Saturday, August 30, 2014

Stubs – The Roaring Twenties

The Roaring Twenties (1939) Starring: James Cagney, Priscilla Lane, Humphrey Bogart, Gladys George, Jeffrey Lynn, Frank McHugh, Paul Kelly. Directed by Raoul Walsh. Produced by Hal B. Wallis (Executive Producer). Screenplay by Jerry Wald, Richard Macaulay, Robert Rossen. Story by Mark Hellinger.  Run Time: 106 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Drama, Gangster, Crime, Thriller

As we continue our look at films from 1939, next up is The Roaring Twenties, a gangster film starring James Cagney, Priscilla Lane and Humphrey Bogart. Based on a short story by Mark Hellinger, a journalist turned film writer/producer, The Roaring Twenties was the third and last time that Cagney and Bogart would appear in the same film. Their previous pairing in The Oklahoma Kid (1939), a Western, had not been a box office success. Known at the time for their work in gangster films, Warners returned to that genre for their last appearance together on film.

Three men from New York, Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney), George Hally (Humphrey Bogart) and Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn), meet in a foxhole at the close of World War I. The three speculate about their future plans after the war. Eddie wants to go back to his job as a mechanic, George plans to go back to being a saloon keep, even with the coming Prohibition, and Lloyd plans to take up his law practice.

Foxhole friends: Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn), Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney)
and George Hally (Humphrey Bogart) meet on the battlefield during World War I.

With the Armistice signed, the fighting ends, but not all American soldiers come home right away. Some, like Eddie, remain for months as a sort of police force. Since he doesn’t return home with the other troops, Eddie is first thought to have been killed. But when he does come home, he finds that things have changed. The job he was promised would be held back at the garage has been filled and prospects are slim to none.

Work is hard to come by and Eddie takes it out on a couple of guys who razz him at his old job.
One thing Eddie is looking forward to is meeting Jean Sherman, the female pen pal who has been writing to him while he was at war. She lives out on Long Island with her mother. He has his old friend and roommate, Danny Green (Frank McHugh), drive him out in his cab. Jean’s Mom (Elisabeth Risdon) tells Eddie that he’s their dream soldier, but Eddie is disappointed when Jean turns out to be a schoolgirl with an adult looking photo from a part in a school play. Eddie quickly and politely excuses himself.

Desperate for work, he decides to share driving Danny’s cab, with each taking a 12 hour shift. One night, a passenger asks Eddie to deliver a package for him to a night club run by Panama Smith (Gladys George), but Eddie is careless and the two are arrested for violation of the Volstead Act. Eddie takes the rap for Panama and gets thrown in jail when he doesn’t have the $100 for the fine the judge levies. But he’s not in jail for very long before Panama bails him out.

Eddie makes a delivery for a passenger and a life of crime begins.
Even though the actress playing the role is five years younger than Cagney, Panama is played as being an older and more experienced woman. She takes the young Eddie under her wing and sets him up in the bootlegging business. Eddie uses taxi cabs as a cover for their deliveries and uses Lloyd to make the purchases for him.

When he goes to collect from a deadbeat show producer, Eddie sees Jean dancing in the chorus. A few years have passed and she’s now of the age of consent. Eddies tries his best to woo her, but she rebuffs his initial advances. But Eddie is not easily dissuaded and makes another run at her the next night. He ends up taking her home via the train and walking her to her house after that. When they arrive at her house, Eddie finds out that her mother has died and that Jean is having to fend for herself. Eddie decides to help.

Eddie takes Jean home on the train. He's fallen in love. She hasn't.
On the train ride, she had sung him Melancholy Baby, so Eddie takes her to audition for a night club Panama helps run. While the manager is reluctant to hire Jean, Eddie insists and promises to make up the difference between the $35 a week the manager is willing to pay her and the $100 a week Eddie wants her to make.

Eddie continues to grow his business, but wants to move from bathtub gin to imported liquor. He approaches Nick Brown (Paul Kelly), who controls the import business, but Brown refuses to cut him in. Not willing to take no for an answer, Eddie takes a boat out to intercept the next shipment. Pretending to be Coast Guard, his crew boards the boat, only to find it is captained by his old friend George, who offers to throw in with Eddie against Nick.

When Eddie leads a group of men to intercept Nick Brown's imported liquor,
he finds his old friend George is the captain of the ship. A new business arrangement is hatched.
As they continue to grow their business, they go so far as to steal liquor from a government warehouse where more intercepted liquor intended for Brown has been taken. During the heist, George gets revenge on Pete Jones (Joe Sawyer), their demanding sergeant from the Army, now a security guard at the warehouse, killing him when he needn’t have.

