Saturday, March 12, 2022

#2,722. The Roaring Twenties (1939) - The Men Who Made the Movies


Director Raoul Walsh and his three screenwriters (Jerry Wald, Richard Macauley and Robert Rossen) pack a whole lot of story into The Roaring Twenties, one of the best of the Warner Brothers early gangster films.

After serving his country during World War I, soldier Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) returns home and has a hard time landing a job. With the help of his old pal Danny Green (Frank McHugh), Eddie becomes a nighttime cab driver, and finds himself shuttling around some very shady characters.

With prohibition in full effect, Danny also does his part to help the bootleggers, making booze deliveries for speakeasy owner Panama Smith (Gladys George) before finally becoming a bootlegger himself. Teaming up with fellow war veterans George Hally (Humphrey Bogart) and Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn), Eddie rises to the top of New York's criminal underworld, and uses his success and influence to help singer Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane) become the headline performer at Panama’s club.

Eddie is madly in love with Jean, and promises to go straight, and eventually leave his life of crime behind if she’ll just wait for him. But Jean has eyes for someone else, a reality that may spell the end of not only Eddie’s obsession, but also his reign as the city’s top criminal.

Director Walsh and company utilize an almost documentary approach throughout The Roaring Twenties, with a narrator (John Deering) breaking in on occasion to introduce each new historical era (World War I, prohibition, the rise of speakeasies and tommy guns, all the way up to the stock market crash of 1929). Interspersed within these history lessons is the story of Eddie Bartlett, played with gusto and tons of charisma by James Cagney, who, as he did in The Public Enemy, brings a likability to what amounts to a very shady character.

This time around, though, we’re given the full picture, and know exactly what it was that pushed Eddie into a life of crime. It’s here that The Roaring Twenties truly works its magic, shining a light on social issues of the time. Returning home from World War I, Eddie couldn’t land a job, an issue that plagued many former GI’s. Then, late in the film, Eddie, like millions of Americans at the time, loses everything in the stock market crash. By framing its fictional story within a fact-based context, The Roaring Twenties further distinguishes itself from other gangster films of the 1930s.

In addition to its approach and Cagney’s excellent turn, The Roaring Twenties features one hell of a performance by Humphrey Bogart as George, Eddie’s former comrade-in-arms who eventually becomes his chief rival, and there’s a romantic entanglement that only adds to the film’s intrigue (Eddie has no idea his good friend Lloyd, expertly portrayed by Jeffrey Lynn, is also deeply in love with Jean).

The Roaring Twenties is indeed a gangster film, but based on the above, I’d say it’s a lot more as well.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

No comments: