The Roaring Twenties (1939)


(director: Raoul Walsh; screenwriters: Richard Macaulay/Robert Rossen/Jerry Wald/from an original story by Mark Hellinger; cinematographer: Ernest Haller; editor: Jack Killifer; music: Ray Heindorf/Heinz Roemheld; cast: James Cagney (Eddie Bartlett), Humphrey Bogart (George Hally), Priscilla Lane (Jean Sherman), Jeffrey Lynn (Lloyd Hart), Gladys George (Panama Smith), Frank McHugh (Danny Green), Paul Kelly (Nick Brown), Elisabeth Risdon (Mrs. Sherman), Joe Sawyer (The Sergeant), John Deering (Narrator); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Sam Bischoff/Hal B. Wallis/Jack L. Warner; Warner Bros. Pictures; 1939)

“It has a good cast and the production values were first-class, allowing it to rise slightly above its hackneyed script.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s based on a story by veteran Broadway columnist Mark Hellinger and written by Richard Macaulay, Robert Rossen and Jerry Wald. At the last moment Raoul Walsh (“White Heat”/”They Drive by Night”/”High Sierra”) replaced Anatole Litvak as director, which pleased the cast as he allowed them the freedom to alter the stiff screenplay on occasions. Walsh shoots the rise to the top and equally quick descent gangster film in a fast-paced semi-documentary style (using newsreel clips, popular music from the period and a reporter’s voiceover), keeping it true only to a certain point (the characters were composites) and fictionalizing it to keep it exciting as an entertaining movie. The James Cagney character was based on New York mobster Larry Fay, who was the crime partner of Texas Guinan–played by Gladys George. Texas Guinan was a nightclub hostess who was famous for her refrain to club patrons of “Hello, sucker!” It was one of Warner’s last gangster films from the era it was the premiere studio doing that genre, but the film is unfortunately brought down to a pedestrian level with its familiar crime story plot. But it has a good cast and the production values were first-class, allowing it to rise slightly above its hackneyed script.

Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.

Three American doughboys, Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney), Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn), and George Hally (Humphrey Bogart), meet in a foxhole in France during World War I and become friends. The Armistice is signed and the three talk about their future plans. Eddie expects his old job in NYC as a garage mechanic will be waiting for him. George has inherited his father’s saloon. Lloyd is a law graduate who plans to practice corporate law in NYC. When the vets return home, they find great unemployment, that Prohibition has been enacted and the soldiers are quickly forgotten. Eddie doesn’t get back his job and settles for driving a cab with his buddy Danny Green (Frank McHugh). When he unwittingly delivers a package of liquor to Panama Smith (Gladys George), a nightclub hostess, the two are arrested. But Eddie refuses to testify against Panama, and she pays his fine and then partners with him in the bootlegging business. He quickly prospers in his new criminal career. Eventually Eddie meets Hally, who is working for Eddie’s rival bootlegger Nick Brown (Paul Kelly). The untrustworthy and ruthless Hally go into business together and bump off Nick. Lloyd becomes Eddie’s lawyer, and steals away from Eddie the nice girl singer Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane) he’s in love with. About this time Eddie’s bootlegging empire crumbles as he loses all his money in the stock market crash and he goes back to driving a cab. But Hally continues to prosper in the business. Meanwhile, Lloyd is now a crusading prosecutor and is being threatened by Hally when it’s learned he has evidence to send him up the river for a long time. Jean begs Eddie to help, and he does so only because he’s still carrying a torch for her. But when Eddie meets with Hally, the gangster orders his cronies to kill his old pal. It results in a bad night for both, as Eddie kills Hally and Hally’s trigger man guns Eddie down. He dies coldly on the snowy steps of a church. Panama is first on the crime scene and tells the police officer who wants to know the identity of the victim, that “He used to be a big shot.”

The film’s costars, Cagney and Bogie, appeared in three films together, with The Roaring Twenties being their last film together; the two also appeared in Angels With Dirty Faces and The Oklahoma Kid. As one would expect, the film had a good box office, as it reflected the popular belief that during hard times anyone might be tempted into crime and Cagney is perceived as a good guy who just got pushed into crime by bad circumstances and his life was therefore wasted.