Released: October 23, 1939
Director: Raoul Walsh; Screenplay: Jerry Wald, Richard Macauley, Robert Rossen based on story "The World Moves On" by Mark Hellinger; Cinematography: Ernest Haller; Studio: Warner Bros.; Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Cast: James Cagney (Eddie Bartlett), Humphrey Bogart (George Halley), Gladys George (Panama Smith), Prsicilla Lane (Jean Sherman), Jeffrey Lynn (Lloyd Hart), Frank McHugh (Danny Green), Paul Kelly (Nick Brown)
1939 truly was a momentous year in Hollywood. The number of films released that year that are still revered to this day is staggering. Gone With the Wind, Dark Victory, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Only Angels Have Wings, Ninotchka, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Wizard of Oz, and Wuthering Heights just to name the first that to come to mind. This is the likes of Fleming, Hawks, Lubitsch, Capra, and Ford at, or near, the top of their games. And yet, in my opinion, there is another deserving film released that year that is rarely mentioned in the same breath as these legendary pictures. Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties serves as a final statement of the classic Warner Brothers gangster films and I would contend that it is the best to come out of Hollywood in 1939.
James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart had worked together in two other films – in the same year’s The Oklahoma Kid and in 1938’s gangster classic Angels With Dirty Faces. In Angels With Dirty Faces, though, Bogart was playing something of a lesser role. In The Roaring Twenties, while Cagney was still receiving top billing, it is the tense interaction between him and Bogey that gives the film its unique perspective on the gangster genre.
While some have dismissed the tale as simply another take on the usual rise and fall gangster story, it is actually unique in the way that it’s told. Cagney’s Eddie Bartlett is certainly the primary character, but the story actually follows three men that are drawn into the rackets during the decade. Each of the three becomes involved for different reasons, and each possesses varying degrees of ruthlessness, but all three are shown to contribute to the legend of the decade known as the Roaring Twenties in some way.
The three men meet in a foxhole in France in the midst of World War I. Eddie, a good-natured mechanic, wishes nothing more than to return to New York and open his own garage. George Hally (Humphrey Bogart), possessing a more coldhearted disposition, is looking forward to running the saloon his father owns. The third man, Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn) is the mild-mannered man of the trio. He is a recent law school graduate and plans to begin his practice once he makes it out of Europe. After the Armistice is signed, they return to the city and attempt to resume the lives they left before going to war but they find that times have changed. Eddie is under the impression that his old job as a mechanic will be waiting for him upon his return. Instead, he finds he has been replaced and that there is resentment felt toward the returning workers. In order to generate some income, Eddie begins driving the cab of his friend and roommate Danny (Frank McHugh). On one fare, a customer asks Eddie to deliver a bag of goods to someone named Panama Smith. When he does so, he unwittingly gets busted for delivering bootleg liquor and the two are arrested. Even though he had no part of the operation, Eddie refuses to testify against Panama (Gladys George). Panama appreciates the favor and in turn pays the fine levied against Eddie. Impressed by Eddie’s conduct, she offers to use her connections to set the two up in the bootlegging business. With no other prospects for work on the horizon, Eddie enters the rackets and prospers. He becomes incredibly wealthy, battling his way toward the top of the bootlegging business, while buying pieces of clubs and a fleet of taxicabs.
Lloyd, although not a direct participant in the rackets, is drawn into the periphery of the underworld while acting as Eddie’s lawyer. While brokering deals for Eddie to continue buying cabs, Lloyd begins to openly question his involvement in the shady activities. The relationship between Lloyd and his former army comrades is further complicated when he begins to fall in love with a singer/entertainer that Eddie has set up with a job in his club. The girl, Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane), wrote to Eddie while she was in high school and he was fighting in Europe. When Eddie reconnects with her working as a chorus girl, he takes her under his wing and begins to develop an affection for her as well. The uneasy love triangle complicates all interaction between the three.
George, meanwhile, enters the rackets naturally. Due to being involved in the saloon business and possessing a ruthless streak dating back to the Army, it’s no surprise that he is in such a line of work. He begins captaining rum-running boats for the biggest racketeer in town, Nick Brown (Paul Kelly). While overseeing one such shipment he is reunited with Eddie, as Eddie and his gang come aboard and hijack the liquor. Rather than protect his employer’s product, George decides to instead partner with Eddie and expand their bootlegging operations. Once these various interconnected partnerships are established, the film begins to follow the forces that ultimately bring about Eddie Bartlett’s demise.
