In the Gay Nineties, on New York's Bowery, saloon owner Chuck Connors (Beery), finds that his rival, Steve Brodie (Raft), has thrown a muskmelon at his window. The happy-go-lucky Brodie explains that he threw the melon on a dare. As Connors threatens to fight him, the two learn of a fire in neighboring Chinatown. Both men call upon their volunteer fire brigades, and wager $100 on which will be the first to throw water on the fire.
Although Brodie is first to arrive, he finds Connor's young pal, Swipes McGurk (Cooper), sitting on a barrel placed over the fire hydrant preventing Brodie from using it first. Connors arrives and the rival fire fighters brawl as the fire reduces the building to a smoldering ruin, presumably incinerating the crowd of Chinese trapped inside who had been screaming for help at the window. Brodie vows revenge on Connors, leading to a $500 bet that a fighter, whom Brodie calls "The Masked Marvel," can beat "Bloody Butch" a prizefighter managed by Conners. Conners accepts, and the "Marvel" knocks out Bloody Butch with one punch. After the fight, the "Marvel" is revealed to be John L. Sullivan (George Walsh).
Connors meets a homeless girl named Lucy Calhoun (Fay Wray) and takes her to his apartment, where he lives with Swipes, and lets her spend the night. In the morning, he is pleasantly surprised (and Swipes annoyed), to find that Lucy has cleaned up the place and cooked breakfast. Swipes later locks Lucy in a closet and, when Connors finds her, spanks him. Humiliated, Swipes packs and leaves. That night, Brodie invites Swipes to move in with him, which he does. Finding out about Lucy, Brodie attempts to seduce her, thinking that she is Connors' mistress. She bites his hand, drawing blood, and after learning her identity, he apologizes and asks if he can call on her. They soon fall in love, and Brodie reveals his ambition to run a saloon bigger than Connors'.
When two brewers offer to sponsor him if he can bring his name into prominence, Brodie decides to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge as a stunt. Connors bets his saloon against a free burial that Brodie won't survive. Scheming to avoid actually jumping, Brodie gets a life-sized dummy made up to look like him and arranges for Swipes to throw it off the bridge at the time of the jump. As a crowd of 100,000 gathers at the bridge, Swipes finds the dummy missing. Swipes observes, in dialogue that sounds eerily current to the modern ear, "They were hip to us so they copped it." Despite Swipes's pleas, and left without any other option, Brodie vows to make the jump anyway, so that no one can say he didn't take a dare. Meanwhile, temperance activist Carrie Nation and her band of women arrive at Connors' saloon to tear it down with axes and hatchets. When he sees Brodie lifted in a parade after making the jump, however, Connors encourages the activists to destroy the saloon, which they do.
Brodie re-opens the refurbished saloon, and when war is declared against Spain, Connors enlists in an effort to get away from the Bowery, where he is no longer a big shot. When he returns to his apartment to pack, he finds that Swipes has returned and reconciles with the boy. Professional rivals of Brodie's then find Connors and deceitfully tell him that Brodie did not actually jump from the bridge, showing him the dummy. Connors demands Brodie give his saloon back. Brodie denies using the dummy, and the two have a long fight on a barge in the East River to settle their differences. After Connors returns victorious, he is arrested for assault and battery with intent to kill. Brodie, however, refuses to implicate him. As Brodie recovers, Connors visits his hospital only to begin another fight, but Swipes stops them and urges them to become friends. After they shake hands, Connors dares Brodie to join him in Cuba. At a parade for departing soldiers, Connors tells Lucy to kiss Brodie goodbye, and after she does, she also kisses Connors. The men lament not being able to say goodbye to Swipes, but they soon see, to their delight, that he is hiding in an artillery box on the supply wagon just ahead of them.Wallace Beery as Chuck Connors
George Raft as Steve Brodie
Jackie Cooper as Swipes McGurk
Fay Wray as Lucy Calhoun
Pert Kelton as Trixie Odbray
Herman Bing as Max Herman
Oscar Apfel as Ivan Rummel
Ferdinand Munier as Honest Mike
George Walsh as John L. Sullivan
Lillian Harmer as Carrie A. Nation
It was the first film from Twentieth Century Pictures.
The movie features Beery as saloon owner Chuck Connors, Raft as Steve Brodie, the first man to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge and live, Jackie Cooper as a pugnacious child, Fay Wray as the leading lady, and Pert Kelton as a bawdy young dance hall singer. (There had been some talk that Clark Gable would play the Raft role.)
The film is an absorbing presentation of the views and behaviors common at the time. The movie opens with a close-up of a saloon window featuring a sign saying "Nigger Joe's" in large letters (the name of an actual Bowery bar from the period). Cooper's character has a habit of throwing rocks at people in Chinatown. When Beery's character berates him for doing so, Cooper's character responds, "They was just Chinks", whereupon Beery immediately softens, saying "Awww..." while affectionately mussing the boy's hair. At one point, Cooper's character breaks a window, knocking over a kerosene lamp and causing a lethal fire that spreads through the block. Frantic Chinese people trapped in the fire are shown desperately trying to escape, followed by a depiction of the ashes of their building in which they presumably died.
The Bowery bears some resemblances to a concurrent movie She Done Him Wrong, a film starring Mae West and Cary Grant released earlier the same year by a different studio (Paramount Pictures) featuring Wallace Beery's older brother Noah in a similar role.
Raoul Walsh had directed a groundbreaking film about the Bowery as far back as 1915. Regeneration (1915), shot on location in the Bowery during the same year that Walsh played John Wilkes Booth in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, was a very early gangster movie and features tattered clothing on cast members far more ragged than anything seen in a more recent film. The Bowery was produced by Twentieth Century Pictures before their 1935 merger with the Fox Film Corporation to become 20th Century Fox.
The Bowery was one of eleven films in which Wray portrayed the leading lady in 1933, including the original version of King Kong. Two decades later, Pert Kelton played Alice Kramden, wife of bus driver Ralph Kramden portrayed by Jackie Gleason, in the seminal first season of "The Honeymooners" with Art Carney in the Gleason-hosted Cavalcade of Stars on the Dumont Network. Kelton was blacklisted the same year that Gleason moved the show over to the CBS network and Kelton was replaced by Audrey Meadows.
The film was Twentieth Century's second most popular movie of the year.
The film was one of United Artists most popular films of the year.
In 1943 it was announced 20th Century Fox would remake the film as a musical, Bowery After Midnight, with William Bendix in the Beery role. In 1946 the project was going to be called Brooklyn Bridge and star Victor Mature in the Raft part. In 1948 George Jessel was going to star.