The Roaring Twenties
Director: Raoul Walsh
One of the last of the ‘classic’ era of gangster films to be released, The Roaring Twenties serves as a kind of footnote to 1930s crime cinema – a headstrong act of defiance in a changing world, honouring the films that, at the turn of the decade, had served to reflect the problems of the world they were created in.
The Roaring Twenties stars James Cagney (of The Public Enemy fame) in the role of Eddie Bartlett – a sincere and honest American who, in the aftermath of World War 1, is forced to enter the bootlegging business as a pure and simple means of survival. Alongside fellow WW1 survivors Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn) and George Hally (played by Humphrey Bogart one of his last roles before finally hitting the big-time with 1941’s High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon), he soon rises to the top of the organised crime racket and, in a change of events from the usual ‘street guy gets to the top before being gunned down’ set of affairs, finds himself flushed into poverty at the outset of the great depression of 1929, taking him back to the streets and towards a final conflict with his old pals, as the last relics of a world which, as Bartlett acknowledges, is no longer made for men of their kind.
I say that the film is set as a footnote of the classic crime era because that is, quite simply, what the filmmakers set out to achieve. The pre-movie forward (by screenwriter Mark Hellinger – a columnist who started out documenting prohibition-era New York) makes a point of saying that the film is based out of his memories of the era in question. It certainly has the benefit of hindsight that films like Little Caesar and Scarface did not – rather than coming out at the tail-end of prohibition, The Roaring Twenties was released almost a decade after that much-romanticised era ended. Rather than being focused purely on pre-established criminals like the aforementioned films, The Roaring Twenties makes the point of establishing three friends, joined together by their experiences during the trenches, before the onset of prohibition, and shows how everyday men could be led astray by the promise of easy money and a semi-secure income. However, the three characters have three clearly different outlooks on the world – Bartlett is the down-to-earth, well-meaning mechanic who has nothing left for him after the war except the affections of a young school girl who kept his soul intact during the war, Hart is a simple, honest and well-intentioned lawyer, while Hally is a live wire who takes visible pleasure in shooting a 15-year old German boy in the trenches
(“Well he won’t see sixteen…”)
The film is lauded over by an omniscient narrator, describing the flow of American history as the film progresses from the onset of prohibition in January 1920 to the ‘Black Tuesday’ of 1929, and beyond. Rather than focusing purely on the criminals and the tactics they deployed, the film shows how the bootlegging operation was run – showing massive stills with rows of different workers bottling up different types of liquor, where large showrooms featured the latest in jazz and swing music, and where young starlets sang their hearts out for a shot at the big time.
James Cagney is of course the centre point of the film, and his character is essentially a much more refined, much more sympathetic version of Tow Powers in The Public Enemy. The difference here is that rather than seeing him simply beaten by other street gangs, Cagney’s character is defeated by the change in society that affected all of America post 1929. Instead of being beaten by bullets, he is beaten by society and is left manning a single taxi, left picking up fares of people who he himself once employed. It’s a poignant ending and marks a sharp difference from the earlier films of the era. Cagney brilliantly works the character’s arc from frustrated post-war hero, to ruthless bootlegger, before plummeting back down to becoming a working-joe once again.
Cagney aside, the true delight of the film is Humphrey Bogart. Looking back in retrospect, it seems to odd to see Bogie playing the role of a double-crossing rat, but truth be told, in the late 1930s, Bogart was pretty much typecast into this role – a central figure, but one who always played second figure to the ‘stars’ of the show. That said, Bogart’s acting certainly gives an indication of things to come, with some scene-stealing moments and memorable lines (“There’s ten thousand shell holes around here and everybody’s gotta’ come divin’ into this one”). He’s absent for at least a third of the film, but his character becomes pivotal to the story when he does finally re-emerge, playing the down-trodden companion who thinks he knows best, leading to a memorable final scene between himself and Cagney. For those familiar with High Sierra, Bogart’s performance here certainly seems to act as a warm-up to his role as Roy ‘Mad Dog’ Earle, in playing a memorable villain with occasionally a warm heart, covered by ruthless efficiency.
There is little that can be faulted with the rest of the cast – Priscilla Lane and Gladys George play the two female leads with delightful abandon, and there are plenty of memorable side-characters scattered throughout. There are plenty of action sequences and tommy gun scenes (no classic gangster film would be complete without them, after all), and the script and story is much deeper than those which defined the genre only a few years before.
Ultimately, though, it is Cagney and Bogart which define the movie and lift it the loft heights it enjoys. The third of three movies the pair made together, it has an energy and power all to its own. By stepping out of the bog-standard setting of ‘guys off the streets’ and telling the tale of the unravelling of the bond between men formed in the trenches, it gives a greater depth to the tale and leads to an ending which, at its heart, comes across as a kick in the guts.
It’s the footnote to an era long since gone, even at the time of release, but few movies capture the feel of prohibition-era American as well as The Roaring Twenties. For anyone interested in that era, or gangster films generally, it’s not one to miss.