Program Notes: The Roaring Twenties (1939)

From the moment in 1931’s The Public Enemy when he squished half a grapefruit into the face of his nagging girlfriend (Mae Clarke), James Cagney was a movie star.

And not just any star, but a tough-guy star – an unapologetic, hard-nosed thug.

Over the next decade, Cagney often portrayed cocky gangsters who relished their power and outlaw status. Audiences loved him for it.

As critic Leonard Kirstein wrote of Cagney: “No one expresses more clearly in terms of pictorial action the delights of violence, the overtones of semiconscious sadism, the tendency toward destruction, toward anarchy, which is the base of American sex appeal.”

As the ‘30s were drawing to a close, Cagney was preparing to shut the door on that phase of his career. His resume during that decade was packed with films – Smart Money, Blonde Crazy, The Mayor of Hell, Frisco Kid, Hard to Handle, He Was Her Man, Angels with Dirty Faces – in which he had played con artists, professional gamblers, vice kingpins, and no-nonsense gangsters.

Film Screening:
The Roaring Twenties (1939)
Saturday, July 26 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

Of course he also played a boxer, a race car driver, a federal agent and, in Max Reinhardt’s all-star version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom the ass-headed weaver. Cagney was smart enough to see that as he aged he’d have to develop other talents and film personas – he couldn’t go forever shooting his way through life.

But now he was putting a cap on his career as a tough guy with 1939’s The Roaring Twenties, a film that allowed him to play both a good guy and a bad guy.

Earlier that year he had done pretty much the same thing in Each Dawn I Die, in which he played an investigative reporter framed by a corrupt D.A. and sent to a hellish prison where – simply to survive – he slowly develops a criminal mindset.

The arc followed by Eddie Bartlett, his character in The Roaring Twenties, is even more extensive.

The Raoul Walsh-directed film begins in the trenches of World War I, where Eddie, cynical tough guy George Hally (Humphrey Bogart), and nice kid Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn) become friends. With the end of the war Eddie returns home to NYC, hoping to resume his job as a cab driver. But he gets the cold shoulder. There’s no work for him, and little by little Eddie begins buying and selling booze, which is illegal during the era of Prohibition.

Little by little he rises through the ranks, becoming ever tougher and more ruthless. He teams up with his old pal George, who has been running alcohol for a rival gang. And they hire young Lloyd – now a lawyer – to look out for their financial and legal interests.

Along the way Eddie falls for a pretty young thing (Priscilla Lane), encouraging her singing career by getting her a gig at his speakeasy. But though she appreciates his support, her love goes to young Lloyd.

Eventually there’s a falling out between the gang factions headed by Eddie and George, and the partnership goes down in a hail of gunfire.

As director Raoul Walsh recalled: “When they both died, the audience accepted this without a question. I learned quickly that one must never kill a Gable or a Flynn or a Cooper or a Peck, but when we shot Cagney and Bogart the audience and the box office loved it. So did the critics.”

One of the remarkable things about this film is its unusual tone. For its first half, anyway, the movie is a jaunty affair. The bootleggers who defy the federal government’s ban on alcohol are depicted as rugged individualists, canny entrepreneurs who give the public what it wants. They dress well, speak in snappy patter, and live large.

In fact, the narrative takes as a given that Prohibition was a stupid idea from the get-go. A stentorian narrator – who occasionally interrupts the action to speak while documentary footage plays – leaves little doubt that the filmmakers considered the Volstead Act a disaster that allowed criminal elements to gain money and power to a degree never before possible in American society.

The Roaring Twenties purports to be giving us a fictionalized social history of that decade, but in fact it is thumbing its nose at authority. (The police and prosecutors are virtually nonexistent.)

This attitude was in direct violation of the Hollywood Production Code. But since the era the film depicted was still a fresh memory for most Americans – and since the film reflected the negative feelings toward Prohibition of the average citizen – the code enforcers found their hands tied. At least the film observed one of the biggest rules of the code – that criminal acts must be punished by the end of the movie.

It would take a full decade after The Roaring Twenties for Cagney to star in another gangster film. Not that he had trouble finding interesting work. There is, for example, 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, in which Cagney played turn-of-the-century composer/song-and-dance man George M. Cohan, winning the best actor Oscar not for waving a pistol but for kicking up his heels.

Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: Crime Stories”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com.

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