It's the original drug war and bullets are flying in this classic gangster film. Cagney plays the role of a tough bootlegger who encounters two old army buddies years after the war in which they fought together. After the World War 1 armistice, Lloyd Hart goes back to practice law, former saloon keeper George Hally turns to bootlegging, and out-of-work Eddie Bartlett becomes a cab driver. Eddie builds a fleet of cabs through delivery of bootleg liquor and hires Lloyd as his lawyer. George becomes Eddie's partner and the rackets flourish until love and rivalry interfere.
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There are always genre-defining moments in cinematic history, The Roaring Twenties can be looked upon as the forbearer of the later ensemble cast gangster movies like The Godfather, Goodfellas and Heat. Sure there were great gangster films in the 1930’s before Raoul Walsh’s 1939 masterpiece – Little Caesar, Angles with Dirty Faces, Scarface – but the Roaring Twenties was the first gangster movie you could term epic – in its casting, Bogart and Cagney, and also in its narrative spanning several years and the rise, fall and ultimately redemption of one man. If one later film could be said to be influenced by it in its narrative arc I would say Once Upon A Time In America is the closest.
The Roaring Twenties is based on "The World Moves On," a short story by Mark Hellinger. Released in 1939 it was the last time the big stars of its era & genre Cagney & Bogart would star together, much like the modern day equivalent of De Niro and Pacino in Michael Mann’s Heat. It was also the first time the great director Raoul Walsh who had started in silent movies, would work with James Cagney, later they would reunite for the Cagney psychotic acting tour-de-force of White Heat (1949) and Bogart himself would be reunited with the maverick Walsh in High Sierra.
The film starts off in the trenches of World War 1 where three army colleagues are under fire, the devious & cowardly George Hally (Bogart), the trusting and well mannered Lloyd Hart (Jeffery Lynn) and the charismatic leader Eddie Bartlett (Cagney). Immediately there character traits are set-up, George is treacherous and will do anything including cowardly betrayal to survive the war, Lloyd comes from a better background, is loyal and looks up to Eddie, whilst Eddie is the motivator, the charismatic leader, keeping them alive and also making plans for the future if they make it out of this hell-hole. Eddie saves their lives and the three of them make a pact together.
With the war ended, Eddie returns home broke, living with his old friend Danny, disinfected with the poor streets and lack of work, he begins to work as a taxi driver in Danny’s cab running night shifts and through fate ends up delivering to a underground speakeasy during prohibition, where he is seen as someone who is both willing to keep his mouth shut but also someone with brains who could do well in the illegal business of liquor during this depression era. Working his way up the gangster world Eddie enlists the help of both Danny and also Lloyd now a qualified lawyer to act as his personal business advisor/lawyer, and soon Eddie’s one taxi is now a fleet of taxi’s and thriving liquor business. He Befriends speakeasy singing hostess Panama Smith (Gladys George) who is in love with Eddie, but he is love is with a young innocent wanna-be actress Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane) who he showers with gifts and this is the beginning of the problems that will ultimately bring Eddie down – Jean and Lloyd are secretly in love both afraid to act on their feelings both worried about betraying Eddie. On a liquor deal by the harbour one night Eddie comes into contact by chance with George, now like Eddie running his own illegal enterprises and also rising profitably through the gangster ranks. Acting like the old army buddies they once were, Eddie and George are more than pleased to join there businesses together and become partners. But George is still treacherous and cowardly, he doesn’t like Lloyd being part of their business fearing he will eventually turn them all in, he can also see that Lloyd and Jean are in love and uses this against them and plays Eddie, gaining more power in the process, he also squeals to a rival bootlegger that leads to Eddie’s old friend Danny’s murder when Danny cottons onto George’s plan of betrayal over Eddie.
As George positions himself into control and power of their businesses and begins a murderous spree during robberies (including the murder of their ex-army sergeant as revenge), Lloyd and Jean can no longer hide there feelings and run away together, Eddie is heart-broken the woman he loves has left with his best friend. Panama sticks with Eddie and tries to help him but he descends into drunken oblivion and George scenting his chance destroys Eddie, taking the business from him and leaving him with nothing but the original taxi cab he started it all with. As the depression era continues and then prohibition is revoked, Panama works as a hostess in a bar where a now broke cab driver Eddie sits drunk each night, the once big shot now a nobody. George has risen to the highest gangster ranks on the wanted list of the district attorney – none other than Lloyd, who now has a young family with Jean. George puts a hit out on Lloyd so his evidence cannot reach court. A scared Jean tracks Eddie down and begs not only hers and Lloyds forgiveness but to help save Lloyd from George’s planned hit. This is Eddie’s redemption his chance to redeem his soul and be the man he once was… Going to George’s offices he finally kills his ex-army colleague to protect Lloyd, as he escapes he is shot in the back and stumbles onto snow swept steps, where Panama finds the now dead Eddie and cradles him in her arms. A policeman asks who the man is, she replies “Eddie Bartlett, he used to be a big shot”.