Unbeknownst to Eddie, Lloyd and Jane have fallen madly in love with each other. Jane appreciates how much Eddie has done for him and, even though she doesn’t want to marry him, doesn’t want to hurt his feelings. But Lloyd insists that she tell Eddie that she doesn’t love him.

While she sings her next number, Melancholy Baby again, Nick confronts Eddie and George. A shootout ensues. That seems to be the last straw for Lloyd, who knows Eddie was involved in the warehouse robbery and the murder of Jones. But George isn’t so willing to let Lloyd walk away and threatens him if he ever talks about what he knows of their business.

George threatens Lloyd about ever divulging what he knows about their business.
Eddie buys the night club and tries to hold a meeting of the underworld leaders, including Nick, who is mysteriously missing. Meanwhile, George is starting to feel ignored by Eddie and doesn’t like being relegated to junior partner status. Danny, who had been sent by George to get Nick, is killed and his body is dumped in front of the night club. When Eddie wants to go get revenge on Nick, George refuses to go and even calls to warn Nick that Eddie is on his way.

Even though Nick arranges for an ambush, Eddie figures something’s up as soon as he enters. There is a shootout and Eddie kills Nick. Eddie suspects George tipped Nick off, but since he can’t prove it, he doesn’t kill him. When Eddie returns to the club, Panama informs him that Jean has quit and is in love with Lloyd. Eddie doesn’t want to hear this and leaves, but Lloyd and Jean have returned to tell him they’re in love. Before words are exchanged, Eddie decks Lloyd, but quickly apologizes and walks back to the night club.

He takes up drinking for the first time and doesn’t stop. And things go from bad to worse. When the stock market collapses in 1929, Eddie is forced to sell his cabs, all but one, to George to cover his investments. The Depression that follows hits the speakeasies hard and with falling profits, Eddie can’t pay for protection and gets shut down and he is arrested. The only person standing by him is Panama. Prohibition is repealed and we’re told that criminal elements have trouble coping in a nation determined to see a return to law and order (as if organized crime went away). But Eddie is clearly hurting financially and reduced to sleeping in flop houses and driving his lone taxi to make a living.

When the stock market crashes, Eddie needs money. George buys him out cheap,
 but leaves him one cab to drive. Lefty (Abner Biberman), one of George's lieutenants, looks on.
One of the fares he picks up at Christmastime is Jean. He doesn’t want to talk much, but Jean brags about Lloyd working in the DA’s office and that she and Lloyd have a four year old boy (that way we know how much time has passed) named Bobby. She invites Eddie in and Lloyd comes home. Lloyd tries to offer help, but Eddie insists he’ll be back on top someday. He warns Lloyd that George hasn’t forgotten his threat to kill him if Lloyd tells what he knows about their business.

The threat looms large as George sends his right hand man, Lefty (Abner Biberman), to pay Jean a call after Lloyd has gone to work. He tells her that if Lloyd doesn’t bury what the DA knows about George, Lloyd will end up being buried.

Jean takes the threat seriously and goes looking for Eddie to help. His meeting with Jean and Lloyd has scarred him. He spends his days drinking in a club where Panama has found a job as a singer and talking about Jean and her family. Panama is tired of hearing it, but lets Eddie keep talking. Both are surprised when Jean walks in.

Jean comes to Eddie for help when Lloyd receives death threats.
Eddie is unsympathetic to Jean’s plight, saying he would do the same thing if he was in George’s place. But Panama takes Jean’s side and urges Eddie to help her, because she and Lloyd have something to look forward to and that neither she nor Eddie does anymore. Realizing that Panama’s right, Eddie goes to talk to George on New Year’s Eve.
Eddie comes prepared for his talk with George.
But the talk doesn’t go well. Not only will George not lay off Lloyd, he fears Eddie, who admits to still being in love with Jean, will turn state’s evidence to help Lloyd. He tells Eddie that he has no choice but to bump him off. But Eddie doesn’t go easily, knocking out Lefty and pulling a gun on George. Telling him, "Here's one rap ya' won't beat..." Eddie kills a blubbering George. He manages to shoot his way out of George’s house, killing several of George’s men on his way out, but outside, with Panama witnessing, Eddie is shot in the back by another cohort and collapses on the steps of a nearby church. Panama runs to the fallen Eddie. The first policeman on the scene asks her a few questions while she is still cradling Eddie’s now lifeless body. When asked what’s his business, she informs the officer, "He used to be a big shot."

