The Roaring Twenties (1939)

Dir. Raoul Walsh. Starring James Cagney, Priscilla Lane, Gladys George

The ingredients of The Roaring Twenties are almost comically simple, and the story is a little easy at times as well. In the midst of a firefight in the later days of the First World War, George Hally (Humphrey Bogart) is minding his business in a shell crater when Eddie Bartlett (Cagney) tumbles on top of him. Not long after that, a third man tumbles on top of them, a younger man named Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn). George is a brusque saloonkeeper; Eddie is a charismatic mechanic but emphatically a nobody; Lloyd is an idealist, a newly minted lawyer who signed up late. This is more or less the order of things in the postwar days during Prohibition. The saloonkeeper becomes a bootlegger; the mechanic, out of a job and desperate, turns to the same profession; the lawyer falls into the business as well, keeping his law-defiling clients out of trouble. All of them, despite the clear tensions between them of class and temperament, manage to maintain an uneasy friendship through the heady, profitable days of Prohibition. Almost a decade after a sea of gangster pictures flooded the market, not least among them Cagney’s breakout film The Public EnemyThe Roaring Twenties manages to set itself apart by really getting into the business aspect of Prohibition, emphasizing Eddie’s position as a tycoon more than it emphasizes his role as a violent man creating havoc for law and order. (George gets to fill the role as the violent one in one of Bogart’s last stands as that unsavory gunman type which brought him his early fame.) As a film that aims to contextualize Prohibition as an economic proposition rather than a criminal waterfall, I think it’s actually carving out an interesting space. And yet so much about it is aggressively familiar even taking its relatively early placement in movie history into account. Who could have guessed, for example, that two of the three men would be involved with the same dame?

It’s the performances that make this movie a special one. Bogart and Lynn are good, but both of them are playing types more than people. Bogie, as previously accounted for, is still very much in the wake of George Raft. Jeffrey Lynn’s smooth, flimsy, and basically moral college boy is fitting for that look he has, although I wonder if he ever rates higher than fifth in importance in this movie. There’s just not much for Lynn to do besides take a sort of mildly moral stand every twenty-five minutes or so and grind someone’s gears in so doing. Yet as types go, they work pretty well. I prefer Lynn to Bogart here, though that’s generally a preference I have for the understated as opposed to the overstated. Nor is there anything all that special, really, about quintessential good girl Jean (Lane). Lane is not really asked to do more than sing in this movie, which is fine. She has a nice voice and a friendly face, and a lot of the hard work of making her likable has been done by a younger actress. (Jean wrote Eddie letters during the war and sent him a picture of her as a very done up character from a school play; finding out that she’s a tween is a genuinely goofy little sight gag, and one of those lovely moments where you get to see just how funny Cagney could be.) Lane’s character is kind of a prop, but then again so is Lynn’s. Both of them exist to set up a conundrum for Eddie, who is the sun and moon of The Roaring Twenties.

Watching Yankee Doodle Dandy, it’s easy to be drawn in by Cagney’s performance; the same is true of his work in Footlight Parade or White Heat. In The Roaring Twenties, there’s a line he crosses from performance to person that is difficult to explain and obvious to the heart. I was moved by an awful lot of what Cagney did as George M. Cohan, but I thought Eddie Bartlett was something rarer still; he was personally stirring. I think some of that is incidental to the character, a fellow who comes home from the war an honest man and who turns to crime because he runs out of feasible options. He was left out to dry by the country he fought for, and when the country goes dry he goes to fighting for himself. When he falls in love, the girl he falls in love with is too good for him, too righteous; she belongs with Lloyd, who was born to be the district attorney someday. He strings himself along, sure that he will go straight one of these days, and yet the day when he’ll go straight never seems to come. This is a type as much as George and Lloyd are types, but Eddie is so personal in Cagney’s hands that you start to give him the benefit of the doubt about the characterizing moments which the script only suggests.

Eddie is “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” brought to life, although his plight beats Yip Harburg’s lyrics by more than a decade. (The film, of course, is behind Yip by seven years.) He comes home from the war only to get a smell-ya-later response from his old boss and worse from the guy who replaced him at the garage. There was no reward for risking his life, for losing his job, for taking years away from home and friends and family. That disappointment keens in Eddie, a man who stays sharper than other bootleggers by never drinking his own booze but who simultaneously never has their outlet for dulling pain. It makes the shock of losing Jean in the last days of Prohibition all the more incredible to him, all the more inconceivable and aching. Another irony befalls Eddie when Prohibition ends. He starts to drink along with the rest of his people—you know, the goody-goods who weren’t drinking the swill from his stills when he was in business—but unlike his people he has the harms of Prohibition hanging over him in a very real way. Cagney the gangster I understand, and Cagney the impresario I prefer, but it is almost miraculous how giving the guy fifteen minutes of backstory and ten minutes of collapse lets him take fairly whitebread criminal and make him a borderline tragic figure.

If there is more potential tragedy in this movie, it’s in the performance of Gladys George’s Panama, who accidentally gets Eddie into the business and goes on to follow him out of love that no one else has for him. There’s a lively kind of affection between Eddie and his best pal Danny (Frank McHugh), an affable chap who goes on to get the business end of the bootlegging trade, which only serves to make Panama’s love for Eddie all the stronger. She sees in him the ghost of her man who went to war and never came back to her. The root of The Roaring Twenties is, I think, in a kind of nostalgia for a sadder, more certain time. In 1938 and 1939, the world cannot help but know that it is on the precipice of another world war, but if you’re Panama in the early ’20s before things really start to roar, there is a kind of sad certainty in the life you’re throwing yourself into. Prohibition is the rule, but it’s also profitable for anyone out to exploit it; your lover never did return from France, but Eddie will never have to go back there. By rights, Panama should be even less interesting, even less important than Jean, but there is something so grounded and stubborn in George’s performance that she gives the entire movie a kind of grace that it would be missing without her. At first, her presence seems nearly pointless, even when she’s being brought along to act as the MC for Eddie’s nightclub. She turns into a reliable comic relief along the way, although still basically inessential. Yet before you know it, maybe during the speech where she’s telling Eddie that Jean has always been in love with Lloyd, you realize that her disappointments must rival, if not exceed, Eddie’s. She is the only person who is more faithful to Eddie than she is to something Eddie can give, and in the end it makes her advice to Eddie to go on what both of them understand to be a suicide mission all the more plaintive. Sitting in a bar where Panama sings for pennies and Eddie drinks anything he can slurp up, she explains the way things are headed to our sloshed hero: “It’s over for all of us: you, me, and George,” she says, not unhappily. She continues, saying, “Something new is happening, something you don’t understand.” It’s maybe a little broad to be truly meaningful, I think, but there’s something about George and Cagney across a table from each other, down and emphatically out, which makes the epitaph fitting for a whole era and for so many of its denizens. It’s true for Panama as well, after all. When Eddie is shot down in the street, she is the one who cradles his head and tells a cop that the dead man used to be big. Despite her position as a true survivor, it’s hard to imagine her leaving the steps herself.

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