by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I ran the 1939 movie The Roaring Twenties, a Warner Bros. production with both James Cagney and Priscilla Lane (who got a lot of plum parts she probably didn’t deserve because she was — or at least was rumored to be — studio chief Hal Wallis’s mistress) billed above the title in a major-budget film detailing the history of Prohibition in New York as seen through the eyes of three buddies who meet during World War I. The film opens with a backwards historical montage, taking us in reverse time sequence from the eve of World War II to April 1918, and then fades in on one of the most transparently phony studio “exteriors” ever shot — the entire war looks like it’s taking part inside a Warners soundstage with a painted backdrop — as our ill-assorted trio land in the same foxhole. They are Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney), former garage mechanic who’s looking forward to getting his old job back after the war; aspiring attorney Lloyd Hart (the almost terminally bland and boring Jeffrey Lynn); and George Hally (Humphrey Bogart) — “Hally” is the name on the final credit roll but during the actual movie he’s never called anything but George — who’s decided he likes killing people and fondles his rifle suggestively to indicate what he wants to do after he gets out of the service. (When Lloyd draws back at shooting a 15-year-old German soldier, George lifts his rifle and cheerily dispatches the poor kid, snarling, “He’ll never be 16.” A split-second later, the Armistice is announced.)
Like some of the real troops in World War I, our trio are held over in Germany as part of the occupation force for two years after the end of major combat operations (plus ça change, plus ça même chose … ), and by the time they finally get home the nation has returned to normalcy and forgotten all about its veterans, and the country is in the grip of a recession and Eddie’s old employer can’t (or won’t) find room for him. Eddie is saved by his former roommate, Danny Green (a relatively restrained Frank McHugh), who agrees to split not only his room but also his cab with him — they can each drive it for 12 hours a day and split the cost of gas, repairs, etc. Eddie is busted as a “mule” for delivering liquor to the high-class speakeasy run by Panama Smith (Gladys George) — a character clearly based on Texas Guinan — and suddenly realizes that Prohibition has opened up much more promising business opportunities for guys like him than normal business could ever offer. He graduates from peddling another gang’s bootleg gin to making his own to hijacking the shipments of other gangsters — particularly Nick Brown (Paul Kelly) — who were actually bothering to smuggle in decent legal drinkables from abroad. On one such run, in which Eddie and his gang have gone out in a boat posing as Coast Guardsmen, he runs into George, who’s now a part of Nick Brown’s gang but is willing to throw Nick overboard (figuratively speaking) and partner with Eddie, George to take charge of the smuggling and Eddie the merchandising.
Meanwhile, in his early scuffling days Eddie had gone out to see his pen pal during the war, Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane), who’d sent a photo of herself in a high school play and therefore had made herself look considerably older than she actually was. When Eddie becomes a successful bootlegger, and Jean has grown old enough to interest him as a woman, he arranges with Panama to introduce her as a singer in her nightclub, and Jean becomes a star (though, oddly, she never seems to perform anywhere else) in a plot line that intriguingly anticipates Cagney’s role as Ruth Etting’s gangster manager in Love Me or Leave Me 16 years later. Lloyd, meanwhile, has served as Eddie’s attorney until Eddie and George hijack a liquor shipment that the feds had seized from Nick Brown and they in turn steal from the federal warehouse (by far the most visually interesting scene in the film, full of proto-noir atmospherics lacking in the rest), and George murders his old sergeant from the war days.
Things are going swimmingly for the principals — save for the constant arguments between good-bad guy Eddie and bad-bad guy George, and Jean’s loss of interest in Eddie in favor of the affections of good-good guy Lloyd — until the 1929 stock market crash happens, represented by a magnificent montage sequence by future director Don Siegel in which a giant ticker-tape machine hovers over Wall Street, dollar signs burst out of it as it explodes, and the buildings themselves collapse and literally melt into the street below. (This sequence is the biggest thing people remember about The Roaring Twenties and it’s been used in countless movies since, including some serious documentaries about the Depression.) Eddie is caught in the crash and loses his own empire — writers Jerry Wald, Richard Macaulay and Robert Rossen could (and should) have made more of the irony that Eddie made his fortune in an illegal enterprise and lost it all in legitimate (if unethical) investments — while George takes over the gang and recruits Nick Brown’s old henchmen, who’d been cut loose after Eddie murdered Nick in an ambush at the club where Jean sang.
Under the double whammy of losing both his fortune and Jean, Eddie sinks into an alcoholic despair — my husband Charles was especially impressed with Cagney’s acting in these scenes, saying he accurately caught the drunkard’s “tic” instead of just superficially playing intoxication — from which he’s roused only by the news that George’s gang has threatened Lloyd, whereupon he shoots George only to be killed himself — though he gets a death scene that is almost operatic in its extended length, staggering through the streets of New York until he finally expires on the steps of a church. (Apparently someone at Warners had seen John Ford’s The Informer.) The Roaring Twenties is a good Warners gangster movie but somewhat laden down by its sense of Importance with a capital I; it begins with a written those-who-cannot-remember-the-past-are-doomed-to-repeat-it foreword by Mark Hellinger (whose story “The World Moves On” provided the basis for the film) and is narrated throughout by John Deering, whose stentorian voice gives us historical background we could probably have figured out for ourselves.
Raoul Walsh directed — his first job at Warners — and though The Roaring Twenties is an exciting film it’s also oddly slower than most Warners vehicles, and though the film started a fad for the music of the 1920’s (and also contributed the phrase “The Roaring Twenties” to the culture), the songs are authentic for the period but their presentation isn’t. They’re arranged like the music of 1939 — not swing but the string-laden “sweet” dance music played at hotels too upper-class in their clienteles (or at least their aspirations) to want anything that loud — and Priscilla Lane’s vocals (I presume they’re her own; they’re not good enough to sound like a voice double and neither the American Film Institute Catalog nor imdb.com credits a voice double for her) are also in 1939 rather than 1920’s style. I was amused when the first introduction of James Cagney’s character after the war scenes was set to the song “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” — also the tune heard at the end of Cagney’s star-making 1931 film The Public Enemy (also set in the early 1920’s), when his bundled corpse is dumped on his family’s doorstep. It’s not the film it could have been with more sensitive writing, more energetic direction and a better female lead (like Ann Sheridan, maybe?), but it’s still pretty good.