To understand the course of events of the film, it’s necessary to understand Eddie. He is a man who is attempting to cross over into areas which are unnatural to him. And this straddling both sides – both in his relationship with two potential love interests and in the underworld – eventually brings about the dramatic downfall. In his personal life, he very early finds a woman with whom he has much in common and is at ease with. Panama clearly has feelings for him, and even though he is not as open about it, Eddie obviously feels strongly about her. Even when he is wooing the younger Jean, Walsh highlights the almost subconscious affection Eddie shows toward Panama, such as when they are watching Jean audition and Eddie naturally reaches out and takes Panama’s hand. He is drawn toward Jean, the chorus girl who has more in common with the college-educated Lloyd. Yet, he never can completely distance himself from the relationship that he has established with Panama. When Jean eventually ends up marrying Lloyd, there is no surprise that Eddie sticks ever closer to Panama. As a gangster, he is an outsider. He is not a lifelong criminal, someone who has been groomed from a young age for a life of crime. Only after being unable to find work is he drawn into the business. Even though he becomes enamored of the money and power that comes with his status, there is always uneasiness about Eddie in the rackets.
This awkwardness is given emphasis through the relationship between Eddie and George. While Eddie enters the rackets somewhat reluctantly, George is a natural. He is unabashedly coldblooded, willing to deceive any partner or kill any enemy in order to achieve his ends. The interaction between Cagney and Bogart is at its absolute pinnacle in this film. They worked marvelously together in Angels With Dirty Faces, but their on-screen time was limited compared to this movie. The tension that underlies every meeting of the two men is palpable. These are old war buddies, men who literally were sitting together in foxholes and shooting at enemy Germans behind stone walls. They are business associates attempting to succeed in an increasingly dangerous business. They should be able to trust each other. And yet, no matter how friendly their interaction, there is a perpetual friction between them. Soon into their partnership, it becomes obvious that it is going to fall apart at some point. It is not a matter of if, but when. Most of this tension is played out in a war of words. This is where the two legendary actors shine. Bogart is tremendous as the conniving underboss. The viciousness he displays at times truly is astounding for a film of this era. It is through Bogart’s convincing performance as Hally that Eddie Bartlett is able be structured as such a tragic figure.
Eddie’s downward spiral is tragic because of where he lands in relation to George. Even though he was engaged in the same business as George, Eddie comes to be viewed sympathetically. Here is a man who was drawn to bootlegging due to lack of work. He was a gangster who tried to avoid violence, in contrast to George who was forever bloodthirsty. While it may not be entirely true, Eddie is portrayed as a good man at heart. Yet, when the Roaring Twenties come to a screeching halt with the stock market crash, which of the two men emerges unscathed? George. Eddie is penniless, back to driving a single cab, and increasingly dependent on the product that he used to peddle.
The original story, written by film producer Mark Hellinger is based on real-life events that Hellinger experienced. Hellinger points this out in an on-screen forward to the film, but does not tell precisely who or what specific events were used as his source material. However, it’s easy to pinpoint who the Eddie Bartlett is based on – gangster and Hell’s Kitchen native Larry Fay. Like the Bartlett character, Fay was a former cabbie who entered the bootlegging and nightclub businesses. After amassing a small fortune through liquor, he too began buying a fleet of taxicabs. At the end of the film, when Eddie tells George that people from Chicago offered him millions for his cabs, but he instead refused and is forced to sell to George for just $250,000, this is straight from an apocryphal Larry Fay story. While well-established among his contemporaries, Fay’s reputation in the underworld was known as a nonviolent gangster. Like Eddie, Fay lost a fortune when the stock market crashed, but was continually trying to find another angle back to the top. Fay was killed in 1933 by a disgruntled employee at a club he owned.
This film was the one that established Raoul Walsh’s reputation as a topflight action director. In particular, the shootout sequence between Eddie and rival Nick Brown and his henchmen is outstanding. As Eddie and his men enter the restaurant, the cameras are positioned at vantage points that give the audience the same vision as Brown and his men. Thus, you see Eddie and his men enter the club as if you personally are crouched and waiting to open fire on them. The patrons in the restaurant are used to build up the tension, as they panic just before the gunfire erupts. Then, the editing becomes very quick, cutting to the various gunmen as they unload their weapons. It is a great sequence and is eclipsed only by the famous death sequence that closes the film.
The structure of the film is a mixture of documentary style and traditional narrative. In hindsight, many such films that utilize the documentary style can come across as old-fashioned and very much an artifact of the era. In this case, it works quite well. This is due to the fact that the narration is used exclusively to fill in details concerning the decade of the 1920s. Since it’s not telling us about feelings or actions of the characters, it doesn’t feel obtrusive as narration often can. Instead, we learn about social developments of the 20s, creating the context for which the lives of Eddie, George, Panama and company progress. This is one of the few times that I didn’t find the documentary style to be incredibly corny.
Walsh would go on direct other celebrated crime dramas, most notably 1941’s High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart and 1949’s White Heat with Cagney. However, The Roaring Twenties serves as a conclusion to a particular type of gangster film. While movies like High Sierra and White Heat are thematically similar to the classic era, they deal more with lone wolf outlaws. In this film, Walsh chronicles the famed hoodlums who built syndicates and roamed major cities like celebrities. Its story of the meteoric rise and disastrous fall of these men is the perfect capstone to the cycle.