The Roaring Twenties Review
Although Raoul Walsh only made four films with James Cagney, their collaboration was as significant, if on a smaller scale, as the one between John Ford and John Wayne. The least interesting of the four films, A Lion Is In The Streets offers a censored portrayal of Huey Long which is electrified by a stunning turn from Cagney as a hellfire preacher turned devious politician, while The Strawberry Blonde is a fast moving screwball farce that allows Cagney to show off his exemplary skill at light comedy. But the two films which really matter are 1939’s The Roaring Twenties and Cagney’s 1949 farewell to the gangster genre, White Heat. With the help of Walsh’s sympathetic and probing direction, Cagney produces performances in these two films which I don’t think he ever topped.
Raoul Walsh was always at his best when portraying tough men in extreme situations and his picture of America in the grip of prohibition fuelled violence is as vivid and gritty as his view of war in Objective Burma. The film begins in 1918 when Eddie Bartlett (Cagney) is a soldier in the trenches along with his comrades George Hally (Bogart) and Lloyd Hart (Lynn). After the Armistice is declared and he is finally allowed to return home, Eddie discovers that the job he thought would be kept open has been given to someone else and that he is despised as someone who “had a picnic on Uncle Sam” while other men did the work at home. Unable to find anything else to do, Eddie and his roommate Danny (McHugh) drift into bootlegging, gradually becoming a player in the increasingly lethal business of supplying watered-down gin and badly distilled whiskey to the huge number of people willing to defy one of the most unpopular laws in American history. But the good times don’t last and Eddie soon finds himself a lost soul, despairing of a country which sent him to war, forgot he existed and drove him into crime through having nothing else to offer. He hooks up again with George, now a mildly psychotic big-shot, and gets Lloyd to act as his attorney, not suspecting that both men will lead him to tragedy, not least when Lloyd falls in love with the love of Eddie’s life, Jean Sherman (Lane).
One of the things which makes The Roaring Twenties the best of the 1930s gangster movies is that the combination of crime movie and social commentary, often so strained, is achieved so seamlessly. This is quite surprising since the approach, which uses faux-newsreel montages – from a unit that Warners set-up for this specific purpose - and a stentorian voiceover, should act as a distancing effect. But somehow the opposite happens. We become immersed in the historical details of the period and the fate of the country becomes entwined with the fate of Eddie – the man becomes a lightning rod for the awesomely powerful force of history. This perhaps why the performance that Cagney gives in The Roaring Twenties has the same kind of power that Ford got from Wayne in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. Although Eddie is a considerably more psychologically complex character than Nathan Brittles, the intent is the same – to go beyond the actor’s customary screen persona and find the humanity and sadness within it. Cagney seems to open himself up here and show us how America’s treatment of the veteran - ‘the forgotten man’ as the popular song of the time called him – was inextricably tied to the crime which erupted in the 1920s. Never before was Cagney so exposed and touching as in his doomed attempt to make Jean Sherman fall in love with him and the more desperate he gets – sometimes mortifyingly so – the more we feel his pain. The same goes for the humiliations he endures before becoming a bootlegger. In scenes like these, Cagney takes his iconic gangster figure and shows us the vulnerability inside him. Eddie is the most sympathetic character that Cagney played during his 1930s gangster period, largely because he always seems more sinned against than sinning.
Doing much of the sinning is Humphrey Bogart, giving a performance which is so much fun that it makes you kind of regret his imminent upgrade to anti-hero roles. Bogart was sick and tired of second-leads by this time and he seems to relish the opportunity to play a dyed-in-the-wool bastard. His comeuppance towards the end is a deeply satisfying moment. Priscilla Lane and Jeffrey Lynn are highly dispensible, though Lane has a difficult role and does her best with it. Thankfully, the supporting cast are all that they should be. Familiar figures in Warner movies like Paul Kelly and Cagney’s friend Frank McHugh are at their best here and there’s a disarmingly good performance from the great Gladys George as Eddie’s unlikely mentor in the illegal booze business. She’s one of the toughest girls you’ll ever see in a gangster movie and she’s pretty damn gorgeous at the same time.
The screenplay is packed with good lines – “What ya wanna look at Brooklyn for”, “I’m gonna let you stand behind a bar with ya medals on and tell a load of drunks how you won the war”, and a line from Bogart which is oddly prescient of a line in Casablanca, “Ten thousand shellholes in the war and everyone comes divin’ into this one!”. More to the point, it keeps the narrative line clear, maintaining an epic sweep without ever becoming too ambitious or confusing us as to time, place or character. Raoul Walsh, the toughest one-eyed guy on the block, responds to this material with a ferocious confidence, puling out some brilliantly choreographed action scenes and pacing the dialogue so well that the tension keeps mounting steadily. His skill with actors is self-evident and he brings the heart and soul out in Cagney like no-one had managed before. When they Walsh and Cagney next got together to play gangsters, it was ten years later and although neither man was getting any younger, they used the deepening of the Cagney persona developed here to produce a film which tops even The Roaring Twenties. More about that very soon.
Although the transfer of The Roaring Twenties is not quite as eye-poppingly gorgeous as the one given to White Heat, it’s still incredibly good. I’ve never seen the film look as beautiful as it does here and the deep blacks and rich contrast are thoroughly satisfying. The image is finely detailed and sharp without being over-enhanced. This is another impressive achievement by Warners and fans of the film are likely to be bowled over by how good it looks. The mono soundtrack is equally good; crisp, always clear and atmospheric.
As with the other discs in the Gangsters box set, there are some superb extra features included. As before, the standout is a short but information packed featurette which contains comments from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Drew Casper, Alain Silver and Andrew Sarris. Although it’s not quite as satisfying as the documentaries on some of the other discs, it remains an object lesson in delivering snappy, insightful analysis without wearing the viewer’s patience through obvious observations and extended film clips. Another participant in the featurette is Dr Lincoln Hurst who also provides a full-length audio commentary for the film. This is interesting and enthusiastic but I didn’t learn as much from it as I did from the commentaries on White Heat or The Public Enemy. The theatrical trailer is also present and correct.
Once again, Leonard Maltin is in attendance to introduce another ‘Warner Night At The Movies” feature. These really are the icing on an already rich cake and I find them thoroughly enjoyable. The news that more are to be featured on the upcoming Errol Flynn Collection was cause for rejoicing in the Sutton household. This time, the year is 1939 and we get some cracking bits of cinema history. Kicking off with a trailer for a great Jimmy Cagney prison movie called Each Dawn I Die, the night at the movies continues with a newsreel highlighting the Worlds Fairs which were so popular at the time and an engaging musical short called “All Girl Revue” that features, amongst other attractive young ladies, a pre-stardom June Allyson. There’s also a very funny short called “The Great Library Misery” starring members of radio’s popular Grouch Club and a classic bit of deranged Tex Avery movie-spoofery called “Thugs With Dirty Mugs. This latter item is in Technicolor and looks heavenly.
Subtitles are included for the main feature but not, sadly, for the extras.
The Roaring Twenties is one of the best films of the 1930s and a highpoint for the golden age of Warner Brothers. It’s exciting, thoughtful and genuinely moving and Jimmy Cagney’s performance is something special. The DVD looks fabulous and contains some great extra features.