‘The Roaring Twenties‘ is a term used to refer to the 1920s in the United States, the decade’s distinctive cultural edge in the major cities of US during a period of sustained economic prosperity and that’s the time emphasized in the era’s social, artistic, and cultural dynamism. Normalcy returned to politics in the wake of hyper-emotional patriotism after World War I, jazz music blossomed, the flapper redefined modern womanhood, and Art Deco peaked. Economically, the era saw the large-scale diffusion and use of automobiles, telephones, motion pictures, and electricity, unprecedented industrial growth, accelerated consumer demand and aspirations, and significant changes in lifestyle and culture.
The crime thriller made in 1939, is the pick of those times of twenties, directed by Raoul Walsh. Ensemble the powerful star cast of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Priscilla Lane, Jeffrey Lynn and Gladys George. Considered as the gangster movie genre written by Jerry Wald, Richard Macaulay and Robert Rossen based on “The World Moves On,” a short story by Mark Hellinger, a columnist who had been hired by Jack Warner to write screenplays. This film also marks the last time that Cagney and Bogart acted together. Director Walsh surely rated as an auteur, though would have prickled at the intellectual notion, and this movie remains a highpoint of his cinematic dexterity and rated as classic crime drama in the incredible 1939 studio system’s crown, and a enthralling history lesson at the same time.
The story originates with the three men meeting in a foxhole during the fading days of World War I: Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney), George Hally (Humphrey Bogart) and Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn), experience trials and tribulations from the Armistice through the passage of the 18th Amendment leading to the Prohibition period of the 1920s and the violence which erupted due to it, all the way through the 1929 stock market crash to its conclusion at the end of 1933, only days after the 21st Amendment brought an end to the Prohibition era.
Thus following WWI- Eddie Bartlett returns home from the war only to find his old job at a car shop is occupied. While naive Eddie (he orders milk at a speakeasy) is pulled into the bootlegging business by Panama Smith (Gladys George), he again meets Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane) – a girl he formerly wrote to during the war while she was in high school, now work at a nightclub. She is an undiscovered star that Eddie generally takes under his wing. But when Bartlett runs into Hally on a boat raid, they agree to work together (as Hally is also into bootlegging). They also chance the meet Hart again who has turned into a successful lawyer.
Hart falls hard for Jean, not knowing Eddie’s attraction for her. In the state of the bad business deal with Hally and the crash of stock market, Eddie’s bootlegging empire takes the crushing as he gets back to drive cabs and devouring hangovers. Quite by chance, one day his early girlfriend Jean steps into Eddie’s cab. Eddie is now angry at her for leaving him for Hart and marrying him, so he’s stand-offish at first. But after talking, as well as meeting Jean and Lloyd’s four-year old son, Jean and Eddie agree to be friends and leave it at that.
The turn of incidence go ugly as Hally decides to murder Hart of knowing too much of his past and Eddie learns about this goes on resolute to avoid the same, and thus make him to go to Hally’s house to convince him not to bump Hart off. This results in a shootout in which Eddie kills Hally (“Here’s one rap ya’ won’t beat…”) and some of his men, redeeming himself. After running outside, he is shot in the back by another cohort, and collapses on the steps of a church. As the police arrest the remainder of Hally’s gang, Panama runs to Eddie and, being interviewed by a cop whilst she cradles Eddie’s lifeless body, she informs the officer, “He used to be a big shot.”
The film is very well contextualized and the historical information stays to the core, and given the background to the events, the Prohibition law was an ill thought out and poorly executed piece of legislation in 20s which had opened up door for the underworld criminal activity. The narrator puts it as the marriage of ‘an unpopular law with an unwilling public’, a recipe for disaster in other words. What the story begins as a friendship turns into the nightmare amongst one another, giving way to money and corruption attracts criminals, gang warfare, and enflamed up the several indentations by the introducing of the ‘tommy’ gun into the fight.
Eddie is the victim of a society that had forgotten about him after his nationalistic duty for his Country and is forced by circumstances to embrace a capitalistic readiness that directs his loss to the governmental policies, and the fact of it lasted for 13 years is inconceivable, and sadly the lessons learned were hard. The film’s stride into a great story telling is crisp; the editing is lively and Walsh would go on to direct many successful Warner films over the next decade, and formed a significant seven film actor-director partnership with Tasmanian devil Errol Flynn. The vigor and extensiveness of Raoul Walsh’s filmic vision for The Roaring Twenties is amazing, in its complete stir of a gangster style is a masterstroke of American reflection of life. Walsh got the best out of his cast, especially Cagney, who could have phoned the performance in, but it swings from decency to menace and back again very easily. We know Cagney had a great affinity with the director Walsh and continued their form later too in the White Heat.
Oh yes, Bogart is solid as cracking and menacing George, and so much so this movie marks the last of his supporting role here before ‘Bogie’ becoming the loved ones and the cult in the history of Hollywood. Gladys George is fine as Panama, showing Walsh to be equally expert with actresses, and the rest of the cast are the usual solid studio supporting crew, never a bum note or awkward performance and undoubtedly Walsh, who has kept his story of the hectic years spinning and has staged a dramatic final scene with a punch-line, in it’s one ‘he used to be a big shot’….. So sudden the impact and an amazing end for the movie
The Empire Magazine named it #1 in a poll of the 20 Greatest Gangster Movies that you would have never seen probably….. Check this out if you still wouldn’t have seen this before !!!
- Directed by Raoul Walsh
- Produced by Hal B. Wallis & Samuel Bischoff
- Written by Jerry Wald; Richard Macaulay & Robert Rossen
- Based on The World Moves On (1938) by Mark Hellinger
- Cast: James Cagney; Priscilla Lane; Humphrey Bogart & Gladys George
- Music by Ray Heindorf
- Cinematography: Ernest Haller
- Edited by Jack Killifer
- Distributed by Warner Bros.
- Release dates: October 23, 1939
- Run time of 104 minute
- Country: United States
- Language: English