By Matt Smith
Oh, how I swoon, like a little girl. I’ve written about my love for Cagney before (all the way back in 2008), in his other significant on screen pairing with Bogart, Angels With Dirty Faces. Now I’m going to a year later, with 1939’s The Roaring Twenties, and not just because of Cagney and Bogart, though I will discuss them momentarily. This is a picture it’s hard for me to walk away from, and I find myself entranced by it very early in its run time, and I have to watch it any time I come across it on TCM, which increasingly seems to be the last bastion of hope for the modern cinephile.
Directed by the master of gangster and crime pictures, Raoul Walsh, whose career spans an amazing 52 years, starting in silents, and ending in 1964 after spending his last few films recycling the war pictures that made his name early on. Walsh also directed both of his stars here in other major films in their own careers: Cagney in the late period gangster movie White Heat, and Bogart in High Sierra (which pairs Bogey with the great Ida Lupino). Here he turns in what might be the best film in the Warner Bros. cycle of 1930s gangster pictures, which morphed through the decade to ascribe themselves to the new Production Code. But much like other genres the Code was meant to reign in (and which it helped to create, like Films Noir), the gangster films actually thrived under their purview, expanding into a more subtle and soulful set of films that continued to make their financiers money at the box office despite the best efforts to shut them down altogether. They also expanded into the realm of crime and cop pictures, which often merely tweaked the genre to make one of the leads a former gangster, like ”G” Men and the aforementioned Angels…, both starring Cagney.
Here Cagney and Bogart play World War I buddies Eddie Bartlett and George Hally, with third wheel Jeffrey Lynn playing their friend and lawyer Lloyd Hart. After the armistice, the boys turn to bootlegging, and Lloyd becomes their lawyer, drawing up contracts for purchases, back room deals and eventually backstabbing Bartlett by stealing his gal Jean (Priscilla Lane). Jean becomes the driving force behind the drama, with the love triangle between her, Eddie and Lloyd eventually leading to the downfall of the racket and their friendships even more so than the end of Prohibition does. But of course it would, they were fighting over Priscilla Taylor, after all, who was so glorious in motion pictures that she quit after only a decade in the movies, starring with Cary Grant in the mad-cap comedy Arsenic and Old Lace and in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic spy thriller Saboteur.
Cagney is all red hot firebrand as Eddie, iconic swagger in tow. No one touches him and he isn’t afraid of throwing a punch or shoving a cigar in someone’s face to make a point. Seriously, I could watch him like this all day, and it’s one of the big appeals to his career as an actor. Even in his lighter fare, like the under seen and unavailable on home video Taxi, or his varied work as a hoofer in musicals (where he got his start, on stage and on screen, long before becoming WB’s signature tough guy), he has a charisma, a charm, that … star quality, for lack of a better explanation. He is the American gangster, forever and always, and its his role here that cements that status. For instance, is there anything more riveting than seeing him come face to face with mobster and rival Nick Brown (Paul Kelly, who has a big offscreen story all his own that I won’t get into here), who attempts to shoot him in a night club, and who eventually gets taken out because Cagney plays everything smarter than him? The shootout in the restaurant is memorable because Eddie is put in danger by a friend, and because we are privy, and because Nick Brown is an asshole we want to see Eddie bury.
I wish I could say the same for Bogart, but this isn’t his story, it’s all about Eddie. Here, as in Angels With Dirty Faces, he plays the heavy – using his power at portraying ruthless, stone-faced and yet strangely soulful individuals to his advantage – but remaining second fiddle to Cagney. He hasn’t quite hit the stride he would in the 40s, with roles in mystery pictures and adventure thrillers where he would be paired with great female icons, and that’s part of what makes his work here so thrilling to watch. His star is in its infancy here, and it would be another three years before he really hit it big with his turns in High Sierra and Casablanca. Yet you see the glimmers of assuredness, that seasoned theater actor shining through, unafraid to do what the role requires. There’s a scene when George shoots a former commanding officer (and enemy during the war) who has become a policeman that is among the most amazing pieces of dramatic acting I’ve ever seen. His eyes are filled with crazy, desire drenching every aspect of his want, his need, to kill this man. He has made a promise that he is going to keep. And coming from Bogey, it’s no wonder we believe it. He made a whole career out of being that man who had to do something, whether it was as Sam Spade or any other tough guy. Bogart made you believe he was a capable man.
The Roaring Twenties is also unique for combining elements of different types of films from the period, namely newsreel. The effect of voice over narration and (what appears to be) archival footage is to make the film more realistic; more urgent. Remember, this film chronicles the period between World War I and 1929, which was only a decade before its release. It also looks back on this period with a sort of nostalgia, before the stock market crash and the current events in Europe. In fact, the stock market’s plunge plays a significant part in Eddie’s downfall, and makes him more sympathetic to period audiences because George makes it through with loads of dough.
But this picture is nonetheless all about star power. Whether it’s Cagney, Bogart or the great (and gorgeous, and talented, and, and, and) Priscilla Lane, the wattage of this film alone could power a whole city block by itself. It’s luminescent in the way few pictures are. Highly regarded, and a high point in the careers of two of cinema’s great leading men, The Roaring Twenties is fascinating for a number of reasons, and should be sought out by those unfamiliar with it. It’s a masterclass of 1930s filmmaking, and Raoul Walsh turns in some of his best work, as does everyone involved. I’ll take Cagney and Bogart any day, though, especially together, and definitely in a Warner Bros. gangster picture.