Friday 1 October 2021

Movie Review: The Roaring Twenties (1939)

A crime thriller set during the Prohibition era, The Roaring Twenties is a wild ride through a decade of excess, featuring the rise and fall of an ambitious racketeer. 

During the first World War, three American soldiers meet under fire on the battlefields of France. Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) is an enthusiastic car mechanic, George Hally (Humphrey Bogart) is an acerbic saloon owner, and Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn) is an aspiring lawyer. 

Back in the United States after the war, Prohibition is introduced in 1920, creating a new and massive underground alcohol industry. In New York City Eddie meets nightclub manager Panama Smith (Gladys George) and gets into the alcohol business, with Lloyd as his reluctant lawyer. After teaming up with George, Eddie rises to become a big-time criminal manufacturing and distributing alcohol.

On his way to the top Eddie meets and falls in love with lounge singer Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane), but she is unsure about romancing a gangster and is more interested in Lloyd. Increasing levels of violence cause rifts between Eddie, Lloyd, and George, before the Great Depression upends the entire economy.

Based on the memoirs of journalist Mark Hellinger as recounted in his 1938 book The World Moves On, The Roaring Twenties captures the energy of its title. The script by Jerry Wald, Richard Macaulay, and Robert Rossen is packed with incident, and Raoul Walsh directs with suitable vigour: the scenes are short, the years tumble by, the characters evolve, and no time is wasted as a country rides a roller coaster of nightclubs, parties, money, and violence fuelled by an unpopular law imposed on an unwilling public.

Propelled by James Cagney's irrepressible intensity, Eddie Bartlett chases the American Dream whereby a lowly mechanic can become a somebody, his rise made possible by a massive underground industry created overnight. Eddie starts with delivery, progresses to manufacturing (at first in his bathtub), then moves onto distribution, offering a range of products including luxury varieties. Along the way he forges uneasy alliances (including with George), elbows competitors out of the way, and makes plenty of enemies.

But Eddie always carries a torch for Jean, the teenager who wrote to him when he was in the trenches of France. He waits for her to grow up then sponsors her career. But while she is always grateful, she also represents Eddie's great blind spot. Over the years he fails to understand she will never respect a gangster, and remains oblivious to her blooming romance with Lloyd. Overall, Eddie is much less successful at affairs of the heart than at business: he also fails to recognize or acknowledge Panama's decade-long crush on him.

Eddie's love for Jean makes him sympathetic, as do the two men more brutal than he is: George is a cold-blooded killer when needed, as proven in an early scene during the war when he does not hesitate to snipe a teenager. And rival booze industry mobster Nick Brown (Paul Kelly) is also quick to deploy deadly tactics of intimidation.

The final act features Eddie's dramatic descent back to his roots, his fate now resting in the competing palms of George and Lloyd. Eddie can still grab the initiative for the sake of the great love of his life, and hurtles to the only place where retribution and redemption can meet.

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