The narrative covers the depression and speakeasy years of the roaring twenties, its economic highs and lows, as gangsters rise to prominence and the country itself becomes redeemed as the economy finally slumps out of its depression. This mirrors the characters, during its illegal speakeasy years the likes of George and Eddie are rolling in money and status, untouchable, but after prohibition it is time for the likes of lawyers like Lloyd who now hold the real power in the corridors of America. Ultimately the film is about the rise, fall and redemption of Cagney’s Eddie Bartlett, it is his love and loyalty to both Jean and Lloyd that redeems his broken character in his last act, killing Bogart’s George something he realises he should’ve let happen years ago. George is ultimately a bad apple with no morals but self preservation and there in lies the difference in Bogart and Cagney’s characters, despite both being gangsters one has morals and loyalty the other will betray, murder and lie to stay alive and get ahead. For a film made in the 1939 it has a real epic scale to it capturing the war years and then the fluctuating fortunes of America in the 1920’s, it was the first of its kind to really be so brave on such an epic scale. It never loses sight of the heart of its story and its narrative arc. This is due massively to the brilliant direction by Raoul Walsh, I believe this to be his masterpiece a director not only at the height of his powers but hitting every right note, he is able to visually draw us into the underworld, then the deceit and drunken mess of Eddie, but also tell the decades historical story with great accuracy and convey this with the characters journeys without losing focus of its gangster genre.
The performances he elicits from Cagney and Bogart are nothing short of genuine screen legends. White Heat is often stated as Cagney’s greatest performance but my vote always goes to this film and his portrayal here of Eddie Bartlett, you feel his confidence, his loyalty to his friends, then he conveys his later broken heart and drunkenness with the same believability. Cagney conveys so many emotions and styles in this film it’s difficult to think of a more rounded A-Z that showcases the great man’s true ability, you never stop rooting for him and you cant help but be saddened at the end with his death. Bogart accepts almost a supporting role but so key to the story is George that the scenes light up everytime he returns on screen, he seems to be having a great time playing a real no morals baddie and almost scene chomping the set at times, you could imagine Jack Nicholson playing this years later! The scenes and dialogue the two share together throughout is magnetic and you get the impression they respect one another’s acting ability and star status so much they refuse to try and out do one another but rather let the characters tell the story. They are ably supported by Jeffery Lynn as the handsome good guy George, Priscilla Lane as the beautiful innocent Jean and special mention should go to the voluptuous Gladys George as Panama who steals the show, the tart with a heart, the perfect gangsters moll if ever there was one.
Rotten Tomatoes rates the film at 100% and how could anyone disagree with so many reviewers! And In 2009 Empire Magazine named it #1 in a poll of the 20 Greatest Gangster Movies You've Never Seen* (*Probably). And that’s the interest aspect of the Roaring Twenties, so many people who love the gangster genre haven’t seen it.
I had the pleasure of showing the film to a friend of mine on DVD - he was sceptical at first having never really watched a Cagney film before and being a fan of later day gangster movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Afterwards he felt guilty that he had missed out all these years on not only the magic of James Cagney gangster films but on what he summed up as maybe the best gangster movie made. He later went too see it on the big screen at the NFT in London so mesmerized he was by the impact of the film. I have to say I felt like the Roaring Twenties was my own secret film that I pass onto good friends – stupid I know, but that’s how good this film is. Is it the best gangster movie ever made? For its era definitely, its unfair to judge it on later masterpieces like Godfather and Goodfellas due to cinematic techniques and technology being so far advanced for these later films, but I would say The Roaring Twenties is the era defining moment of the gangster genre that changed gangster films forever. The once main character baddies could now be seen as anti-heroes who are looking for redemption rather than blood, the genre could span a decade and be relevant to American history without losing its narrative focus and the best actors of there generations could act together without trying to out do one another. The best gangster film, maybe not, the most important gangster film – definitely, without it Scorsese and Coppola may not have got their stories told.