Monday, September 5, 2011

The Roaring Twenties (1939) - Raoul Walsh

Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney), comes home to New York City after serving in France in WWI. Jobs are scarce. He tries his hand at driving a cab with his good friend, Danny (Frank McHugh). Prohibition is soon enacted and Eddie gets arrested doing a passenger a favor--delivering illegal liquor to Panama Smith (Gladys George), owner of a speakeasy. Although innocent, Bartlett takes the fall. When Smith pays Eddie's fine and he is released, she introduces him to bootlegging. Eddie has a good head for business and his operation grows, as does his criminal nature. He forms a partnership with an old army acquaintance, George (Humphrey Bogart), a ruthless racketeer, who soon takes issue with Eddie's dominate role in the gang.

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
As with all films of the era, crime does not go unpunished. Even though we are rooting for Eddie, and understand that the choices he made reflected his environment, he is a killer and thief. Still, he goes out a hero of sorts, dispatching the conniving George before being tracked down by a police officer and gunned down on the steps of a church. It is a fine death. Panama Smith rushes to cradle his head in her lap as the cop approaches. 
Panama: He's dead.
Cop: Well, who is this guy?
Panama: This is Eddie Bartlett.
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.

Bogart's death seems slightly out of character. He cowers like a frightened punk, his face contorted in fear and his hands shaking. It's a bit too much. Thankfully, within two years he'd have Roy Earle of High Sierra under his belt and forever after knew how to die like a man. 

Walsh would work with both Cagney (White Heat) and Bogart (They Drive by Night and High Sierra) again, drawing out some of their best performances. 

The Best of James Cagney:
  • 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)

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