The Roaring Twenties – 1939

roaring twenties

My Review

—Great Film—

Your Bogie Fix:

3 Bogie out of 5 Bogies!

Director:  Raoul Walsh

The Lowdown

Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) returns from fighting in World War I and finds that the only way he can make a decent living is by selling homemade liquor.  Soon Bartlett is running a bootlegging operation, in love with a naïve young singer (Priscilla Lane), and teaming up with two old war buddies (Jeffry Lynn and Humphrey Bogart) to deliver cheap booze to as many speakeasies as he can muscle.  Before long though, Bartlett finds that his unrequited love and his jealous partner are more than he can handle while running a business.

What I Thought

This film is a whole lot of fun.  While it may not be Cagney or Bogart’s best gangster movie, it’s still fantastic and well worth the watch.

Cagney gets to run the gamut from celebrated soldier boy to big time gangster, and then all the way down to flat broke drunk.  I use the word charisma a lot on this blog when I talk about Bogart’s command of the big screen, but Cagney is another one of those actors that you just can’t take your eyes off of.  He looks great in a uniform, a tuxedo, and a bum’s clothes.  He can switch from coy and charming one minute, to fierce and ruthless the next, and it always plays believably.  Plus, he has a great sense of comedic timing and isn’t afraid to let his costars shine.  Good guy or evil, it’s hard not to root for him in any role.

While the story of bootlegging gangsters might not be new or groundbreaking, it is quite layered, weaving many different characters in and out of the life of Cagney’s returning war veteran, Bartlett.

Many gangster movies of the time were satisfied with introducing one female lead to hold the main hood’s coat and be a good little mobgirl stereotype – The Roaring Twenties gives us two, and neither one of them turns out to be the typical squeaky moll that we might expect.

The young singer that Bartlett adores won’t return his loving glance, let alone his proposal ring.  All the while, the older speakeasy madam is quietly pining away for him, but Bartlett can’t bring himself out of his puppy-love daze long enough to notice.

Then there are Bartlett’s two pals that would give him the shirt off their backs and all he does is lead them down a dangerous and tragic path.  Bartlett’s roommate Danny (Frank McHugh) is willing to do absolutely anything to help his buddy make it, and it costs him big when Bartlett continually puts him in harm’s way.  And Bartlett’s old war buddy, Lloyd (Jeffry Lynn), who’s now a lawyer, barely makes it out of Bartlett’s racket by the skin of his teeth.

What sets this film apart from so many gangster of the time is that director Raoul Walsh gives us a story that’s more epic in nature than what we’ve come to expect from these sorts of crime films.  These are three dimensional characters that all have interests and desires that, like in real life, don’t all orbit around one central character so that everything wraps up nicely before the credits.

Cagney’s Bartlett is a man with a serious tragic flaw – he can’t always put aside his own ambition to see the bigger picture.  It costs him in the end when he passes up one too many chances to take care of his business partner, and rival, George Hally (Bogart), leaving us with a bittersweet finale after Bartlett finally does the right thing, albeit a little too late.

The Bogart Factor

Bogart’s got a strong first ten minutes in the film and then disappears until about halfway through.  It’s not as well rounded a character as Cagney has to play with, as Bogart plays a slightly more typical bad guy, but it does have its moments.

Director Walsh is able to misdirect us a bit, making Bogart’s George Hally a borderline likable guy.  There’s an inkling here and there that Hally could go bad, but we really don’t know for sure until the final act of the film.

Small scenes are given to Bogart’s character that are able to show his menace, while at the same time giving us motivation for his eventual turn on Cagney.  In particular, Walsh crafts a great little side story where Hally comes across his old, belligerent army Sergeant (Joe Sawyer) as the bootleggers are committing a robbery.  Through just a few lines earlier in the movie, we know that Hally feels as if he’s been mistreated by the Sergeant, a man that Hally has always felt superior to.  At both points in the film, we don’t yet know that Bogart’s going to turn on Cagney, and so it’s not hard for us to understand Hally’s satisfaction in getting revenge on his old tormenter. It also adds a little color to Bogart’s character as we learn that he doesn’t like taking orders from anyone – which ends up being George Hally’s tragic flaw.

The Cast

Priscilla Lane is very good as Jean Sherman, the teenage girl who writes Cagney during the war and then steals his heart when he gets home.  She very convincingly plays ignorant to Cagney’s advances, and it’s easy to believe that she’d fall for a character like Jeffrey Lynn’s stand-up Lloyd.

Perhaps my favorite moments of the film happen with Frank McHugh’s portrayal of Cagney’s best friend, Danny.  McHugh’s comic timing and expressive face inject a lot of good nature and levity into the early part of the movie, and he works very well with Cagney.  McHugh pops up here and there in a lot of Classic Hollywood films, and I need to further explore his filmography.

Another high point is Gladys George (Iva Archer in The Maltese Falcon) as a speakeasy hostess who has a thing for Cagney.  She takes the role well beyond the caricature that it could have been, and gives the audience a strong character that we can relate to as she watches Cagney spin out of control.

Don’t Forget to Notice

A number of Bogie regulars show up in character roles – Joe Sawyer as the Sergeant, Ben Welden as a bar owner, and Eddie Acuff as a taxi driver.  My goal before this blog is done is to create a cross referenced list of all the actors who pop up in Bogart’s movies again and again.

Classic Bogie Moment

The scene that sticks out to me most is one that comes early in the film and shows Bogart’s skill at mixing humor and menace in the same moment.  Bogart, Cagney, and Lynn are all in a firefight, taking shots at Germans just before the war ends.  Lynn lines up a man in his sights, but can’t bring himself to fire:

Bogart:  What’s the matter Harvard?  You lose the Heinie?

Lynn:  No, but he looks like a kid about fifteen years old.

Bogart:  (TAKES THE SHOT AND SNEERS) He won’t be sixteen . . .

The Bottom Line

This is a great film, and while it might not be one of Bogart’s most iconic roles, he plays his part very well and gives us a heavy that can stand up against Cagney as a believable threat.

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7 thoughts on “The Roaring Twenties – 1939

  1. Haven’t seen this one in awhile but I seem to recall Cagney dying on the steps at the end in this one.

    One Cagney/Bogart film you want to stay away from is The Oklahoma Kid. They just aren’t cowboys.

    • Yep! That’s the one! With the famous line, “He used to be a big shot…”

      And I gotta watch them all! The good and the bad! I’m getting The Return of Dr. X today – supposedly a real stinker. I’m super pumped for it!

  2. Pingback: James Cagney | The Bogie Film Blog

  3. Pingback: Frank McHugh | The Bogie Film Blog

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  5. Pingback: The Roaring Twenties (1939) | Tim Neath - Visual Artist

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