Friday, April 12, 2013

The Roaring Twenties: The Biggest Shot of Them All

This is my contribution to the James Cagney Blogathon, hosted by The Movie Projector. Click HERE for more, more, more about Mr. Cagney, the man who could do it all.
Simply Irresistible
Before I dive into this film, let me first say that, in my book, James Cagney could do no wrong. I love almost every one of his films, and the ones I don't love have nothing to do with Jimmy's performance. He was my first movie-crush and you know those crushes never die. Never before or since was there one actor with so much talent, charm, intensity, menace, humor and total charisma. He was one of a kind.

The Roaring Twenties

While ostensibly a Warner Brothers gangster film, 1939's Roaring Twenties is really a buddy movie. True, the ties of buddy-dom are pushed to the limit, but the bonds of friendship formed in the trenches of World War I is the key to one man's rise and one man's fall.
Bonding in the Trenches
Eddie Barlett (James Cagney), George Hally (Humphrey Bogart) and  Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn) are foxhole buddies who return home to find the world has changed. After the Armistice, Lloyd comes home to a shaky law practice and Hally, once a saloon keeper, joins the ranks of the bootleggers in the wake of the newly passed prohibition law. Eddie returns home and finds his previous job as a garage mechanic gone. At the suggestion of his friend Danny (Frank McHugh - what would a Cagney film be without him?), Eddie starts driving a cab. Eddie soon hooks up with speakeasy proprietress Panama Smith (a terrific Gladys George), and they go into the bootlegging business together. Eddie builds up a fleet of cabs for liquor runs and even hires old buddy Lloyd as his lawyer, just to keep him out of trouble. The buddy trio is reunited when Eddie gets involved in a nasty gang war with Nick Brown (the almost always nasty Paul Kelly) and he and Hally join forces.

When the one you love loves someone else...
Eddie is sweet on Jean, but Jean is sweet on Lloyd
Of course, a love story kind of gums up the works. Panama loves Eddie, but Eddie loves Jean (Priscilla Lane), who was his wartime pen pal. Meanwhile, Jean loves Lloyd. Eddie gets Jean a job singing at Panama's club, but once Jean and Lloyd set eyes on one another, it's curtains for Eddie.

Now, Eddie is such a nice bootlegger (he drinks milk) and Hally is such a nasty one, you know that their partnership won't last. Hally, the heartless so-and-so, shoots the night watchman at a liquor warehouse, even though he recognizes him as his old sergeant. This pushes the basically decent Lloyd to the limit and he quits the racket. But, we all know you can never just walk away.

While Eddie rises in the rackets, he still has to contend with Nick Brown. In an effort to arrange a truce, Eddie sends his pal Danny to make peace, but Brown sends Danny's dead body back to Eddie as his response. Eddie plans a reprisal, but Hally, jealous of Eddie's power, tips off Brown, who sets a trap. Eddie kills Brown, but now he knows he can no longer trust Hally.

Now, you'd think Eddie would stay focused on saving his skin, but when Jean tells him that she and Lloyd are going to marry, he falls apart. There's nothing better than a love-sick tough guy with a tender heart. Loosing everything in the 1929 crash, he is forced to sell his fleet of cabs to Hally, who leaves him just one (to drive).
Eddie has hit the skids
And so, the mighty have fallen. Eddie is now driving his cab, drinking booze instead of milk and eating his heart out. One day Jean enters his cab and although he initially gives her the cold shoulder, he eventually wishes her and Lloyd, now with the District Attorney's office, and their young son, well. When Eddie learns that Hally has threatened to kill Lloyd unless he drops his case against him, Eddie appeals to Hally to call it off. When Hally refuses  Eddie shoots him. As he flees, he is mortally wounded by one of Hally's men. This sets up one of the greatest death scenes ever filmed. Eddie, wounded, staggers and collapses on the snowy steps of a church. As he lays dying, the ever-faithful Panama runs to him and cradles him, Pieta-like, in her arms. When a cop asks her who he is, her answer is only "he used to be a big shot."
Cagney's unforgettable death scene
As usual, Cagney doesn't get a leading lady worthy of him, although Gladys George, as the lovelorn floozy Panama, is unforgettable. This would be Bogart's last appearance with Cagney and he is his usual despicable self before bigger and better roles beckoned.

