THE ROARING TWENTIES got their movie due in 1939, when Warner Brothers added to that year’s haul by capping off their run of gangland sagas with this popular bathtub brew of personalities, wisecracks and gunshots. Late-Depression,pre-war nostalgia for the gaudy excesses of the previous decade was gleaned from the recollections of legendary columnist Mark Hellinger. His short story “The World Moves On” was adapted by a slew of studio scribes—eleven different writers chipped in—with Jerry Wald, Richard Macauley and Robert Rossen getting screen credit. The portentous tones of narrator John Deering (who sounds like Cecil B. DeMille done by Phil Hartman) frame the plot as it goes from a shell-hole in France in 1918 to just after the end of Prohibition in 1933, with a memorable finish on the steps of a church.
“He used to be a big shot.”
Coming back from World War One, feisty ‘Eddie Bartlett’ (James Cagney) is stuck driving a hack for peanuts until he makes the switch to delivering bootleg hooch instead of passengers. Straight-arrow foxhole buddy ‘Lloyd Hart’ (Jeffrey Lynn) pursues a law practice while another former comrade, ‘George Hally’ (Humphrey Bogart), laughs at the law and gets deadly serious about the booze biz. Eddie & George team up, deal roughly with competitors and things go swell (apart from the mugs who get plugged) until the Crash of ’29. Meantime, Eddie falls for demure singer & girl-next-door ‘Jean Sherman’ (Priscilla Lane), landing her a nightclub job working for hard-boiled (but soft-hearted) dame ‘Panama Smith’ (Gladys George), who has a thing for sap-to-be Eddie.
The storyline is hackneyed (Cagney called it “wind acreage” and “goddam malarkey”), but thanks to director Raoul Walsh and his cast, the film delivers. Though Jimmy didn’t think much of the material, you’d never know it by the vigor, charm and pathos he deftly folds into the good-guy-gone-bad Eddie (based on a real-life hood named Larry Fay, deceased via sudden-involuntary-lead-poisoning in1933), while Bogart gets the out’n’out rat-role as treacherous killer George (based on take-yer-pick). Lynn is a stiffo as the stories requisite Nice Guy (zzzz), and Priscilla Lane is decent playing decent, but her deep-warbled nightclub numbers provoke giggles rather than fever.
Really good is the ill-fated, unsung Gladys George, playing the brassy speakeasy hostess, clearly modeled on the famed bawd Texas Guinan (also passing from the scene in ’33, felled not by lead but from the germs of a dysentery epidemic). After earning a Best Actress nomination in 1936 for Valiant Is The Word For Carrie, she was soon back in supporting roles (her private life excesses not helping), and by ’39 she looked noticeably more worn than her 35 years. She underplays beautifully here, her hurt-expressive eyes and “gin and tears” voice bringing dimension to what could have easily been just a parody. The scenes between her and Cagney are the best in the movie. The other prime stuff is the action, with some slick sock-’em-cold tricks from master James and a couple of exciting shootouts. The climactic showdown–and Cagney’s superb collapse–is a classic.
Clicking along at 106 minutes, with camera work by Ernest Haller, and featuring colorful supporting gigs from ever-reliable tough guys Frank McHugh, Paul Kelly, Joseph Sawyer, Abner Biberman (as ‘Lefty’) and Fred Graham, the redone 20s roared into 32nd place for the year, grossing $4,900,000.
* No-nonsense man’s man Raoul Walsh, new to Warner Brothers, had a good deal of impact of the careers of both Cagney and Bogart. It would be ten years before Cagney played another gangster, his most famous, again directed by Walsh, in the classic White Heat. Two years after The Roaring Twenties, Cagney delivered a great performance for Walsh in another nostalgic piece–albeit a much kinder one, The Strawberry Blonde. Bogart had also been itching to get out of the genre, and away from secondary parts (he did six movies in 1939). After working together on 1940s They Drive By Night, Walsh directed him in 1941s High Sierra, still in the ‘mob’, but a big step up from the herd.
On a more poignant note: John Deering, whose stentorian narration overlays the montage scenes that help advance the story through the years, was doing quite well in using his vocal instrument on radio. Until 1942, when he had a cerebral hemorrhage during a broadcast for gossip columnist Louella Parsons. Doctors removed a tumor from his brain, but in saving his life they cost him his voice, at the age of 34.