Panama comforts Eddie as he lay dying on the church steps.
The Roaring Twenties presents the bad guys, especially Eddie, as simply victims of the times they lived in.  While George has nominal plans for after the war, we’re shown that he likes killing, especially from a distance. He is not as good a soul as Eddie, which is why, of the two, the film focuses on that character. Eddie goes through the biggest transformation from mechanic to underworld leader. But he is turned into a criminal by the system, rather than his own doing. While he continues his criminal enterprise he really wants to settle down with Jean Sherman and get out of the racket. But even though he is rejected by her and ends up in the gutter, so to speak, he still rises to the occasion and does the right thing; the gangster as hero, which is what the Production Code actually feared most.

Gangster films have roots going back to near the beginnings of American film. The American Film Institute (AFI) defines the genre as centering on organized crime or maverick criminals in a 20th-century setting. One of the earliest examples is The Black Hand (1906), thought to be the earliest surviving example of the genre. D.W. Griffith directed perhaps the best known early example, The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), a short film about crime on the streets of New York City.

But the genre didn’t really take off until the 1930’s, when in the midst of the Great Depression; these films seemed to have been ripped from the headlines. Little Caesar (1931), Public Enemy (1932) and Scarface (1932), the first two from Warner Bros. the studio most closely associated with the genre, made stars of their lead actors Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Paul Muni and some feared, glamorized their protagonists. While all the gangsters met violent deaths, they still were shown as bucking a system which had harmed so many in the audience.

The “moral” leaders of the country were outraged at Hollywood, not only for peddling violence, but for the perception of sex and general amoral behavior in the movies. To avoid outside censorship, Hollywood adopted the Production Code, which stated what could and could not be depicted in its films. The genre that suffered most were the gangster films in their purest form as represented by the three films listed above.

Hollywood did not abandon the genre all together, but rather changed the focus to the side of law enforcement fighting criminals or gangsters looking for redemption. Cagney appeared in two films which epitomize this switch, G Men (1935), in which he plays James “Brick” Davis, a federal agent, and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), in which he plays Rocky Sullivan, a hardened criminal, who, in order to steer children from a life of crime, acts cowardly when put to death. These films could be as violent as their predecessors, but since it was law enforcement getting the glamorous treatment, the Production Code Administration gave these films its seal of approval.

The Roaring Twenties is a return of sorts to the gangster roots. The protagonist is once again a gangster, but this is presented as a moral tale. Based on a story by Mark Hellinger, there is a prologue decrying the events it was about to present, hoping as the working title indicated The World Moves On. The story is supposedly based on Hellinger’s own experiences as a newspaper reporter in the 1920’s.

Writer/Producer Mark Hellinger on who's experiences The Roaring Twenties is based.
Hellinger was a syndicated columnist appearing in 174 newspapers, hired by Jack Warner as a writer/producer. He started writing for Zit's Weekly, a theatrical publication in 1921. In 1923, he moved to the city desk of the New York Daily News and began to write a Sunday column called About Town. Intended by his editors to be filled with news and gossip about the Broadway Theater scene, Hellinger instead filled the inches with short stories in the vein of O’Henry. After he received enough fan mail, he was allowed to continue.

In 1928, Hellinger received a daily feature called Behind the News. In 1929, he moved to rival paper the New York Daily Mirror and began writing sketches for the Ziegfeld Follies, plays, magazine articles and short stories. He not only provided the story for The Roaring Twenties, but he also produced They Drive By Night (1940), High Sierra (1941), Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943), The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), The Killers (1946),  Brute Force (1947), The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) and The Naked City (1948), the latter which he narrated.

The Roaring Twenties, as noted above, was only the third and the last time Cagney and Bogart appeared together in a feature film, even though both had been on the Warner lot for a number of years working in similar films. The other two films were Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and The Oklahoma Kid (1939). But make no mistake, these were considered to be Cagney films in which Bogart appears. At this point in their careers, Bogart was still considered a B-movie actor and Cagney was the star. As such, when the two were on screen, Bogart’s character would eventually prove to be cowardly in the final confrontation with Cagney’s character.

By the time of this film, Cagney had developed a screen persona who was quick with the fists and had kinetic energy to burn. The Roaring Twenties would prove to be a milestone for Cagney, after which he would do more singing and dancing than gangster roles, most notably The Strawberry Blonde (1941) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), for which he would receive the Academy Award for Best Actor. He would return with great fanfare to the genre with White Heat (1949).