Based on a story by Mark Hellinger and directed by Raoul Walsh, this film was an homage to not only the 1920s, but to the great Warner Brothers gangster films of the 30s. Almost a decade after the 20s had ended, Hollywood finally could come to grips with those years and the effect the first World War had on a lost generation. Never again would Cagney's gangster be so sympathetic, so pure, so fundamentally decent. The Roaring Twenties was a fitting tribute to all of those dirty rats that started with The Public Enemy's Tom Powers and ended with Eddie Bartlett's poetic death on the steps of a church.



36 comments:

Cynthia said...

I too, have always had a soft spot for James Cagney. He was loaded with charisma! This is a film I'll put on my list to see. Thank you for such a through post. I love reading your reviews.

Cynthia said...

I meant thorough! Sorry for the typo.

John/24Frames said...

One of my top Cagney films and favorite gangster films in general. The ending is iconic with the line, “he use to be a big shot,” uttered by Gladys George. An uncle of mine introduced me to this film years ago. He loved the film, talked about it all the time and must have seen over and over again. The next time it popped up on TV I watched it and became a fan. Classic stuff!

Caftan Woman said...

It would have to be a movie from 1939, wouldn't it? The year of the greats. Everything we think we know about the 1920s comes from this terrific picture. You sure know your Cagney!

Kevin Deany said...

This is one of about three pictures I would show someone who had never seen a James Cagney movie before. Everything you want in a Cagney movie is in "The Roaring Twenties." An unforgettable film.

said...

Great, Marsha! I'm so happy to see so many James Cagney's fans in this blogathon, and all the compliments we have for him!
Bogie and Priscila Lane only add to Jimmy. I wish he had worked more with Bogie!
Kisses!

Samantha said...

Absolutely fabulous blog. I loved every word. James Cagney is a favorite of mine.

movieclassics said...

Totally agree with your views on Cagney in general, and this film in particular - he could do no wrong and this is one of his finest. It's hard to see how on earth Priscilla Lane could fall for Jeffrey Lynn instead - I remember that Richard Schickel refers to his character as "talk, dark and boring"! But Lane is great anyway and Gladys George is excellent as Panama Smith. You have made me want to see this again soon. Judy

R. D. Finch said...

Flick Chick, I hadn't thought of the film in quite this way before, but I think you're right that it is the swan song of the fabulous Warners gangster pictures of the 30s. By the time of "High Sierra" that kind of movie had moved on towards film noir.

This is a Cagney film I came late to but after reading such praise for it from John Greco and others finally got around to watching a couple of years ago, and I just love it. For me it's one of the most memorable films of 1939, one that tends to get overlooked when people talk about that year. I think what I like best about the film is that the story doesn't just start in the middle of Prohibition but follows the same group of characters from WW I up to the film's present. Cagney's rise and fall is a slow one compared to other gangster films he made, and that gives time to suggest how the changing social and legal milieu affects characters and events.

Cagney is, as always, fantastic, his tough screen persona moderated by greater intelligence and sensitivity than he was usually allowed to show. I absolutely agree with what a scene-stealer Gladys George is. I do find Priscilla Lane rather bland, though, and Jeffrey Lynn even blander.

I'm glad you chose to write on this film for the Cagney Blogathon because it is in many ways the end of the run of 30s gangster pictures Cagney was best known for, and in its way it a summation of all those pictures of this type Cagney made in that decade.

KimWilson said...

Your synopsis was entertaining--to say the least. I saw this years ago and couldn't get over what an SOB Bogart's character was. Great review.

Patti said...

Flick Chick, I'm with you on James Cagney. He could do no wrong. I honestly believe he is the most sensational actor there has ever been. I adore him too!! (Of course, I'm also in love with a few other guys as well!!)

I love this movie. It's high on my list of Cagney faves. And, you're right, his Eddie is the kind of gangster you really feel for. Much as I love the characters of Tom Powers, Rocky Sullivan, and Cody Jarrett, they aren't the kinds of guys who bring about a tenderness of spirit. They're cold-hearted through and through, yet Eddie Bartlett isn't like that at all. You really find yourself wishing things would turn out for him. (I do anyway.)

I love Gladys George anyhow, and I think she's really great in this role.

By the way, you know me, I'm always spouting off information I learned in biographies. I learned in John Garfield's bio that he was to have been in this film...in Jeffrey Lynn's role. He didn't drop out...Rossen was instructed to rewrite the part for Jeffrey Lynn to play.

Thanks for such a great piece about a terrific film. It is a great addition to the blogathon.

FlickChick said...

