Warner Brothers owned the franchise for gangster films in the 1930s. The studio capped the decade with this Cagney-Bogey crime drama that some consider a classic.
James Cagney is great as Eddie Bartlett and Humphrey Bogart is convincing as treacherous bad guy George Hally. But the rest of the cast is just so-so. And the story is, at times, breathless and, at other times, melodramatic in the extreme.
The tone is set right after the opening credits have rolled. We get a voice-over (with accompanying scroll) from screenwriter Mark Hellinger:
“It may come to pass that, at some distant date, we will be confronted with another period similar to the one depicted in this photoplay. If that happens, I pray that the events, as dramatized here, will be remembered.
“In this film, the characters are composites of people I knew, and the situations are those that actually occurred.
“Bitter or sweet, most memories become precious as the years move on. This film is a memory—and I am grateful for it.”
A review in the New York Times (see below) labeled the device pretentious. We tend to agree.
Hellinger’s short story “The World Moves On” served as the basis for the film’s script, which he cowrote. The Roaring Twenties tells the sprawling story of one of the most notorious eras in American history by focusing on the lives of a few individuals. But the devices used to connect those characters too often strain credibility.
When the film opens, Bartlett, Hally and Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn) are soldiers on the front lines during World War I. All three are just trying to survive as they await the long-rumored Armistice that will end the conflict and send them home.
Director Raoul Walsh, borrowing a device that played well in several other Warner Brothers gangster pieces, relies on “newsreels” to move the story along and to hype the era that his film portrays.
Short Skirts. Jack Dempsey. Prohibition. Mob Wars. The Wall Street Crash. Unemployment. Bread Lines. All are detailed in frantic reports as we follow Bartlett, Hally and Hart into civilian life.
Bartlett, unable to get his job back as an auto mechanic, is driving a cab when he is introduced to bootlegging. By the time he has established himself as a rumrunner—and has also invested in a legitimate cab business—Hart is back on the scene as his Ivy League lawyer.
When Bartlett and his gang hijack a shipment of booze, it is his old friend Hally who is the captain of the vessel. They naturally go into partnership. Neither trusts the other, but each knows that together they can make one another very rich.
And they do get rich during one of the most tumultuous and violent periods in American history.
Or as the voice-over in one of the newsreels puts it:
“Nineteen twenty-four . . . an era of amazing madness. . . . The chase after huge profits is followed closely by their inevitable partners—CORRUPTION, VIOLENCE and MURDER. A new and horrible tool appears. THE TOMMY. A light-weight wasp-like machine gun and murder henceforth is parceled out in wholesale lots!”
Bartlett and Hally do their share of parceling, although, as in the foxhole when we first meet them, Hally seems to enjoy the work more than his partner. One of his victims is a security guard at a warehouse where cases of whiskey have been stored. Should we mention that the guard happened to be the obnoxious Army sergeant who gave both Bartlett and Hally a hard time on the front lines during the movie’s opening sequence?
Romantic entanglements and predictable double-crossing follow as the money pours in and the country goes crazy. Then comes the stock market crash and the Great Depression—an excuse to roll even more breathless newsreel hype about men staring “wild-eyed at the spectacle of complete ruin” and fortunes “crumbling into nothing before this disaster which is to touch every man, woman and child in America.”
Eddie Bartlett loses just about everything, including the cab business that he hoped would make him legit and the young nightclub singer whose career he helped launch. Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane) is grateful for all Eddie has done for her, but her heart belongs to the young lawyer with the Ivy League pedigree.
Eddie hardly notices Panama Smith (Gladys George), the nightclub moll who has been in love with him forever. But he is with her at the end as he settles a score with Hally while nobly defending the woman who walked out on him.
HIT: This was one of Cagney’s last mob movies and he doesn’t disappoint. Cagney was to 1930s gangster films what Pacino and De Niro are to the modern classics. Their presence brings the endeavor up a notch or two, even when a film’s plot is as conventional and predictable as it is here.
MISS: Of all the cabs on all the streets in all of New York City, she has to step into mine. Bartlett doesn’t say it, but you’ve got to think it when the movie resorts to the highly unlikely coincidence of Jean and Lloyd getting into Eddie’s cab several years after they’ve married and a down-on-his-luck Eddie has been forced to go back to driving a hack to make a living.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “With a grandiloquent and egregiously sentimental forward by Mark Hellinger, with employment of newsreel shots to lend documentary flavor, with a commentator’s voice interpolating ultra-dramatic commonplaces as the film unreels, [The Roaring Twenties] has taken on an annoying pretentiousness which neither the theme nor its treatment can justify. The dirty decade has served too many quickie quatrains to rate an epic handling now.”—Frank Nugent, New York Times
REALITY CHECK: Cagney’s Eddie Bartlett was based on Larry Fay, a 1920s New York City bootlegger who started out as a cab driver. According to a profile of Fay in Crime Magazine by Allan May, Fay got his start as a rum runner after picking up a fare in New York who wanted to be driven to Montreal. While in Canada, Fay used some of the money he earned from the trip to buy several cases of whiskey. He took the booze back to New York, sold it at a profit and started to build an empire. Like the Bartlett character, he used his profits to invest in a taxi business and buy several nightclubs. He took a financial hit with the stock market crash of 1929 and was gunned down by an angry employee whose salary Fay had reduced as times got tough.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Fans of Bogey and Cagney might want to go back again from time to time, but once is probably enough for most viewers.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: The Roaring Twenties established Walsh as an A-list director, primarily of action and crime films. He would direct more than 130 movies over a 52-year career. He worked with Bogart again in High Sierra (1941) and with Cagney in White Heat (1949), both of which are profiled in this book. And he directed George Raft and Ida Lupino in the classic They Drive by Night (1940).
CASTING CALL: Cagney and Bogart appeared in two other movies together. A year before they teamed up in The Roaring Twenties, they starred in Angels with Dirty Faces (also on our list), portraying characters with essentially the same kind of relationship. Cagney again played a mobster and Bogey was the corrupt lawyer who double-crossed him. They also appeared in The Oklahoma Kid, which came out the same year as The Roaring Twenties. The Western did little for either actor’s career. Cagney was Jim “The Oklahoma Kid” Kincaid. Bogey was the double-crossing Whip McCord. It seems there’s a pattern here. Cagney’s the good bad guy; Bogey’s the bad bad guy.
BEST LINE: The movie ends with Panama Smith cradling Eddie in her arms on the snow covered steps of a church. When a cop runs up and asks his identity, Smith replies, “He used to be a big shot.”
The line is considered one of the best final lines in any crime movie.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Lots of shooting, beginning with the World War I battlefront scene that opens the movie. But, as noted previously, shoot-’em-ups in movies from the 1930s did not pack the wallop of the more realistic and gory shooting scenes in films of the modern era.
BODY COUNT: Twelve, not counting two unseen German soldiers who are picked off by sniper fire from Hally on the front lines during World War I.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]