Warner Brothers helped usher in the gangster movie era in the early 1930’s with Pre-Code hits like LITTLE CAESAR and THE PUBLIC ENEMY, and at the decade’s end they put the capper on the genre with THE ROARING TWENTIES, a rat-a-tat-tat rousing piece of filmmaking starring two of the studio’s top hoods, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart , directed with the top down by eye-patch wearing macho man Raoul Walsh for maximum entertainment.
The film’s story was written by Mark Hellinger, a popular and colorful New York columnist in the Damon Runyon mold who based it on his encounters with some of the underworld figures he knew during that tumultuous era. Hellinger was later responsible for producing some of the toughest noirs of the late 40’s: THE KILLERS , BRUTE FORCE , THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS, and THE NAKED CITY. Jerry Wald, Richard Macauley, and Robert Rossen adapted Hellinger’s story for the screen, and the film has a novel way of moving through the decade via montage, nine of them to be exact!
WWI vets Eddie Bartlett, George Hally, and Lloyd Hart (Cagney, Bogie, Jeffrey Lynn) return home to vastly different circumstances. While Hally returns to saloonkeeping and Hart begins a law career, Eddie finds himself an out-of-work mechanic. Pal Danny Green (Frank McHugh) gives him a job driving hack, but when the Volstead Act goes into effect, Eddie becomes a bootlegger. He joins forces with saloon owner/hostess Panama Smith (Gladys George), and soon buys a fleet of cabs to deliver the hootch. Lloyd becomes his lawyer, and Eddie is off and running in the illegal booze business.
Sweet Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane), who once sent Eddie her picture during the war (she was a teen at the time), is trying to break into show business, so Eddie gets her a job as a singer in Panama’s joint. He’s infatuated with Jean, but she only has eyes for Lloyd. Meanwhile, competition in the rackets causes violence to escalate between Eddie and rival Nick Brown (Paul Kelly). George is working as Brown’s lieutenant, but double-crosses him to join forces with Eddie. Pal Danny’s body is dumped in front of Eddie’s nightclub, and the mobster goes for revenge against Brown, only to be double-crossed by that double-crosser George!
Times change, the stock market crashes, prohibition’s repealed, Lloyd and Jean get married, and Eddie hits the skids, crawling into a bottle with only loyal Panama by his side. Jean searches for and finds Eddie in a run-down gin joint and asks for help. Lloyd is now with the DA’s office, and George, still a top hood, wants to put him on ice. This last segment has the look and feel of an early Thirties Warners gangster pic, as the studio pays homage to itself and its films. The famous final scene featuring Cagney, pumped full of lead and dying on those snow covered church steps, with Panama uttering the memorable last line “He used to be a big shot”, is one of my favorites in cinema history.
The casting is perfect. Cagney is Cagney, and can do no wrong far as I’m concerned. Bogart is thoroughly despicable as rotten George, the kind of villain you want to “boo and hiss” at. Priscilla Lane is all sweetness as Jean, and even gets to sing some period songs like “Melancholy Baby”, “I’m Just Wild About Harry”, and “It Had to Be You”. But it’s Gladys George who steals this one as Panama, the proverbial “tough-dame-with-the-heart-of-gold”, a part usually reserved for the likes of Joan Blondell, Glenda Farrell, or Claire Trevor. Gladys was better known to audiences for “woman’s pictures” like VALIANT IS THE WORD FOR CARRIE and MADAME X, but here she gets down-and-dirty with the best of ’em. I don’t think Joan, Glenda, or Claire could’ve done it any better than Gladys, she’s that good, and should’ve been Oscar nominated. Gladys later reunited with Bogart as Miles Archer’s widow in THE MALTESE FALCON.
As you’d expect in a Warner Brothers film of this era, there are tons of Familiar Faces floating through the plot, way too many to mention them all here, so I’ll just list Elisabeth Risdon, Joe Sawyer, John Hamilton, Jack Norton (as a drunk, of course!), Eddie Acuff, Abner Biberman, Raymond Bailey (Mr. Drysdale from THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES!), Maurice Costello, Wild Bill Elliott, Bess Flowers, Donald Kerr, George Tobias, Ben Weldon, and Frank Wilcox, and let you find the rest! Happy hunting, film fans!