Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Roaring Twenties, The (1939)

Director: Raoul Walsh

When soldiers came home from fighting the Great War they returned to an America transformed by Prohibition. The Roaring Twenties is a Warner Bros picture that depicts this period when crime escalated in America due to legislated morality, manifested in this picture about three soldiers returning from the war. Cagney was the typical gangster leading man who found his way into yet another such feature, which would be his last in the genre for a very long period in pursuit of expanding his acting abilities beyond the world of crime dramas. The film would also be seen as a nostalgia picture as audiences of the late 1930s would look back fondly at the exuberant time that was the 1920s.

The Roaring Twenties is a gangster drama about the downfall of a man pulled into the world of bootlegging during Prohibition as he rose to be one of the biggest men in the city, ultimately to become a nobody. Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney), George Hally (Humphrey Bogart), and Llyod Hart (Jeffery Lynn) return home after fighting the terrors of the World War to find coming home not as easy as they hoped. Eddie struggles to find work as his old job was filled while overseas in Europe, but eventually finds with the help of nightclub operator/singer Panama Smith (Gladys George), his way into the lucrative world of bootlegging as America has become dry due to the new 18th Amendment. Along his way Eddie begins to fall in love with Jean (Priscilla Lane), a a young, talented singer he helps in a time of need to become a nightclub star at Panama Smith’s. Unknown to Eddie, Jean is falling in love with Lloyd, who works for Eddie as his lawyer.

Friends, partners, and enemies. Cagney and Bogart are all three in this film
Meanwhile Eddie makes a poor business deal with Hally, who also has fallen into the bootlegging business causing Eddie’s empire to crumble. Without his money or even the girl he loved Eddie is down on his luck as a poor cab driver. Things get heated as Hally threatens to kill Lloyd for attempting to get out of the business and knowing too much of Hally’s illegal operation. In a wild gunfight Eddie kills Hally, but is done in my one of his cohorts, dying in the arms of Panama Smith, the one person who cared about Eddie, but he never go close enough to. As police find Eddie dead in Smith’s arms she cries with the final line explaining “he use to be a big shot.”

Apart from being a rather exciting gangster film The Roaring Twenties does a remarkable job at presenting themes that would be used very well in other great films in the future decades.

Firstly, the film looks back with a sense of nostalgia at the 1920s. Albeit the picture focuses on crimes and Prohibition, the speakeasy culture and carefree nightlife of a raucous period of popular culture for that decade is looked back in fondness. In a sense this is one of Hollywood’s earliest nostalgia pictures, a style that would be played more strongly in later decades of the 20th century, especially in the 1970s as it looked back at the 1950s.

Another major theme at the beginning of the film is the unfair nature in which returning war veterans had to begin life anew as they were unable to return to their past vocations after the War. In a few short years the World War changed how life was in America at the expense of those veterans that now lost their past lives. This idea would be more focused on in the very respected 1946 feature film The Best Years of Our Lives as veterans had to find new jobs in a market where their old positions were filled while they were away, essentially making them start again at the bottom financially and emotionally. It is a poor way to say “thank you” to the people that put their lives on the line for the freedom of the country. This is what makes Eddie fall into bootlegging, as it was the first job that allowed him to make good money after returning home, allowing for the rest of the tale to carry out.

Director Roaul Walsh’s best days seemed to be behind him coming into this project. His best known endeavors were well in his past at this point with perhaps The Thief of Bagdad, the Douglas Fairbanks silent fantasy, the widescreen western The Big Trail, which failed to bring in box office numbers, and the Wallace Beery period picture The Bowery. It was his contracted time at Paramount Pictures, spanning 1935 to early 1939, that held him back as very little worthy work was provided for him. Here with Warner Bros. Walsh was given new life as The Roaring Twenties is full of great action and modern flare that permitted him to be more ambitious with his filmmaking. The picture is a rather typical gangster film, but it provided a shot in the arm for the filmmaker down on his creative luck. His future would begin to brighten back up thanks to Warner Bros.

The film starred James Cagney fresh off becoming the studio’s top draw after his return from independent work. His co-star, as far as billing was concerned, was Priscilla Lane, the youngest of talented singing sibling group The Lane Sisters. Priscilla was beginning to blossom as an attractive actress being pushed by the studio as a possible leading lady type. Lane’s role was very limited and on the forgettable side as her character as Jean draws very little romance compared to crime in this drama. Cagney on the other hand carries the film as he usually does. However, Cagney would pursue other endeavors in the future, attempting to expand past the tough man persona that made him a star, as he was brought up as a talented song and dance man.

Humphrey Bogart finds himself in his third picture alongside of Cagney, and as it turned out to be their last together. Bogart was still not a headliner at this time, but his image was ever increasingly as a stone faced tough guy of his own. His part was limited until the very end when Eddie and Hally have it out with each other. Bogart is the undeniable “bad guy” of the movie, setting up traps and scheming against his friends for his own benefit.

This was the third and final film that featured Bogart and Cagney.
Buried under the story of Cagney and Bogart’s character is the story of Lloyd, played by Jeffery Lynn. Lloyd is more of the object by which the conflicts occur, but his character is the only squeaky clean persona in the film. He works for Eddie, but never wants to associate with crime and attempts to leave which puts his life in danger. Jeffery Lynn is reunited with an old co-star in Priscilla Lane as they had worked in romantic movies in the past. This appears to be the sole reasoning he is featured in the picture as his character is more of an object than a person that grows through the story.

The performance of Gladys George might be overlooked as her character is disregarded in the film. This one time Oscar Award nominee finds herself in a role as a jaded nightclub singer who appears to sympathize with Eddie and even has a hint of really loving this man that really does not show any romantic care for her. This heartbreaking character shares the film’s wonderful last words that can stand as one of cinema’s best last lines as our hero dies in her arms.

"He use to be a big shot."
The Roaring Twenties would be the last gangster picture for James Cagney until White Heat a decade later in 1949. Despite Cagney departing the genre this film stands a one of the finer gangster films of the era, commonly overlooked by the earlier features Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and even Angels with Dirty Faces. The film does a wonderful job focusing on the moral issues of 1920s America both with war veterans and legalized morality that plagued the nation in a decade of prosperity. In later years this feature would be overlooked, but continues to entertain fans of 1930s gangster flicks.

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