January 11, 2017

The Roaring Twenties (1939)
Grade: 64/100

Director: Raoul Walsh
Stars: James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Priscilla Lane

What it's about. A popular classic black and white gangster film from the studio best known for the genre, Warner Bros. At the film's start, street-smart James Cagney, sadistic criminal Humphrey Bogart, and good-guy lawyer Jeffrey Lynn are American soldiers fighting the Germans in France during World War I. The Armistice arrives, and the trio return home and part ways.

James Cagney has trouble finding work, and ends up sharing cabbie duty with loyal friend Frank McHugh. Prohibition goes into effect, and Cagney is caught delivering booze to nightclub manager Gladys George. Cagney is successfully defended by his war buddy Lynn, and the increasingly ambitious Cagney gradually becomes a New York City gangster, with McHugh, Lynn, and eventually Bogart on his payroll.

Meanwhile, Cagney falls for nice girl Priscilla Lane, and sets her up as a singer in Gladys George's club. Lane and Lynn begin a romance behind Cagney's back. Cagney begins a war with rival gangster Paul Kelly, and survives because it is a movie. Cagney's finances are destroyed by the Great Depression, and after the repeal of Prohibition, Cagney is reduced to cab driving, with Gladys George as his sole friend.

Lane and Lynn marry, and Lynn becomes a district attorney, prosecuting Bogart. Lane begs Cagney to stop Bogart from killing Lynn, which compels a final showdown between Cagney and Bogart.

How others will see it. Many regard The Roaring Twenties as the best Hollywood gangster movie from the 1930s, though my personal preference is for Angels with Dirty Faces. Cagney played many different characters over the years, but like Edward G. Robinson, was associated with gangster roles throughout his career.

1939 was a banner year for Hollywood, and The Roaring Twenties was ignored by the Academy Awards despite commercial and critical success. Perhaps it was considered derivative, or entertaining instead of artistic. Today, though, the film is more popular than, for example, Goodbye Mr. Chips, which spawned the Best Actor Oscar. At imdb.com, The Roaring Twenties has a high user rating except from women over 45, who may not like Cagney's Production Code dictated demise, or perhaps they just don't think much of second-billed Priscilla Lane's bland singing.

How I felt about it. Priscilla Lane is lovely, but when it comes to showgirls in 1939 movies, I prefer Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again. It's true that nobody can play a wiseguy like Cagney, but a tough mug like him develops an obsession for Lane only because a movie needs a romantic interest to lure female viewers, or so Hollywood producers believed.

Lane remains the sweet innocent schoolgirl of her opening scenes, even as she becomes a celebrity singer who fills the nightclub and is drawn into Cagney's circle of wealth, corruption, and criminality. McHugh is out of place, Gladys George is too nice for her racket, and we want more Bogart, arguably the most accomplished Hollywood actor of the 1940s.

There's no question that The Roaring Twenties is entertaining, as much today as it was more than 75 years ago. It is a good showcase for Cagney's scene-stealing acting, but the story, characters, and situations seem slightly contrived. The best example of this is Cagney punching a man, and knocking down both him and the man behind him, like a pair of dominos.