The film covers the rise and fall of a man who gets involved in a life of crime during America's failed grand social experiment--Prohibition. You understand why men like Eddie were attracted to this type of life. Director Raoul Walsh gives context to the story and achieves authenticity with voice overs, period songs and documentary-like footage. This approach, and the fine cast that avoids the over-the-top performances that characterized earlier gangster films like Scarface, and to a lesser extent Little Caesar, make The Roaring Twenties the best of Warner's 1930's gangster films. Its realism is also attributable to the source novel, written by Mark Hellinger, a Chicago reporter during the heyday of Al Capone.
The best part of the film is its star, James Cagney. Few actors held the screen like Cagney, who might best be described as a ball of pugnacious energy. His personality and magnetism compensated for his slight statue, a remarkable achievement when you think about it because he did it consistently throughout his career. Here he delivers a finely controlled and dynamic performance. On the surface, Eddie might be just another tough hood, albeit a likable one. In Prohibition, he's sees an opportunity to live a comfortable life. He grabs it, not letting anyone stand in his way. He forces his cheap liquor on nightclub owners and highjacks competitors' supply. Yet, he's loyal to friends and enables the girl he loves (Priscilla Lane as Jean Sherman) to have a successful singing career, putting a human face on the character. Despite his tough-guy behaviour, he's a sensitive man with a heart.
|Cagney and Bogart embody the roaring Twenties as bootleggers|
Cagney commands nearly every scene of the film, compelling the viewer to focus on him as the action unfolds. It's a delight watching his expressions and posture. His characteristic sardonic smile and shoulder role are here, as well as his confidence. Here's a character who won't take anything from anyone--even Bogart. It's quite believable that this man could rise from nothing, using just his guile and determination to head a crime operation. Unlike the reckless Tom Powers he played eight years earlier in The Public Enemy, Eddie Bartlett is able to check his emotions--even when things go south. When Jean rejects him for another man, Eddie is crushed, feeling betrayed. He goes to confront the man but stops himself, saying he's sorry after the first punch. Later, when he suspects that Bogart has set him up for a hit, he doesn't retaliate.
|Eddie shows off his operation to Priscilla|
Considering the subject matter, some viewers might think there's surprisingly little action. But there's enough to convey the violence of the era. Tommy guns mow down a few gangsters, there's a good fight on a ship between warring factions of bootleggers, a cop is murdered, and one gang tosses grenades at another's speakeasy.
Gladys George gives the strongest supporting performance as Panama. She loves Eddie but he only has eyes for Jean, who loves another. Panama looks out for Eddie, even though she knows her love will be unrequited. When the stock market wipes Eddie out, he turns to drink. Panama's the only shoulder he can lean on. By the end of the film, you understand that he knows of Panama's affections. You might recognize her as Dana Andrews' mother in The Best Years of Our Lives and the widow of Bogart's partner in The Maltese Falcon.
|Gladys George and Humphrey Bogart|
Cop: Well, how're you hooked up with him?
Panama: I could never figure it out.
Cop: What was his business?
Panama: He used to be a big shot.
- The Public Enemy (1931)
- Angles with Dirty Faces (1938)
- The Roaring Twenties (1939)
- The Fighting 69th (1940)
- Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
- White Heat (1949)
- Mr. Roberts (1955)
- The Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)
- One, Two, Three (1961)