Before I dive into this film, let me first say that, in my book, James Cagney could do no wrong. I love almost every one of his films, and the ones I don’t love have nothing to do with Jimmy’s performance. He was my first movie-crush, and you know those crushes never die. Never before or since was there one actor with so much talent, charm, intensity, menace, humor and total charisma. He was one of a kind.
While ostensibly a Warner Brothers gangster film, 1939’s The Roaring Twenties is really a buddy movie. True, the ties of buddy-dom are pushed to the limit, but the bonds of friendship formed in the trenches of World War I is the key to one man’s rise and one man’s fall.
Eddie Barlett (Cagney), George Hally (Humphrey Bogart) and Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn) are foxhole buddies who return home to find the world has changed. After the Armistice, Lloyd comes home to a shaky law practice and Hally, once a saloon keeper, joins the ranks of the bootleggers in the wake of the newly passed Prohibition laws. Eddie returns home and finds his previous job as a garage mechanic gone. At the suggestion of his friend Danny (Frank McHugh – what would a Cagney film be without him?), Eddie starts driving a cab. Eddie soon hooks up with speakeasy proprietress Panama Smith (a terrific Gladys George), and they go into the bootlegging business together. Eddie builds up a fleet of cabs for liquor runs and even hires old buddy Lloyd as his lawyer, just to keep him out of trouble. The buddy trio is reunited when Eddie gets involved in a nasty gang war with Nick Brown (the almost always nasty Paul Kelly) and he and Hally join forces.
Of course, a love story kind of gums up the works. Panama loves Eddie, but Eddie loves Jean (Priscilla Lane), who was his wartime pen pal. Meanwhile, Jean loves Lloyd. Eddie gets Jean a job singing at Panama’s club, but once Jean and Lloyd set eyes on one another, it’s curtains for Eddie.
Now, Eddie is such a nice bootlegger (he drinks milk) and Hally is such a nasty one, you know that their partnership won’t last. Hally, the heartless so-and-so, shoots the night watchman at a liquor warehouse, even though he recognizes him as his old sergeant. This pushes the basically decent Lloyd to the limit and he quits the racket. But, as we all know, you can never just walk away.
While Eddie rises in the rackets, he still has to contend with Nick Brown. In an effort to arrange a truce, Eddie sends his pal Danny to make peace, but Brown sends Danny’s dead body back to Eddie as his response. Eddie plans a reprisal, but Hally, jealous of Eddie’s power, tips off Brown, who sets a trap. Eddie kills Brown, but now he knows he can no longer trust Hally.
Now, you’d think Eddie would stay focused on saving his skin, but when Jean tells him that she and Lloyd are going to marry, he falls apart. There’s nothing better than a love-sick tough guy with a tender heart. Loosing everything in the 1929 crash, he is forced to sell his fleet of cabs to Hally, who leaves him just one (to drive).
And so, the mighty have fallen. Eddie is now driving his cab, drinking booze instead of milk and eating his heart out. One day Jean enters his cab and although he initially gives her the cold shoulder, he eventually wishes her and Lloyd–now with the District Attorney’s office–and their young son well. When Eddie learns that Hally has threatened to kill Lloyd unless he drops his case against him, Eddie appeals to Hally to call it off. When Hally refuses Eddie shoots him. As he flees, he is mortally wounded by one of Hally’s men. This sets up one of the greatest death scenes ever filmed. Eddie, wounded, staggers and collapses on the snowy steps of a church. As he lays dying, the ever-faithful Panama runs to him and cradles him, Pieta-like, in her arms. When a cop asks her who he is, her answer is only “he used to be a big shot.”
As usual, Cagney doesn’t get a leading lady worthy of him, although Gladys George, as the lovelorn floozy Panama, is unforgettable. This would be Bogart’s last appearance with Cagney and he is his usual despicable self before bigger and better roles beckoned.
Based on a story by Mark Hellinger and directed by Raoul Walsh, this film was an homage to not only the 1920s, but to the great Warner Brothers gangster films of the ’30s. Almost a decade after the ’20s had ended, Hollywood finally could come to grips with those years and the effect the Frst World War had on a lost generation. Never again would Cagney’s gangster be so sympathetic, so pure, so fundamentally decent. The Roaring Twenties was a fitting tribute to all of those dirty rats that started with The Public Enemy’s Tom Powers and ended with Eddie Bartlett’s poetic death on the steps of a church.
Marsha Collock has been an avid fan – not scholar – of classic films since she saw the first flicker of black and white on the TV screen. Her muse is Norma Desmond, to whom she has dedicated her blog, A Person in the Dark, a site designed for all of the wonderful people out there in the dark who have an unabashed passion for silents, early talkies, all stars and all films. Visit her Facebook page at: http://www.facebook.com/pages/FlickChick/155690437779073