The Roaring Twenties
It’s hard to beat James Cagney for guaranteed entertainment. The rough and rugged iconic “hoodlum” was extremely appealing to depression weary audiences of the 1930s. By the time 1939 rolled around the New York native was one of the biggest stars Warner Bros. had, or would ever have. And The Roaring Twenties, considered to be the last great gangster movie, is one of the films that cemented the esteemed actor’s legacy.
Although the title is not immediately identifiable as a Cagney picture, make no mistake this is exactly the type of film for which the lovable thug is best known. Set in the years and decade after the First World War, The Roaring Twenties follows the exploits of three men (Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Jeffrey Lynn) whose paths happen to cross in a European trench. Back home through happenstance the trio end up partners in the profitable trade of bootlegging. Eventually Cagney is forced out by Bogart, looses all his money on the stock market and realizes his girl is in love with the straight and narrow Lynn. *SPOILER* In a final honorable gesture Cagney takes on Bogart and saves Lynn’s life before performing one of the greatest death scenes ever caught on film.
From beginning to end Cagney is nothing short of brilliant as the likable guy just trying to get by the best he can when prewar promises are left unfulfilled after the war. He tries to return to the life he had before, but the world has changed and he’s got to change too or be trodden under. Much like Robert De Niro’s Vito Corleone in the Godfather II Cagney is not a bad guy, but once he is exposed to the ways of the streets he adapts and becomes a proficient learner. It is only his unflinching trust and heart felt concern for others that leads to his ruin. His disappointment and acceptance wash beautifully across his face as he realizes his ultimate destiny. This is Cagney at his nuanced best.
Not just another gangster film, the story provides a variety of depth through Cagney’s personal relationships. Priscilla Lane (Saboteur, Arsenic and Old Lace) and Gladys George (The Maltese Falcon, The Best Years of Our Lives) are the good girl and speakeasy moll who vie for Cagney’s affections. Lane does an admirable job with a potentially lackluster, goody-two-shoes role, but George is simply terrific as the woman Cagney leans on but never considers a suitable object of his affections. Indeed, George gives the best performance of her career as the silently tortured shady lady who stands by Cagney till the very end, adroitly delivering one of the best final lines in cinema history. A line that doubles as a final ode to gangster films in general.
The men are pretty damn good too. Bogart is particularly so in the secondary role of a hotheaded gangster. The part could easily have swayed into a two dimensional characterization as written, but this is Bogart. And although he was still in the shadow of Cagney at the time this picture was produced one can easily see the charm and charism of the icon who was about to emerge. This is most apparent in his final scene with Cagney when he reveals the true colors of a pushy crime boss while making a pathetic attempt to win over his old partner.
Lynn is solid as the nice guy, but it is character actor Frank McHugh who shines playing Cagney’s oldest and truest friend. McHugh’s bumbling antics are intended as comic relief but he immediately endears himself to the audience in the scene where he and Cagney meet for the first time after the war. The two real life friends apparently threw the awkward and overly dramatic script to the side and mostly improvised what they felt would be a true to life reunion of a couple of New York buddies. The sincerity works to set up a strong bond that will lead to one of Cagney’s greatest heart aches later in the film.
Much of the success of the picture has to be credited to director Raoul Walsh. The Roaring Twenties was his first film at Warner Bros. and marked a turning point in his career. Although he had been directing since the silent era and had introduced John Wayne to the world in The Big Trail, Walsh hadn’t made any films of significance until he began working at Warner and collaborated with three of the biggest legends of the era. Warner Bros. is where Walsh worked with Cagney on his signature film, White Heat, with Bogart on High Sierra and Errol Flynn on They Died with Their Boots On.
Due to the sensational events of the era many have tried to duplicate the success of The Roaring Twenties, but I doubt that is likely to ever happen. We are far too removed from the experience of the time to aptly do the period justice. Whereas, the filmmakers here still had the memories of the decade fresh in their minds and hearts. And as hard as anyone may try, no actor will ever be able to match the magnetism of James Cagney (let alone Bogart). He was the perfect balance of good and bad, tough and tender, sinister and charming. Cagney epitomizes the man of the New York streets from the Golden Age of Hollywood. As good as the film is, without Cagney, The Roaring Twenties just wouldn’t work.