Saturday, June 11, 2016
ROARING TWENTIES, THE
(October 1939, U.S.)
During Hollywood's "Golden Age of Cinema" (and exactly which decade that was is still a debatable point among those who know cinema best - I say it was the 1940s, but that's me!), the gangster film was a common or even a stereotypical sort of picture. They almost always took place during the time of Prohibition in America and if you've kept track well enough, a good many of them starred Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney, they featured rather hot blonde women (or dames, as they were affectionately referred to), and sometimes those dames even sang a song or two (too many songs in this film!) in the speakeasy they worked in. Raoul Walsh's THE ROARING TWENTIES not only conforms to the small checklist I just outlined (it actually stars both Cagney and Bogart), but it also may be the best gangster film that accurately describes the saga of Prohibition from its inception up to when it was finally repealed thirteen years after it began. This is fiction, mind you, so historical accuracy of the era may be taken with as much belief or disbelief as you're willing to offer. For a true and dead-on account of the era, I highly recommend Ken Burns' three-part PBS documentary PROHIBITION. It's fantastic!
As a gangster film, THE ROARING TWENTIES begins differently in as it introduces us to its main characters of Eddie Bartlett (Cagney), George Hally (Bogart) and Lloyd Hart (played by Jeffrey Lynn) when they're World War I foxhole soldiers in France simply trying to survive combat. The idea of criminal activity and a criminal lifestyle is not even a thought in their minds yet. Once back home, however, the Prohibition laws of the 18th Amendment that take effect at the start of the year 1920 offer new money-making opportunities to men who may not have even been able to previously secure a simple, straight job to keep a roof over their heads. Eddie and George are immediately sucked into the new life of bootlegging and the vast riches it brings. Even while a good man like Lloyd opens his own law practice, it's not too long before he's using his legal services to protect his old pals and their illegal businesses. And, of course, with this sort of business comes the inevitable violence that accompanies it. While George, like the stereotypical killer-type that seems to go so well with gangster films, is more than happy to shoot it out with the best of them, Eddie practices restraint when he feels it's necessary, particularly in moments of friendship and loyalty. In fact, it's friendship and loyalty that finally pushes Eddie over the edge when he's compelled to avenge the murder of an old friend by his enemies in crime.
Like Prohibition itself, the life and times of our gangster "heroes" are not meant to last forever. For as illegal booze has given riches of plenty to men like Eddie and George, it also takes away almost immediately after the infamous stock market crash of 1929 and Prohibition's repeal. Eddie is now a man in debt who's wealth is slowly draining right up until he's dead broke and merely a shell of the man and the "big shot" he used to be, as his girlfriend Jean (played by Priscilla Lane) puts it (you almost have to feel sorry for the poor bastard!). George, on the other hand, being a little more resourceful, underhanded and violent in his methods, manages to hold onto his crime syndicate a while longer, until he and his ol' pal Eddie must come face-to-face with each other in which neither of them will survive the bullets that fly.
As previously mentioned, this film, in my opinion, best describes the true chronological events of the Prohibition era largely in part due to its narration by John Deering. In between the fictional events of Eddie and George and their life of crime, we're given a look at the life of the average citizen during an era when liquor was declared illegal. We're meant to try and understand just how the unpopular laws of the time affected the average person who was still dying to have a drink or two, illegal or not. By the time the Great Depression has begun at the start of the 1930's, the unpopularity and the ineffectiveness for the U.S. government to uphold the Volstead Act tells us just how the laws are repealed, how the liquor flows again in great (and legal) quantities and how men like Eddie Bartlett and George Hally are put out of business...permanently.
The year 1939 has long been considered Hollywood's greatest year, with titles like GONE WITH THE WIND, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, WUTHERING HEIGHTS and THE WIZARD OF OZ, just to name some. It could have been very easy for what only seemed like a common gangster picture to be overlooked by the moviegoing public back then. That would have been unfortunate. In a vast array of gangster pictures that seemingly don't change much, THE ROARING TWENTIES stands out not only in it's educated depiction of an important part of American history, but also in its performances and dialogue by talented, legendary actors without offering too much camp or fluff in the life and depiction of the common bad guy. Director Raoul Walsh and James Cagney would come together again many years later to give us, perhaps, Cagney's greatest film, WHITE HEAT.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Narrator: "1929. As the dizzy decade nears its end, the country is stock market crazy. The great and the humble...the rich man and the working man...the housewife and the shop girl. All take their daily flyer in the market, and no one seems to lose. Then like a bombshell comes that never-to-be-forgotten Black Tuesday, October 29. Confusion spreads throughout the canyons of New York's financial district, and men stare wild-eyed at the spectacle of complete ruin. More than sixteen and a half million shares change hands in a single day of frenzied selling. The paper fortunes built up over the last few years crumble into nothing before this disaster which is to touch every man woman and child in America."