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It is difficult to trust so many truly nice movies were made in 1939, and I can only guess that the sheer volume of perfect pix from that year is the only reason why THE ROARING TWENTIES does not have truly major classic status. 1939 seems to be cluttered with a plethora of cinematic riches, thus burying this astonishing and entertaining crime film. I also have been roaring (with laughter) at some of the astonishing silly comments also on this film's viewer comments page: from: "Blondell's haircut is worth the price of a ticket" (Joan Blondell is not in this film, sweetie, read the credits!) - to '"Another MGM gem"...hello? pal, the opening of the movie has a nice large shield with WB stamped on it followed by "Warner Bros Presents". Almost everyone commenting then proceeds to say the entire story, every one after every one as thought they are the only person writing a comment. Yeesh. I am the only person who firstly reads what is already there in order to NOT duplicate plot points or characters or the same old same old same old? For genuine long lasting flabbergastering I prefer the movie's solid direction by Raoul Walsh the sensational crackling screenplay by Tag Hellinger and Jerry Wald and mostly the truly major performance by James Cagney. This role and it's ride is possibly the greatest I have ever seen from him, especially in the latter scenes on skid-row. It's a very mean cruel storyline with Bogart's jawdropping viciousness few points above censorship rulings - all thankfully intact and actually in crisp DVD clarity. The production values are equally solid well decorated nightclubs and houses and rooms and very believable and expansive sets and scenes - especially in the WW1 intro. Yes it even has a terrific Citizen Kane style march of time newsreel tone and urgency. This is a genuine gangster masterpiece and well worth finding and sharing with another vintage WB (not MGM) crime buffs. THE ROARING TWENTIES deserves to be one of the most popular gangster movies for everyone of its plot, acting , hero and production qualities - they are all there on show. I would love to know the budget and the box office. I know the movie was a large hit but exactly how big? It deserved to be massive. Also, the greatest saddest role of a lifetime to the magnificent and endearing Gladys George as Panama. As if everything else wasn't excellent enough! This movie is a collectors must-have. If remade today, it would be exactly the same, such is it's timeless tone and production. In fact it is had to trust it was made 20 years earlier than SOME LIKE IT HOT. Both movies look identical. Don't waste other day, place THE ROARING TWENTIES top of your gotta see list.
The cycle of gangster films made at Warner Brothers in the 1930s, regardless of who was in them, who directed them or how their stories panned out, all had one thing in common. They came at their audiences at breakneck pace. While their ostensible aim was to condemn violence and lawlessness, their true agenda was one of thrills, danger and nonstop action.The odd thing about The Roaring Twenties, is that there is not really a lot of action or typical gangster business in it, at least not at the beginning. Bootlegging is seen as a relatively tame activity, and criminality as something any reasonable person should slide into. There aren't even any scenes of gangland violence until 55 mins in. However it still has that typical crime drama speed and punch. A lot of the impact comes from the regular background-info montages, a staple at Warner Brothers but rarely done better. Most of the shots are close-ups and almost all of them detail some sharp movement, like a type of visual roller-coaster ride. A lot of thought has gone into how every shot will fit with the next. During the montage showing the results of prohibition, we receive one shot of a vehicle ruining straight towards the camera, followed by a fast dolly in on a row of bottles, giving a dizzying push-pull effect.Director Raoul Walsh also gives a racy feel to even the more straightforward scenes. He gets the actors constantly moving as they talk, and the camera stays tight on the action, constantly back- and- forth with the players. The first half hour is like a whistle-stop tour as we are buffeted from one stage to the next, and the dialogue is snapped out like gunfire, making up for the lack of true shooting. Even in the relatively sedate scenes towards the middle, where Cagney gets together with Priscilla Lane, Walsh still keeps a sense of nervous edginess with extras milling about in the background, with only one or two genuinely tranquil moments here and there to highlight something of importance or emotional intensity.The Warner Brothers style had its ideal star in James Cagney, and here he is the usual bundle of shrugs, twitches and cracking delivery, albeit far from his greatest performance. He simply slots into the general pattern of punches and wisecracks, rather than commanding the screen as he did in Angels with Dirty Faces. His love interest Priscilla Lane makes a disappointingly dull leading lady, although she does have a lot of charm and hero when singing. However the greatest turn of The Roaring Twenties is by alternate female lead Gladys George, billed lower but with comparable screen time and oodles more screen presence. George is the excellent moll, full of vibrant personality, and yet behind her eyes you can see the nice weight of sadness. Her Panama Smith is the only truly real-looking hero in this drama.And this emotional strand brought in by the Gladys George hero is necessary to The Roaring Twenties. While each gangster film of the time complete up with the hero's ignoble demise, perhaps none before it had such a feeling of tragedy and nostalgia. It's no coincidence that the movie's signature tune is "Come to me, my melancholy baby", for this is the most poignant of all the Warner's gangster flicks. And yet this aspect is still underdeveloped, because this is still at its roots a standard category movie, an uncomplicated action package. It's now shame that in those days a picture like this had to be a certain type of thing, because with a tiny more reflection and credibility The Roaring Twenties should have been a truly moving experience.
