Sunday, July 17, 2011

Still A Big Shot

The Roaring Twenties(1939)
Director: Raoul Walsh
Cast: James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Gladys George, Priscilla Lane

It must seem strange to find a review of a gangster film on a blog called, "Monster Mania", but my intention was to also include random classics as well and this one certainly fits that bill. 1939 was the greatestr year in Hollywood history, no question. Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Gunga Din, Stagecoach, Beau Geste, Of Mice and Men, The Wizard of Oz, Ninotchka, Wuthering Heights, Dark Victory, Son of Frankenstein, Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Drums Along the Mohawk were just a few of the truly classic films released in that wonderful year. Several genres saw rebirths that year, notably horror and the western. Others, like the screwball comedy and the gangster film, were reaching their end. The Roaring Twenties would be the end of the classic gangster cycle and the last gangster film for James Cagney until 1949's White Heat.

Cagney wanted diversity and left the genre, leaving it open to newcomers, including co-star Humphrey Bogart, who would become the leading man of the 1940s and would leave behind what was his specialty in the 1930s: playing psychotic bastards and snivelling creeps. Bogart detested these roles, for good reason, but often played them to perfection and The Roaring Twenties was one of the best films he appeared in. This film in many ways was symbolic as a sort of overview of the entire genre and the period from whence they were based. The Roaring Twenties is a nostalgic film about a time and era that ranks among the most violent and interesting in the annals of American history. Moreso than anything, this film serves as a lovely time capsule and a fond farewell to what also happened to be, a great era in cinema.

The film begins in World War One and focuses on three soldiers, Eddie Bartlett(James Cagney), George Hally(Humphrey Bogart) and Lloyd Hart(Jeffrey Lynn). Bartlett wants to return to his auto shop and George, to his saloon. Hart is the youngest and is a recently graduated law student. The soldiers return home and find it very different, with the country apathetic and prohobition now in full swing. Eddie is turned away from his old job and can't seem to find work, except from his old friend, Danny Green(Frank Mchugh) who offers him a job as a taxi driver. One day, Eddie delivers a package to a nightclub owner, Panama Smith(Gladys George) and it turns out to be liquor. Arrested by the police, Eddie is let out and ends up working for Panama as he slowly rises in the illegal booze business. He soon becomes a wealthy man and hires Lloyd to help him and Danny as well. Eddie also begins to romance a girl named Jean Sherman(Priscilla Lane) who had mailed him when he was overseas. She quickly falls for the younger Lloyd and a romance develops behind Eddie's back, even as he gets her a job as a nightclub singer. Lane will sing many times throughout this film and depending on your tolerance for these tunes, you'll either watch them intently or use your old friend, the remote.

Eddie tries to buy liquor from fellow racketeer, Nick Brown(Paul Kelly) but he refuses, so Eddie and his boys hijack a ship of his, and run into George who joins up with Eddie. George still carries his psychotic streak from the war and one night when Eddie and him are robbing a factory, George recognizes the night watchman as an officer in the army he didn't like and kills him. Things begin to go badly and George wants equal opportunity to be heard, which Eddie callously tosses off. When Danny is found dead, victim of Nick Brown's gang, George sets up Eddie to be killed. Eddie shoots Brown and threatens George, but not having the evidence to kill him. Meanwhile, the stock market crashes and Eddie has to sell out his company to George, falling deeper and deeper into ever escalating poverty as prohobition comes to an end. He loses Jean to Lloyd and eventually ends up as a cab driver again. He picks up Jean one day and finds that they have a child and discovers that Lloyd is about to open up about the crime in the city and bring down George. He is targeted by George's gang and Jean goes to Eddie for help , who obliges, still carrying feelings for her. He goes to George's hangout on New Year's Eve and tries to reason with him to no avail. George sets him up to be killed, but Eddie strongarms his bodyguard and guns down George who turns into a snivelling coward. He then proceeds to get in a gunfight with the remainder of George's goons and knocks off most of them, before being shot. Eddie runs up the snowy street and walks up the steps of a church, where he falls and dies. Panama hols his lifleless body and in one of the greatest moments in screen history, recalls who he was to a police officer: "He use to be a big shot."

The Roaring Twenties is practically the apex of the Warners gangster film. Raoul Walsh's direction is fast paced and mean, a trademark of both the director and the studio. It may not have as much piss and vinegar as those pre-code crime pictures, but it still packs a punch, especially when Eddie takes on George's gang in the exciting finale. The plot by Mark Hellinger works at capturing the period, but does have it's contrivances, notably in the roles of Jean and Lloyd, who are likeable enough but fail to gain the kind of audience identification of either Cagney or George. The music is dated and curiously enough, not even of the correct period! Still, the story of the rise and fall of a gangster is compelling enough and Cagney makes the film his own and rightly so.

Cagney has one of his best roles here as Eddie Bartlett and his rise and fall may be the most dramatic of any other gangster depicted in that era. His transformation from honest soldier to hardened criminal is fascinating and tragic and his humanity and care for his friends makes the ending that much more devastating. Gladys George has the best role of her career as Panama Smith and she's delightful throughout. A character both wrapped in humor and equal amounts of sentiment. She really does care for Bartlett and her lines at the conclusion rank as the greatest last words in any gangster film made. Bogart has one of his best shitheel roles as George and he's such a psychoic nutcase that the audience is practically rooting for him to be finished off. The rest of the supporting cast perform well and carry the film, from Frank McHugh's sweet natured Danny to Paul Kelly's obnoxious Nick Brown.
Minor flaws aside, The Roaring Twenties is an absolute essential in the pantheon of the crime film and one of the most poignant and powerful to ever come out of Hollywood. 1939 was loaded with great movies and this one is one of my personal favorites as well as being worthy of rubbing shoulders with all the big names on that mighty list of imperishable film masterpieces. Over 70 years later and this film is still a big shot in the annals of classic cinema.

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