Roaring Twenties, The (1939)

“You want the Brooklyn Bridge, all you gotta do is ask for it. If I can’t buy it, I’ll steal it!”

Roaring Twenties Poster

Synopsis:
A kind speakeasy owner (Gladys George) helps three WWI veterans — a car mechanic (Jimmy Cagney), a saloon owner (Humphrey Bogart), and an aspiring lawyer (Jeffrey Lynn) — earn a living through bootlegging during Prohibition; but their partnership deteriorates when Lynn goes legit and marries Cagney’s love interest (Priscilla Lane), and Bogart decides to branch out on his own.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “like most Warner [Brothers] films”, this nostalgic gangster flick — which views bootleggers as “modern crusaders who deal in bottles rather than battles” — “has a social conscience” and “pretty much blames forgotten man Cagney’s criminality on an insensitive country” that won’t hire back its veterans. He notes that while it’s “not on the level of Little Caesar and Scarface, this is one of the liveliest, most enjoyable gangster films”, given that “Raoul Walsh’s direction is fast-paced and tough, yet sentimental”, there are “many solid action scenes”, and “Cagney gives a vivid performance” —

SPOILER AHEAD

— especially during his famous “gem” of a “death scene”, in which “he tries to run up the steps of a church, but his momentum takes him downward instead”. I’m essentially in agreement with Peary’s review: this is a fine gangster flick, despite being a bit too “slanted” in its whitewashed “sense of history”. Gladys George (best known for her supporting role in The Maltese Falcon) is noteworthy as the likable dame Cagney is too dense to fall for, and it’s fun to see Cagney and Bogart together (they co-starred in three films — this, Angels With Dirty Faces, and The Oklahoma Kid).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jimmy Cagney as Eddie
    Roaring Twenties Cagney
  • Gladys George as Panama
    Roaring Twenties George
  • Ernest Haller’s cinematography
    Roaring Twenties Cinematography
    Roaring Twenties Cinematography2

Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable gangster flick.

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One Response to “Roaring Twenties, The (1939)”

  1. A once-must, for its place in cinema history.

    ~that said, this isn’t a movie I’m especially fond of, even though Walsh’s direction (in particular) is exemplary and, overall, it’s well put-together.

    I do appreciate what the film has to say about guys returning from war and the difficulties that await them when they get back home.

    But a number of things bother me about this film:

    It feels too formula to me. As well, a lot of the dialogue sounds like “writer’s dialogue” instead of how people talk. There were 3 credited writers on this film (one of them Robert Rossen), so sometimes the dialogue sounds real, and it’s refreshing when it does.

    The amount of voice-over narration makes a large chunk of the film feel like a classroom history lesson, complete with an authoritative voice – like the kind one would hear in a wartime newsreel.

    There are about four ‘coincidences’, in which people suddenly meet again – in circumstances that seem unlikely. Seems kind of noticeably clumsy.

    Lane – who is fine elsewhere, i.e. ‘Saboteur’ – seems a weak link here. She’s rather bland…although it’s a bland role.

    Cagney also seems less engaged here, kind of like an actor-for-hire. This is one of his many ‘thug’ roles but there doesn’t seem enough for him to sink his teeth into.

    The one who I think impresses most here is Gladys George. She manages a lot of color and subtext in her performance.

    I do think the film ends well. The last 20 minutes or so are a dramatic lift. Cagney and Bogart’s final showdown is memorable.

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