Thank you so much, Cynthia. I really do appreciate your comments and taking the time to read my articles.

FlickChick said...

John/24 - it really is just kind of special, isn't it? So much like the others, but more so.

FlickChick said...

CW - well, I don't know much, but I do know my Cagney (sitting through the night at that flickering screen).

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Kevin - I totally agree. This one is special.

FlickChick said...

Le - poor Bogie - he always got his pants kicked by Cagney! I'll be he was glad when he didn't have to make any more films with Jimmy!

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Sam -I love my Jimbo.

FlickChick said...

Judy - I agree about Jeffrey Lynn. Really! I would have been wearing one of those gangster-moll evening gowns the minute I met Jimmy!

FlickChick said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comments, RD. Even though this is a Warners gangster film, it is much more than that. And thanks again for hosting this wonderful event. Everyone did a great job.

FlickChick said...

Hi Kim. Yes - Bogie was always the nasty so-and-so with Cagney. It's funny how opposite their styles are - Cagney so fast and Bogie slow, deliberate, menacing - so noir and so up and coming.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Patti - no matter how bad Cagney's bad boys were in the 30s, there was always something appealing about those characters. All of that changed in the 40s and beyond. Cagney and the 30s were so special together.

grandoldmovies said...

What I've never understood in this film is why Priscilla Lane chooses Jeffrey Lynn. Who would choose Lynn when you could have CAGNEY? Excellent read on one of Cagney's iconic roles. His eyes are so soulful, and so filled with feeling, it's almost painful to watch him. And as you point out, it has one of his greatest death scenes, which always gives me chills to watch. Somehow, no matter how many times I see it, I always keeps hoping that the film will end differently; Cagney is that sympathetic in his role.

The Lady Eve said...

The line at the end, "He used to be a big shot" - what a classic, it kills me every time. Really great reflection, Chick, on one of my very favorite Cagney films. Now I want to watch it again (thank you). Always love Cagney and adorable Frank McHugh together and, if Cagney had ever said, "Mmmm, you dirty rat!" he should've said it to Bogart. Again, superb piece. Agree with GOM in wondering how Priscilla Lane (or anyone) go for dull Jeffrey Lynn over crackling-with-life Cagney. Not to be believed!

Ken Anderson said...

This is another favorite Cagney film of mine, and I so enjoyed reading your post. Particularly your first words declaring your undying love for your first movie crush. It's hard to argue with you there. Cagney rarely ever faltered. I haven't seen this film in several years, but your post makes me feel it's time for a revisit. Thanks!

Rick29 said...

I very much enjoyed your take on THE ROARING TWENTIES...I never thought of a buddy film before. But yes, I can see it in that perspective. I always delight in your subtle sense of humor (e.g., "Of course, a love story kind of gums up the works").

FlickChick said...

GOM - I know! It's probably more the character than Priscilla Lane that irks me, but I still blame Priscilla for breaking Jimmy's heart.

FlickChick said...

Thanks ever so, Lady Eve. Bogey is so mean in this. I am beginning to think one of the reasons I can't love Bogey is because of how mean he was to Cagney is all of his movies.

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Rick - of course love gums it up - doesn't it always??

Classicfilmboy said...

Very nice ... I think you nailed it in the end by placing the film in context with "Public Enemy." It was a decade-long span of evolution for his films and him as an actor.

Christian Esquevin said...

Great summation FlickChick, of Cagney and company in the aftermath of WWI. You are right about Cagney's death scene- but then Cagney always dies in style. Thanks for covering this classic.

FlickChick said...

Classicfilmboy - I kind of get very sad watching this film - bye, bye lovable gangster; hello noir nuts.

FlickChick said...

Christian - Cagney has a much better death scene than Bogey, that's for sure!!

Silver Screenings said...

I really like how you put this: "Never again would Cagney's gangster be so sympathetic, so pure, so fundamentally decent."

Thanks for such an enjoyable review of this iconic film.

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Silverscreenings. I know people love noir, but I long for the days when even a killer was a nice guy.

Dawn Sample said...

I do not know much about the classic actor, James Cagney. This blogathon has really helped me learn more about him and his films...

Patricia Gallagher said...

I've always been a big Cagney fan; the combination of Cagney and Bogart makes this a movie that cannot be missed. My dad was a Bogart fan (loved Cagney, but Bogart was his man). This was his favorite film. And has one of his favorite movie lines: "Your Aunt Sadie from Jersey City" (his Mom's nickname was Sadie).