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The Roaring Twenties (1939)

A little James Cagney action in store for Film Class Wednesday.  In The Roaring Twenties Cagney struggles to make something of himself after serving our country only to face disappointment before ascending to the upper echelons of the mob world.  It’s personifies almost every Cagney gangster film from The Public Enemy to White Heat.  There’s nothing ground-breaking about The Roaring Twenties but the acting from Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Priscilla Lane keep it from falling into the bin of derivative gangster pictures of the era.

After surviving World War I, Eddie Bartlett (Cagney) returns home to have the doors of employment shut in his face.  With no way to eke out a living Eddie turns to crime where he rapidly climbs the ladder to success.  Along the way he meets a beautiful girl (Priscilla Lane) whom he hopes to make his own.

A world war had ended while another was just brewing when The Roaring Twenties was released in 1939.  With the country in a state of simultaneous confusion and limbo about their place, director Raoul Walsh confronts America’s issues head-on in The Roaring Twenties.  No matter the movie’s pat ending, The Roaring Twenties looks at the homegrown method of creating crime.  Eddie Bartlett comes home from war, where men have become inured into a world of death and disappointment, only to become its victims firsthand upon returning home.  As Eddie attempts to reenter society, and the workforce, he realizes the broken promises of opportunities and the American dream are proven false.  As the men who’ve replaced him let him know, there no longer any reliance on one’s brothers in arms.

After the initial failure to secure a job Eddie turns to the true American success story (please note sarcasm) of 1930s features, gangster life.  The Roaring Twenties takes a documentary approach, sans overt preaching, to showcase the various vices of American hedonism and where the road ends.  The intriguing thing is there’s no overt condemnation of Eddie’s character.  He’s a gangster, but he drinks milk during Prohibition’s heyday (and only takes up drinking after the loss of his lady love) and goes through a redemption at the film’s conclusion….again motivated by said lady love.  Cagney came off as too menacing and one-note in The Public Enemy and I haven’t watched White Heat, so this is my second foray into Cagney as gangster.  With such a watered-down version of the gangster presented you can’t help but like Cagney.  Even when he gets sore about losing his woman to his best friend, he isn’t plotting murder or the like.

Murder and the like is left to Humphrey Bogart as Eddie’s war buddy, George Hally.  Hally’s introduction to the audience is killing a fifteen declaring “He won’t be sixteen.”  Because Bogart isn’t as charismatic or, like Cagney, a victim of circumstance who we’ve watched struggle and fail to succeed “the right way,” it’s easy to watch him become the villain despite returning into the narrative at the halfway mark.  Bogart is a cinch in this role, one of several villains he played pre-Maltese Falcon, and is the perfect foil to Cagney.  Bogart, with his sharp face, is a man whose redemption you’d never buy compared to Cagney.  Completing the trio of men is baby-faced Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn).  Hart is our all-American specimen of man who works for the common good.  In order for him to succeed, Eddie must sacrifice himself, forsaking vice to uphold the American dream of domesticity.  Eddie’s death sequence is contrived by today’s standards (as he fell upon the church steps a few of my classmates giggled, assuming it was intentionally the bitter taste of irony), but is necessary to sell the idea that crime doesn’t pay.

I can’t end my review without touching on Priscilla Lane as Jean Sherman, our harbinger of good and bad omens.  She’s the catalyst for every major event in the movie’s path, but is just so damn sweet.  The audience believes she’s a sultry gypsy, like in the photo she sends to Eddie.  Unfortunately, Eddie’s war penpal is a teenage girl-and I bought Lane as a teenager very easily.  After they reunite, and she’s of legal age, Lane becomes the sweet beacon of hope for Eddie.  He helps her become a nightclub singer, and is of the misguided belief they’re a couple.  Unfortunately, Jean’s friend-zoned Eddie (leading one to believe if Eddie was completely delusional; there’s no real proof/disproof of their relationship) and falls for Lloyd.  Lane is akin to eating your fill of cotton candy, sweet but too much in large doses.  She’s a less dangerous Miriam Hopkins, which is fine but the wrong type of girl for this venture.  Of course, it’s the reason we have Gladys George as Panama Smith, to act as a foil to Lane’s staid angel in the house.

The Roaring Twenties is Hollywood’s response to the gangster film after the implementation of the Production Code.  Every move is closely telegraphed with an eye towards pleasing the Code, and that makes for a movie whose safety is evident in every frame.  James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and, to a lesser extent, Priscilla Lane, are great at elevating the movie above it’s formulaic confines.

Ronnie Rating:


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The Roaring Twenties


1930s, Crime, Drama, Film Noir

Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

8 thoughts on “The Roaring Twenties (1939) Leave a comment

  1. This isn’t a perfect film but an important one in Cagney’s career, it was the last gangster he would play for a decade until White Heat and has all the elements of the genre refined into a high class package. Walsh makes sure the picture moves at all times and definitely has a point of view to his direction. It did follow most of the conventions of the gangster flicks but audiences of the time and the studios expected that.

    I’m a big fan of Priscilla Lane she’s always a charmer and I love her teamings with John Garfield as well as her work in Saboteur. I think her relentless wholesomeness in this is more the fault of the script than the actress although she always exuded an earnest goodness that would have precluded her ever being a convincing villainess.

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention except in passing Cagney’s “off key canary” Panama played by Gladys George. To me along with Cagney she gave the best performance in the picture. Full of worn down knowing and weary love for someone who doesn’t appreciate her she’s incredibly touching. She was a major star in the early thirties but her messy private life damaged her career and she died young but she was never less than excellent. It’s a great shame she’s not better remembered today.

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