Directed by Raoul Walsh
Screenplay by Jerry Wald & Richard Macaulay and Robert Rossen, from a story by Mark Hellinger.
Starring James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Priscilla Lane, Gladys George, Frank McHugh, Jeffrey Lynn
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The gangster film of the 30s was an entire subgenre unto itself. Like the later film noir, gangster films were tragedies. In film noir, the tragedy was brought on by outside forces (usually a woman). In gangster films, the tragedy was due to the main character being on the wrong side of the law. The Roaring Twenties was one of the last of the subgenre, and one that's almost archetypal of the form.
The film follows three army buddies who meet in the last days of World War I. Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney), who dreams of going back to run a garage when the war ends, is joined in a foxhole by tough guy George Hally (Humphrey Bogart)* and aspiring lawyer Lloyd Hart (Geoffrey Lynn).
Back in the US, though Eddie finds the going tough. He can't get his old job back. The girl who wrote him letters, Jean Sherman, is still in high school. Eddie ends up sharing a room with his old friend Danny Green (Frank McHugh). Danny is a cab driver, and he lends Eddie his cab in the off hours. Eddie is caught inadvertently making a delivery of prohibited liquor to Panama Smith (Gladys George) and takes the fall -- but doesn't finger Smith. After he gets out of jail, she helps him out as he turns to bootlegging. He runs into George Hally, who becomes the muscle, and Lloyd Hart, who keeps the law at bay.
As is usual for movies of this vintage, the actors all play types, and usually the types they were famous for. Cagney is the dominating presence he always was, and Bogart was in the midst of his really bad guy stage.** Gladys George does well in the "I love him but he doesn't love me role,"*** and Frank McHugh was Frank McHugh -- the best male sidekick of the era.
Roaul Walsh is often overlooked as a director, but his filmography shows an important talent who mixed action and pure romantic films. He started out in the silent days, and slumped a bit when sound came in. The Roaring Twenties marked the beginning of the prime of his career, where he directed They Drive by Night, High Sierra, and the topper of the gangster film, White Heat.
The film was a solid hit, and a triumph for all involved. But it is far less known than the other gangster films of the era. Possibly this is because Eddie is different from most gangsters. He's basically a good guy who gets caught up in crime, instead of the memorable sociopaths in The Public Enemy, Scarface, and Little Caesar.
The movie, though, is a fine representative of the genre and still holds up wonderfully.
* Whose character is defined quite neatly: when someone comments that a German soldier looks like he's only 15, Hally takes a shot and then comments, "He won't be 16."
**Bogart was badly used in the 30s. He was typed as a gangster when Leslie Howard insisted he repeat his Broadway role of Duke Mantee in The Desperate Hours, but Warner Brothers already had two major gangster types (Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and George Raft, not to mention Paul Muni) already under contract. Bogart made a name as a second lead, but didn't become a major star until the 1940s, ironically, because Muni and Raft turned down the roles that Bogart snapped up.
***Inspired by real-life speakeasy hostess Texas Guinan (Yes, that's where the name comes for the character in Star Trek: the Next Generation)