Judge Roman Martel was seeing exiting a speakeasy with his best gal in one arm and a Tommy gun in the other.
Our reviews of Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection (published November 15th, 2010), Little Caesar (published March 1st, 2005), The Public Enemy (published April 5th, 2005), The Roaring Twenties (published March 14th, 2005), Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics (Blu-ray) (published May 27th, 2013), and Warner Bros. Pictures Gangsters Collection, Volume 3 (published March 17th, 2008) are also available.
Four films from the 1930s delving into the criminal world of the '20s and featuring some of the biggest stars of the era? Sounds like a swell time!
Gather around ya mugs and molls. We got da goods here. You want Tommy guns? I got 'em. You want dames? I got 'em. You want speakeasies? I got 'em. You want fast talkin', gun totin', cigar chompin' men in hats? Well, I got them too. What you think this is? We got class in this joint!
Okay, so maybe watching these films back-to-back wasn't a great idea, but I gotta admit all four of these Warner Bros. pics present a bit of history in the making. Whether it's the first star performance by a young James Cagney, or the last hurrah for a genre, Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, Smart Money, and The Roaring Twenties represent important moments in the evolution of crime cinema.
These films have all been previously explored in depth on DVD Verdict, and I actually agree with most of my colleagues opinions, so I'll stick to providing a brief plot summary and my impressions.
Watching these in chronological order meant Little Caesar was the first flick in the line. We follow Rico (Edward G. Robinson), a little gangster with big dreams, from his start as a small time robber to becoming the leader of his own gang. Rico is arrogant and ambitious, never satisfied until he reaches the top. But like a Chicago version of Macbeth, Rico's aspirations lead to his downfall.
Robinson is the real reason to watch the movie. He is electrifying as Rico and compels you to keep watching, even when the rest of the film feels like an extended cliché. I hate to sound so negative, because what you see here is the start of all the mobster clichés we are familiar with. It takes a real force of will to separate your viewing experience from all the same old, same old on the screen. Robinson helps with his performance, but even that has been parodied and mimicked countless times. Fans of Robinson will find lots to enjoy, but modern audiences will find the movie a bit slow, even with its short 78 minute running time.
Next up is The Public Enemy from 1931, starring a very young James Cagney as Tom Powers. The film follows Tom from street-wise urchin to right hand man of a Chicago bootlegging operation. Tom is a nasty piece of work; brutal and greedy, he does what he must to get what he wants. And to be honest, it looks like he enjoys killing and roughing folks up. The movie is infamous for Cagney's use of a grapefruit on his moll, but it also features an early performance by the lovely Jean Harlow. The film plays out much like Little Caesar, with Tom rising high and falling hard.
The Public Enemy also shares a lot with Little Caesar in the fact that it originated so many of the gangster moments and characters you can't help but feel that you've seen this all before. Cagney is the reason to watch. He is amazing and for this only being his fourth film, it's quite an accomplishment. The movie itself just doesn't have the power it used to and I'm afraid many may find it slow going.
That same year, Robinson and Cagney came together for the first and only time in Smart Money. This is a strange addition to the set, because it never really deals with prohibition or gangsters. It's all about Nick the Barber (Robinson) a big gambler in a small town. He heads to the big city to make his fortune at a high stakes poker game. When he gets cleaned out and later finds out he was duped, Nick lays out a clever plot to find the con men and get his money back.
The first half of Smart Money is pretty entertaining, with Robinson's Nick a jovial and genuine guy. Sure he's a shady gambler, but you like him. His quest to get back at the mugs who ripped him off is fun, at first, but then the script switches gears and turns Nick into the kingpin of his own gambling racket. This part is less interesting and seems almost tacked on, ultimately leaving you uncertain whether or not to root for Nick. Cagney's presence is a supporting role and he's good, but this is Robinson's show and he does what he can with the odd tale. Unfortunately, the final product leaves you unsatisfied.
We jump forward to 1939 and The Roaring Twenties, a star-studded film featuring James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Priscilla Lane, and Gladys George. Setting itself up like a newsreel covering the 1920s, charting the rise and fall of Eddie Bartlett (Cagney), we watch as he returns from WWI only to find no work. When things get desperate, he gets pulled into the bootlegging business; doing his best to keep violence to a minimum and still make a good profit. Of course he gets involved with a dame, and Bogart plays the tricky partner who can't be trusted. It all ends in broken dreams and a hail of bullets.
The Roaring Twenties is the best film in the set; top-notch entertainment on all fronts. The script is solid, providing all the characters room to live and breathe. Eddie is a good guy who becomes a criminal to survive and then is absorbed into the excess, just like everyone else. His heart of gold is what gets him in trouble, and we see that cold-hearted jerks like Bogart are the ones really cut out to be successful gangsters. The entire cast is solid and the newsreel style does a lot to pull you into the story. If there is anything to complain about its the nightclub songs that end up slowing the pace down a bit. But the movie strives to have everything: action, melodrama, music, and nostalgia. It's a good blend and makes for one entertaining film.
A few general caveats about the four films here. Keep in mind, these were made in the 1930s when politically correct wasn't even a term. There are some racial stereotypes that some may find offensive. There are also some issues with sound in the earliest of the films. Recording sound in movies was still pretty new and they hadn't worked out all the kinks. I found a few moments where dialogue was hard to catch because of the source recording.
The films are presented on two flipper discs with a movie on each side. The pictures have been cleaned up a bit and for movies this old they look great. Sound is clear, aside from the source issues I mentioned earlier.
Wadda want? You want extras bub? You got 'em! All four flicks come with the option to play as part of a "Night at the Movies." This means you get a whole set of short films before the feature starts. The usual pattern is a trailer for a movie that came out the same year, a newsreel, a short subject or two, a cartoon, and then the feature. This creates an instant time machine that I really enjoyed and recommend. All four films also come with commentaries by film historians. These are pretty good with lots of information and, while there may be some gaps here and there, I prefer this to lots of babble about nothing in particular. Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and The Roaring Twenties all come with featurettes about the making of the films and their place in cinema history. These are pretty informative and worth watching after you see the film. I found them pointing out a lot of elements I missed in my initial viewing and affected my final appraisal of the film.
Just be advised that these aren't new to DVD. Warner Bros. has previously released all four films individually and as elements of other box sets. So really this just gives you another set of options. If these movies appeal to you, and you don't already have them, by all means pick up the setp. You get four movies for a little less than the price of two—a good deal!
You think I'm gonna throw the book at these mugs and molls? You're outta your
mind…Not Guilty! Now let's get a drink.
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