This tough and snappy gangster flick just whets Judge Maurice Cobbs's appetite for more of the same.
Our reviews of Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection (published November 15th, 2010) and TCM Greatest Gangster Films Collection: Prohibition Era (published September 22nd, 2010) are also available.
"Look, George, there's a new kind of setup you don't understand. Guys don't go around tearing things apart like we used to. People try to build things up, and that's what Lloyd's tryin' to do. In this new setup, well, you and me just don't belong, that's all."—Eddie Bartlett
It may come to pass that, at some distant date, we will be confronted with another period similar to the one depicted in this photoplay. If that happens, I pray that the events, as dramatized here, will be remembered.
In this film, the characters are composites of people I knew, and the situations are those that actually occurred.
Bitter or sweet, most memories become precious as the years move on. This film is a memory—and I am grateful for it.
-- Mark Hellinger
Facts of the Case
When American doughboy Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney, The Strawberry Blonde) returns to New York from the trenches of World War I, he finds that there is no place in the postwar world for a battle-weary soldier. Unable to find a job, Eddie turns to bootlegging and soon builds a successful underworld empire, using a cab company as a front, with the legal aid of his wartime friend, idealistic young lawyer Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn, A Letter to Three Wives), and with the tutelage of nightclub matron Panama Smith (Gladys George). A chance encounter with another friend from the trenches, an unsavory character named George Hally (Humphrey Bogart, High Sierra), creates an alliance against powerful bootlegger Nick Brown (real-life felon Paul Kelly), foreshadowing impending trouble for Bartlett's throne—even as Bartlett's infatuation with struggling singer Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane, Arsenic and Old Lace) spells disaster for his heart, setting the stage for Eddie's fall and the film's explosive conclusion.
One part gangster melodrama, one part morality play, and one part social commentary, The Roaring Twenties writes an epitaph not only for that age of wild excess, but for the golden age of gangster films as well. While this isn't the last gangster film that Hollywood would make (in fact, Raoul Walsh would go on to make Bogart a bona fide star with the 1941 gangster film High Sierra), it is the last of a certain style of gangster film.
The Roaring Twenties is a nostalgic look at a strange and terrible period of American history; as such, it is absolutely appropriate that the movie adopts a pseudo-documentary style not unlike that of Citizen Kane, and which no doubt served as at least partial inspiration for the format used on the television show The Untouchables. Incredible montages by Byron Haskin, some of which feature stock footage from an assortment of previous Warner crime thrillers, accent Raoul Walsh's blazing action scenes; few scenes in cinema can top the kinetic shootout in the Italian restaurant between Bartlett and Nick Brown, and the final scene has such slam-bang momentum that it places you firmly on the edge of your seat. Walsh spins a roaring crime melodrama out of a story by famed New York reporter Mark Hellinger. Some nostalgic touches, like references to 3.2 beer, may not resonate with modern audiences as much as they did when the film was in theaters, but others, like the incredible "melting skyscrapers" scene that represents the stock market crash, are still astounding today.
James Cagney, of course, was one of the stars who defined this golden age of gangster films, along with other Warner Bros. stars like Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, and George Raft, and Cagney certainly turns in his usual dynamic and riveting performance here. Eddie Bartlett is a different type of gangster for Cagney, however, markedly different from The Public Enemy's Tom Powers and Rocky Sullivan from Angels With Dirty Faces. Bartlett is essentially a moral individual, unlike the volatile and amoral Powers, and shows none of the arrogant swagger that defined Sullivan. In fact, Bartlett becomes a bootlegger not through action, but through reaction: The entire film is the story of one good man's slide into moral ambiguity while reacting to circumstances beyond his control—another way that Bartlett differs from earlier Cagney gangsters, who seized control of their destinies through whatever means were available to them. According to the film's stern narration, "The Eddie of this story joins the thousands and thousands of other Eddies throughout America. He becomes a part of a criminal army—an army that was born of a marriage between an unpopular law and an unwilling public." There's an air of helplessness to Bartlett's character, in ironic contrast to his position as the powerful gang lord, as he seems to be constantly driven down the road to perdition by outside forces.
But Bartlett never completely abandons his core of morality, as we see throughout the movie, and especially when the story hurtles toward its action-packed finale. Bartlett's inherent decency also shows in his infatuation with nightclub singer Jean Sherman. Although Jean is certainly grateful for the opportunities he's given her, Bartlett has a blind spot that prevents him from seeing the reality of the situation. He dotes on her, perhaps believing that he can win her affection by indulging her, but when she chooses another man over him, he does not react in the way that Sullivan might and Powers certainly would. Although he loses his temper and knocks the other gentleman to the ground, he quickly regains control of himself. As much as it might hurt him, he respects Jean's decision and leaves the lovers alone. Perhaps he realizes that what has happened is beyond his control—a common theme in this movie—and his anger comes more from his failure to have foreseen this end, despite warnings from friends like Panama and even George Hally.
It's not hard to guess that Bartlett's antagonistic business partner George Hally would have reacted in quite the opposite manner. As we see practically from the beginning of the movie, Hally is thoroughly amoral and unlikable, and although he disappears for a large chuck of the story, his presence hovers over the movie until he returns. Although Humphrey Bogart made his mark in many a Warners crime thriller, during this age of gangster flicks he was usually relegated to a second-tier role, like the murderous "Bugs" Fenner from Bullets or Ballots and slimy, underhanded lawyer Jim Frazier in Angels With Dirty Faces, and George Hally is as bad as any of these. He thinks as little of gunning down a 16-year-old soldier on the battlefields of Europe as he does of gunning down a disarmed security guard that he has reason to dislike. Thoroughly rotten, underhanded, and scheming, Bogart plays Hally with an almost sociopathic edge.
