A touch of green on the silver screen

ST PATRICK’S Day, celebrated today, is the great commemoration of the Irish and Irish-American experiences. It’s also a great time to watch a movie or two, because Irish-Americans have had an impact on Hollywood second only to that of the Jews.

From directors such as John Ford, Leo McCarey and Edward Burns to actors such as James Cagney, Gene Kelly and Adrien Brody, the Irish have been drawn to the world of the movies, and it’s no surprise that often they’ve turned the camera on their own roots. These movies are all available to rent or own on DVD or videotape.


‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ (1945) is a must for all young girls, and for their brothers and parents. Elia Kazan’s remarkably assured directorial debut is a loving adaptation of Betty Smith’s novel of an Irish-American family fighting to get by in the face of alcoholism, poverty and anti-Irish prejudice. Peggy Ann Garner is movingly real as young Francie, while James Dunn deserved his Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Francie’s charming father Johnny, whose alcoholism and shattered dreams are the movie’s dark underside.


‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ (1942) won James Cagney his only Oscar as Best Actor, and deservedly so. The Irish-American Cagney inhabits the role of Irish-American George M. Cohan to an uncanny degree, and his stiff-legged, jig-influenced tap dancing defines the word ‘irresistible.’ The great Cohan songs, from the title tune through ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’ and ‘Over There,’ would get a cigar-store Indian’s toe tapping.

‘The Commitments’ (1991) proves, once and for all, that soul music connects as powerfully to the Irish as to the African-Americans who spawned it. Alan Parker’s raucous film about an Irish musician scuffling to put together a soul band is a comedy at heart, but it’s rooted in a love for the great soul music of the 1950s and 1960s, which the cast renders with brio and, yes, commitment.


‘The Informer’ (1935) is perhaps John Ford’s most heartfelt movie, a viscerally disturbing drama that has no heroes and, perhaps, no villains either. Victor McLaglen, in an Oscar-winning performance, is riveting as a simple-hearted, not-very-bright Irish rebel who informs on a friend without fully realizing what he’s doing, and then writhes as the net of consequences tightens around him. Masterfully staged, with nice touches of black humor and a terrific Irish cast.

‘Michael Collins’ (1996) casts Liam Neeson as the iconic IRA leader and Irish patriot of the 1910s and early 1920s, with a terrific supporting cast - OK, Julia Roberts looks a little lost - and a great sense of time and place.


‘Angela’s Ashes’ (1999) misplaces much of the humor in Frank McCourt’s acclaimed memoir, but Emily Watson’s performance in the lead role - as McCourt’s Irish mother, struggling to hold together her impoverished family in 1930s Limerick - is one for the ages. One of the classic images of Irish womanhood is of a resolute, unyielding mother doing whatever is necessary for her family, and it was never more strongly limned than here.

‘Circle of Friends’ (1995) looks to 1950s Dublin and a group of college-age friends for another classic image of Irish womanhood. In this adaptation of Maeve Binchy’s popular novel, Minnie Driver is revelatory as an intelligent young woman who, despite romantic disappointments and family conflicts, perseveres with pluck and determination to make a place in the world for herself.


‘The Quiet Man’ (1952) does have a woman in it - Maureen O’Hara, taking no nonsense as Mary Kate Danaher - but mostly John Ford’s signature Irish story is about Irish manhood, with Victor McLaglen as her brawling, possessive brother and John Wayne as the Irish-American man’s man who challenges him for her hand. Barry Fitzgerald, as a leprechaunish matchmaker, embodies another classic Irish type with terrific brio.

‘My Left Foot’ (1989) may seem to be not especially Irish, other than the fact that its protagonist, writer Christy Brown, happens to have been Irish. Brown’s triumph over cerebral palsy, which left him unable to move any part of his body except his left foot, could have produced a simple ‘life-affirming’ saga of a man overcoming a dreadful handicap. But the glory of Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar-winning performance as Brown is the extent to which he conveys that the writer was not only a miraculously gifted handicapped man but also a remarkably typical Irishman, with all his strengths and weaknesses intact.


‘Darby O’Gill and the Little People’ (1959) is seldom listed among the best of Disney’s live-action films, but it ought to be. In its freewheeling humour, catchy tunes and even-now-impressive special effects, it’s a worthy predecessor to the far-more-touted “Mary Poppins” (1964). And it’s the first major screen role - and the first of many Irish imitations - for a young Scottish actor named Sean Connery.

‘The Secret of Roan Inish’ (1994) is wildly uncharacteristic of acclaimed writer/director John Sayles’ work, but that’s one of the privileges of being an indie-movie auteur: If you read a great book, in this case Rosalie K. Fry’s children’s fantasy of the same title, and feel like making it into a movie, there’s nobody to stop you.

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