some of these individuals appeared to place more value on their Irish-American heritage than others – Sean Spicer and Mick Mulvaney apparently being among the more invested of the group – but all of them gave very public performances of a contemporary version of Irish-American masculinity. The analyses of precisely how and why an administration frequently allied to white supremacy, and which ended with a violent attack on the seat of American government itself, was shaped by so many white Irish-American men has yet to be written and will presumably occupy scholars of Irish-America for many years. Certainly it represents a dramatic change from the previous few decades, when so many Irish-Americans in public life were famously associated with the Kennedy administration and the Democratic party. Frequently pointed to as the moment when Irish-America fully attained its long-sought-after acceptance into whiteness and the American establishment, John F Kennedy’s election to President in 1960 is also the year at which Tony Tracy’s new book on Irish-American masculinities ends. White Cottage, White House: Irish American Masculinities in Classical Hollywood Cinema explores the decades between Al Smith’s failed Presidential campaign of 1928 (a campaign destroyed to a large extent by anti-Catholic sentiment) and John F Kennedy’s victory thirty-two years later.
White Cottage, White House is structured thematically, with each of the five chapters covering a group of films which represented Irish-American men in specific ways, or which offered specific narratives for those men to perform a role as white Americans. The first chapter maps the career of James Cagney as an exuberantly Irish-American actor whose roles evolved alongside public opinions of what it meant to be Irish-American, from gangster movies which used his ethnicity as a marker of crime to the film Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) which used it to symbolise American patriotism. The second chapter focuses on that distinctive central character of classic Hollywood movies, the Irish-American priest. This is a rich subject for analysis in the specific context of masculinity, especially given the idealised and heroic manner in which this very particular form of male identity was presented to movie-goers of the mid-twentieth-century. The chapter covers in impressive detail the development of films about Catholic priests in the aftermath of the anti-Catholic popular feeling which ended Al Smith’s Presidential campaign in 1928, and the particular importance of Spencer Tracy and Pat O’Brien to this film genre. Tracy makes the argument that, although the films appear to offer a progressive social change for American Catholics, they actually offer “increasingly conservative reinforcements of hegemonies of gender and race”. The chapter provides fascinating close readings of films such as Boys Town (1938) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1939) in order to explore this argument.
The next chapter is a very original discussion of biopics of Irish-American boxing and military figures. The three principal films chosen for close readings are The Great John L (1945), Gentleman Jim (1942) and The Long Gray Line (1954). Because the first two are also boxing pictures (being the biopics of ‘Big’ John L Sullivan and ‘Gentleman’ Jim Corbett respectively), much of this chapter focuses on the Irish-American fighter as an important figure of masculinity during and immediately after World War II. By contrast, The Long Gray Line is the biopic of military swimming instructor Master Sergeant Marty Maher, set mainly during the late-nineteenth century. Tracy uses the concept of habitus – specifically of the gym, the military academy and the ideal cottage home – as the critical mechanism linking these films and their depiction of Irish-American men. The first two close readings, focusing on the gym and the white male body, work very well in this regard as direct comparisons between the two films and even between the bodies of their two stars. The chapter provides fascinatingly nuanced arguments about the intersection between Irish-American whiteness, class and the American Dream. The analysis of The Long Gray Line fits less well into this framework, given the differences in both its internal narrative and its production context. Being a film of the 1950s rather than 1940s, this might have benefited from discussion alongside other films of that decade, and in particular other films which wrote the Irish-American soldier into American military history.
The fourth chapter analyses that stalwart figure of Hollywood movies, the Irish-American cop. Tracy seeks to outline a historical evolution of this figure between his appearance from the very earliest American films, such as A Policeman’s Love Affair (1905), through the 1930s films The Great O’Malley (1937) and Sergeant Madden (1939), to the post-war examples of The Naked City (1948), Union Station (1950), Rogue Cop and Shield for Murder (both 1954). The fifth and final chapter changes pace from analysing ‘types’ such as the priest, the fighter or the cop, and covers films in which Irish-American men visited Ireland. This of course includes the foundational text for such discussions, the 1952 John Ford movie The Quiet Man in which John Wayne’s Irish-American leading-man finds romance and solace in his mother’s home village of Innisfree. Also covered in Tracy’s discussion are The Luck of the Irish (1948, starring Tyrone Power as a hardened war reporter stranded in Ireland while attempting to return to the United States from Europe) and Top O’ the Morning (1949, starring Bing Crosby as an insurance executive investigating the theft of the Blarney Stone). As has been pointed out in previous studies of these post-war Irish-American men who find themselves in Ireland, they all find not only romance but solace and community in the Ireland of their ancestors – and Tracy provides detailed readings of the ways in which each film rehearses that narrative.
Those close readings of films are the book’s key strength, along with the way in which those readings trace the differing depictions of Irish-American masculinities in the context of mid-twentieth century social change in the United States (especially the understandings and benefits of whiteness, which is central to this book’s analyses of Irish-American masculinity). This is particularly true of the readings which trace less-discussed films such as the biopics of well-known Irish-Americans, or which trace the subtle variations in particular versions of Irish-American masculinities across multiple films – the chapters on the priest and the policeman contain particularly assiduous close readings of this kind, for example. What these readings also reveal across the chapters is the remarkable degree to which the same actors were repeatedly cast in many of these films, and it would have been fascinating to see this aspect of Irish-American male performance and Irish-American star personae explored more. Barry Fitzgerald, for example, had put in an appearance as a priest in Going My Way (1944) before playing an Irish-American cop in both The Naked City (1948) and Union Station (1950) and then an Irish policeman in Top O’ the Morning, before eventually taking the role of the irrepressible Michaeleen Óg in The Quiet Man (1952). Bing Crosby’s roles as an Irish-American singing priest in Going My Way (1944, alongside Barry Fitzgerald’s priest) are referenced, although not discussed in detail in Tracy’s chapter on priest films, but his role as the producer of The Great John L is very interestingly highlighted, and there is a detailed discussion of his later appearance as the (deeply unlikely) romantic lead in Top O’ the Morning. Similarly, the book notes that Pat O’Brien played an Irish-American priest twice during his career, as well as an Irish-American policeman in one of the films Tracy analyses. O’Brien remains a rather under-discussed Irish-American actor, especially by comparison with Cagney whose career arc and star persona the book does explore in detail. A critical discussion of O’Brien’s career, and of Crosby as a recurring Irish-American character, from priest to romantic lead, would also have been fascinating in this context. This might then shed interesting light on the more conservative uses to which Irish-American masculinity was put during the twentieth-century and which might therefore be seen as a precursor to the more recent ways in which it has become synonymous with conservative and far-right identities. White Cottage, White House does however provide many fascinating studies of individual films and also places them in a detailed theoretical context of the shifting sands of whiteness in mid-twentieth century America.