‘The Roaring Twenties’: Unforgettable action overshadows plot trouble in ’39 Warner Bros. saga (Warner gangsters Part V)
(Continuing Reveal Shot’s examination of 1930s gangster movies, particularly those made by Warner Bros. Inspired by viewings from Warner Home Video’s four-volume DVD series, “The Warner Bros. Pictures Gangsters Collection.” )
“The Roaring Twenties” (1939) has traditionally been my favorite Warner Bros. gangster saga of the 1930s. The “Time Marches On” structure of the film, with its narration and montages covering the period between 1918 and the Depression years, James Cagney‘s performance, and its climactic action sequence made me look forward to seeing it any time it appeared on television.
I had to watch the movie twice for Reveal Shot’s WB Gangster series to confirm my assessment. It is just about as good as I remembered, again overcoming a potentially fatal plotting flaw, much as “Angels With Dirty Faces” had a year earlier.
“The Roaring Twenties” is former journalist Mark Hellinger’s valentine to the titular decade, a time he refers to fondly in a foreword seen as the movie starts. His original story introduces us to three men who meet in a foxhole during World War I: Eddie Bartlett (Cagney), who just wants to go back to his old job as a mechanic; George Hally (Humphrey Bogart), who clearly enjoys killing and will obviously be returning to a life of less of dubious moral virtue; and Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn), a lawyer. Right away, it’s obvious that the only characters we really need to see are Eddie and George. Lloyd is clearly a third wheel — someone who may be useful to the plot, but is nowhere near as interesting as the other two protagonists.
Like “I Am a Fugitive From A Chain Gang,” “The Roaring Twenties” uses post-World War I joblessness as a catalyst. In this case, Eddie has been replaced at the garage he worked for, he when he looks for work he finds that he’s “just another guy back from France.” In making his first delivery of booze to a speakeasy, he gets arrested, along with Panama Smith (Gladys George), who bails him out, sparking a lifelong friendship.
*** SPOILER ALERT ***
The power of “The Roaring Twenties” comes from its most traditional gangster-film elements. Eddie and his mob move in on a shipment of booze owned by Nick Brown (Paul Kelly), a tough guy who rejects Eddie’s attempt at a partnership. When it turns out that George Hally, Eddie and Lloyd’s old WWI mate, is running the hijacked ship, he and Eddie team up to further encroach on Nick’s territory. Nick retaliates by bumping off Eddie’s comedy-relief buddy Danny Green (Frank McHugh), setting up one of the movie’s two great shootouts, brilliantly staged by director Raoul Walsh.
“Raoul Walsh was a very good, top notch action director, did a lot to set the rules for the crime film and all kinds of genres,” said Christopher Sharrett, a professor of communication and film studies at Seton Hall University.
As in “Angels With Dirty Faces,” the movie sets up an inevitable clash between the Cagney and Bogart characters. George is almost immediately resentful of Eddie’s leadership of the gang, and tries to set him up to be killed by Nick. When Eddie kills Nick, he realizes that George probably set him up, but lacking definitive proof, he holds off on a big confrontation.
During his commentary track for the Warner Home Video release of “The Roaring Twenties,” film historian Lincoln Hurst underscores Cagney’s boredom with the gangster film, and his need to do something new within the genre. So in this film, the Cagney character repeatedly misjudges people, most notably a woman he loves, Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane) who is much too young for him, and has no interest in him. Her true love is Lloyd, a fact that’s clear to everyone in the film except Eddie, until he finally sees them arm in arm.
Everything falls apart for Eddie. The stock market crash forces him to sell his end of the business to George, and the pain of his romantic disappointment leads him to drink heavily. He loses everything, and ends up driving a cab. Lloyd, meanwhile, marries Jean and settles into an ambitious role as district attorney. When Lloyd leaves Eddie’s mob, George warns him not to reveal any of the knowledge he has of their criminal activities. He repeats the warning when newspapers reveal that the crusading DA is preparing indictments against the now-powerful George. The Cagney-Bogart showdown finally comes when Eddie is unable to persuade George to leave Lloyd and Jean alone. Walsh really delivers the goods here, first in his use of angles when Eddie kills George in his office, and then when Eddie tries to make his escape, using one of George’s henchmen (Abner Biberman) as a shield, kicking one guy over a bannister, shooting others, and finally getting gunned down himself. Panama Smith, the woman who should have been Eddie’s mate all along, cradles him in her arms at the fadeout, telling a cop he “used to be a bigshot.”
At a couple of junctures, the Eddie-foolishly-loves-Jean plot line threatened to take “The Roaring Twenties” off course.
During a lengthy stretch between the beginning of Eddie’s criminal career and his first meeting with heavy Nick, there’s a sluggishness only relieved by a couple of very well-done montages. Frank McHugh fans certainly get their money’s worth, but for the rest of us, the time could have been better spent. However, just when I couldn’t stand anymore, the film got to Nick’s spaghetti joint, and the wheels again began to turn.
Then there is the matter of Eddie’s slide into oblivion. With the enmity between Cagney and Bogart established at about the midway point, there must have been several more interesting roads to their ultimate confrontation than the one chosen by Hellinger and the film’s screenwriters. Another coup attempt by George would’ve been one way to go, but that might have looked too much like a repeat of the “Angels With Dirty Faces” plot structure.
However, director Walsh handles the climactic gunplay so well that in the end it doesn’t matter how we got there.
I wonder if it might have been better to have someone like Mary Astor play Panama, if she was available (she did “Midnight” for Paramount that year). Gladys George looked much older than she really was in 1939 (35, 39 or 41 depending on which birth year you believe), perhaps making it easier for the Cagney character to overlook her as a romantic partner. Then again, I’m biased here, as I’ve always found Astor, who was 33 at the time and just seven years Cagney’s junior, very attractive during this period.
I think I now prefer “The Public Enemy” to “The Roaring Twenties,” though the later film is certainly more polished, reflecting the difference between a film made in 1931 and one made eight years later. I certainly think “The Roaring Twenties” is a great film, and just about an ideal way to end the 1930s gangster cycle.
Cagney would not return to the gangster film until “White Heat” in 1949. “By the time you get to ‘White Heat,’ he becomes an outright psychotic,” said Sharrett. “That’s a stage at which psychology has come into the movies. He’s obsessed with his mother, which is sort of post-Hitchcock.”
When people speak of Bogart’s performance in “The Roaring Twenties,” it’s typically just mentioned briefly as another of the supporting roles he took during the decade before emerging as a star in the early ’40s. However, Bogart is one of the best things about the film. To be sure, George Hally is thoroughly evil, but Bogart keeps him real. In the end, his malevolence does him in, but Hally is smart. He immediately knows what will happen with Jean and Lloyd, and tries to set Eddie straight. He stays out of the stock market, so that he’s flush with cash when everyone else is panicking on Black Tuesday. Bogart gets this aspect of the character across very convincingly.
The actor had his true breakthrough in 1941, starring in “High Sierra” and “The Maltese Falcon,” the latter arguably ushering in the film noir period.
“In ‘High Sierra,’ which is a tribute to John Dillinger, and a tribute to a lost America, [Bogart] dreams of being a farmboy again, but it can’t happen,” Sharrett explained. “It’s one of the great films about the Depression, about the end of freedom. It’s a poignant film, and a great film, and Bogart pulls it off in a way that I don’t think people appreciated. Because his image on posters, and the way he’s introduced on TCM, is as the ultimate tough guy. But he was a lot more than that.”
— David B. Wilkerson