Completely opposite from the irredeemable Hally is idealistic lawyer Lloyd Hart. Throughout the movie, Bartlett seems torn between Hart's honesty and Hally's rottenness; they work on him as if they were a cartoon angel and devil perched on his shoulders. Hart, like many Americans of the period, neither approves nor disapproves of Bartlett's profession; although it is not the path he might have chosen, and although he has some misgivings about it, he's willing to go along up to a certain point. Perhaps Hart even senses the moral shift in Bartlett's character as the movie plays out—he urges his friend several times to get out of the rackets and make his booming taxi company more than just a front for illegal activities—"You ought to use those cabs as cabs," he says to his friend. But Bartlett sees no danger: "Look, take what you can get while you can get it 'cause nobody's gonna walk up to you and drop it in your lap. Do you hear that? …Don't think that everything's all wrong because you're not starvin' to death, you hear?" When the business turns bloody, however, Hart wants no part of it—but Hally isn't keen on letting Hart walk: "Now listen, Harvard. You came into this racket with your eyes open. You learned a lot and you know a lot. If any of it gets out, you go out with your eyes open, only this time, they'll have pennies on them." That threat comes back to haunt both Hart and Bartlett later in the film.
Madly in love with Bartlett is tough nightclub hostess "Panama" Smith, excellently played by Gladys George. Although Panama is as obvious about her feelings for Bartlett as she could possibly be without actually leaping over the table and pinning him to the floor, he nevertheless remains smitten with the unattainable Jean. Panama's been around, though, and she's probably seen how this sort of thing has turned out before:
Panama: You're battin' out of your league, buster. You're used to
traveling around with…dames like me. You sure got it bad. Suppose she
turns you down?
Still, it is Panama who sticks by Bartlett through his whirlwind rise and terrible fall, and who in fact delivers the film's most famous line, a powerful eulogy for Bartlett after he is gunned down for the sake of the woman who never loved him: "He used to be a big shot." The supporting cast is just as remarkable as the leads. Close Cagney friend Frank McHugh plays Bartlett's best friend Danny Green, bringing a bit of comic relief into the film; Cagney and McHugh have such wonderful chemistry on screen that their scenes together are some of the best parts of the movie. Abner Biberman is fantastic as Hally's henchman Lefty, a role that he was obviously born to play, since he played it over and over again—although he would soon find himself cast as another sort of villain during WWII: the inscrutable Asian mastermind. Paul Kelly, who had served over two years in San Quentin for beating actor Ray Raymond to death (over a woman he later married), is absolutely believable as big-time racketeer Nick Brown.
As with an increasing number of their classic DVD releases, Warner Bros. has seen fit to offer a nice slew of special features. These can be selected individually or played all together with an informative introduction by Leonard Maltin as "A Night at the Movies." Movie addicts may remember this format from certain VHS releases from the eighties, such as the original Ocean's 11, and with DVD technology behind it, it's even more enjoyable. First up is a trailer for a film that I sincerely hope Warner Bros. is planning to release on DVD, an exciting prison thriller called Each Dawn I Die, starring Cagney and George Raft. Next up is a 1939 newsreel showcasing the New York World's Fair and Queen Elizabeth and King George's state visit to America, an interesting window into pre-World War II history.
The next feature, the musical "All Girl Revue" short, which places the fairer sex in charge of the city for one day, has some cute moments—chief among them the delightful number "Information, Please," a send-up of a popular Cole Porter song. But not even a very young June Allyson can save this, shall we say, quaint feature from being slightly insulting. Fellas, beware: This short could earn you a nasty stare.
One of the standout offerings on this disc is "The Great Library Misery," one of a series of "Grouch Club" comedy shorts based on the tremendously popular radio program of the same name. This short features "Grouch Club" co-creator and future Today Show co-host Jack Lescoulie as the Grouchmaster (a title that I vigorously covet for my own) and popular radio actor Arthur Q. Bryan. Although you may not recognize Bryan's name, it's a cinch that you'll recognize the unmistakable voice of the man who originated the voice of Loony Tunes character Elmer Fudd. In this short, Bryan is a man who has what seems to be a simple goal in mind: to check out a copy of James Hilton's We Are Not Alone from the public library. But even as ostensibly benign a government institution as the library is not exempt from the gooey red tape that seems to plague any bureaucracy, as Bryan discovers to his frustration. And of course, no "Night at the Movies" would be complete without a Looney Tunes cartoon short, and this disc offers a particularly appropriate one: "Thugs with Dirty Mugs," a hysterical Tex Avery send-up of gangster movies, featuring a character spoofing a famous actor: Edward G. Rob'emsome. As a supplement to the film, a fairly brief but informative documentary is offered, allowing assorted critics to opine on and offer various bits of trivia regarding the movie. The commentary by film historian Dr. Lincoln Hurst is spotty, but generally well done.
The sound offers one of the best mono tracks I've heard in a while, delivering crisp sound with a minimum of distortion and hiss. When coupled with the print, which features sharp picture and beautiful contrast, it adds up to another excellent Warners classic release.
This release of The Roaring Twenties, part of a set of gangster classics from Warner Bros., makes me hope for the release not only of other dynamic gangster classics like Bullets or Ballots and G-Men, but of lesser-known Cagney classics like The Strawberry Blonde and Jimmy the Gent. How's about it, Warner? Youse guys gonna come across? Or do I gotta send alla youse oyster diving in a concrete wetsuit?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Dr. Lincoln Hurst
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