It is not as centrally dynamic as THE PUBLIC ENEMY nor as Freudian as WHITE HEAT, but THE ROARING TWENTIES is a leading gangster movie for Jimmy Cagney as it features the rise and fall of a gangster Eddie Bartlett. The product of Globe Fight I and Prohibition, Eddie rises to nice power as the head of a gang, everytime trying to return to legitimate society, and then to fall again due to the Wall Road Ruin and the machinations of his right-hand boy George Hally (Humphrey Bogart). Both men's characters are far more subtle as studies of success in criminal enterprise than the normal crime bosses of the 1930s. Eddie painstakingly builds up a taxicab corporation to gain legitimacy, as well as his stock acquisitions. Bogart, a bit more realistic on what types of businesses he understands, does not receive involved in the stock market. But he enjoys the trappings of the upper class. Witness the stage when he is talking with his underling (Abner Biberman) and he is practicing his putting in his office. At the conclusion, Bogart is living in a townhouse (a sign of his financial success).There is a tradition in the movies of the depression that some gangsters are not as terrible as others. This is not to be taken seriously in true life, but the concept is that certain folks are driven to crime by economic circumstances (Cagney returning to no job at the end of Globe Fight I) and some are driven by pure evil (the sadistic side of Bogart's nature). Cagney, on his rise, gains the friendship of folks like Gladys George (actually the unrequited love of Ms George) and tries to search room in his organization for folks like Frank McHugh, a great guy who really never fit in properly as a criminal - and dies as a result. Bogart gains the help of like villains (Bibberman, who shares Bogie's fate at the end), and keeps showing a contempt for human life in most of the movie (witness how he kills a cop on one of the rum runners he and Cagney are on, because the cop was once his sergeant in the units who punished him for breaking the guidelines when he did). But Cagney turns out to have more guts in him than Bogie. At the end of the movie the latter, facing his own demise, turns into a total coward.The movie has many touches to set the tone of the 21 years it covers (1918 - 1939). At the begin newsreel footage takes the audience back to the end of Globe Fight I, showing Presidents and happenings up to Wilson (who, curiously enough, is shown by an actor testing the President, not as part of an old film). It has been noted that Gladys George's Panama is based on Texas Guinan, the speakeasy hostess. The death of Cagney on the steps of a church is based on the death of Hymie Weiss, a Chicago gangster rival of Capone who was killed that method in 1927. It was too nice a death to not test in a gangster film, as it seems more symbolic than it was in true life (it does remind us of how Cagney, for all his nice intentions, came up short due to his profession in violence).I have not commented on the love triangles involving Cagney, Jeffrey Lynn, and Priscilla Lane (and Cagney, Lane, and Gladys George). The irony that Cagney never sees that George is more than just a nice mate is rather poignant, for both of them. And it is George who cradles his dead body in the end and gives his epitaph. Perhaps today a director would let Cagney to wise up and receive away with George. But that would spoil the full result of the film's conclusion.
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