Even Priscilla Lane got billing over Bogart. Lane was hitting the top arc in her relatively short movie career about this time. She had made the very successful Four Daughters (1938) and its sequel Four Wives would also be released in 1939. Just to show Hollywood loved a sequel and a trilogy, she would star in Four Mothers (1941). She also appeared in Brother Rat (1938) and its sequel Brother Rat and a Baby (1940). While she would co-star in Saboteur (1942) and Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), she would give up acting for marriage and family.

Priscilla Lane plays Jean Sherman, the love interest of both Eddie and Lloyd.
Bogart was still a couple of years away from films like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942), films that would highlight his talent and after which his screen persona would back down to no man.

Bogart right shares a scene with Gladys George in The Roaring Twenties.
They would work together again in The Maltese Falcon (1941).
Panama was played by Gladys George, who had been a child actor working on the stage with her parents at the age of three. She found success on Broadway in Personal Appearance (1934), a comedy in which she starred. Her performance is credited with making the play a hit which ran for 501 performances at the Henry Miller Theatre. While she had made a few silent films in 1919 and 1920, her debut being in Red Hot Dollars (1919) when she was 14, she didn’t make a splash in Hollywood until 1936, when she was nominated for Best Actress for her role as Carrie Snyder in Valiant is the Word for Carrie (1936). Besides her role in The Roaring Twenties, George’s other notable roles include Ida Archer in The Maltese Falcon.

Jeffrey Lynn (Lloyd) was best known at the time for his role as Felix Deitz in Four Daughters, the same film which had made Priscilla Lane and her sisters stars. He would revive the role in the subsequent sequels, Four Wives and Four Mothers. He was auditioned for the role of Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind (1939), a part that would go to Leslie Howard. Lynn would appear in such films as The Fighting 69th (1940), again with Cagney and It All Came True (1940), opposite Bogart. Lynn would move to television when the medium was still relatively new and appear on a multitude of shows. His last appearance was on Murder, She Wrote (1987).

While we think of The Roaring Twenties as a Raoul Walsh film, he wasn’t the studio’s first choice; Anatole Litvak, best known on this blog for Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), had begun work on the film before pulling out. This marked the first film Walsh had directed at Warner Bros after several years at Paramount Pictures. Walsh had been directing and acting in films since 1913 when he directed his first film, The Pseudo Prodigal. He would also appear in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) as John Wilkes Booth. He would direct Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and appear alongside Gloria Swanson in Sadie Thompson (1928).

While acting and directing In Old Arizona (1929), an early sound Western, Walsh would lose an eye when a jackrabbit jumped through the windshield of a car he was driving. From that day on, he would wear his iconic eye patch. Walsh would be forced out of the picture and would never act again, though he would obviously continue to direct.

Director Raoul Walsh.
At Warner Bros, Walsh directed many of his best known films, including Dark Command (1940), They Drive By Night (1940), High Sierra (1941), The Strawberry Blonde, White Heat and worked on a series of Errol Flynn films including They Died With Their Boots On (1941), Desperate Journey (1942), Gentleman Jim (1942), Northern Pursuit (1943), Uncertain Glory (1944), Objective, Burma! (1945) and Silver River (1948). His last film was a Troy Donahue Western, A Distant Trumpet (1964).

The Roaring Twenties is in many ways an homage to the gangster films made earlier in the decade. Less gritty than the earlier films, this one makes up for it. While it has been said to have a documentary feel to it, one can see that film techniques and budgets had come a long way since the exploitation days of Little Caesar and The Public Enemy. This is an A-picture all the way, even employing graphics and special effects to explain the stock market’s rise and fall to an audience that no doubt still wore the scars from the crash. The characters are better developed and the story a little deeper than its predecessors, though the same rise and fall arc and ultimate death of the protagonist are repeated here. A little melodramatic at the end, as a fatally wounded Eddie stumbles and climbs steps so he can die in front of a church, perhaps symbolic of his salvation, but you forgive the little excesses.

A visual effect used to show the rise and fall of the stock market.
This is a tour-de-force for Cagney and one of the last films in which Bogart will take less than top-billing. He is an actor on the cusp of finally achieving the stardom in the 40’s Cagney had enjoyed for most of the 30's. I would highly recommend this film to anyone who enjoys classic films and especially gangster films.

The Roaring Twenties is available at

Free Shipping on All Orders Over $50!

No comments:

Post a Comment