In the making-of featurette that accompanies The Roaring Twenties on Warner Home Video’s DVD, the consensus among the contributing film historians is how the movie is sort of the apex of the studio’s gangster series, but that would mean Roaring is the best of the bunch – which belittles the power of the original and far edgier gangster films made in 1931.
Like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, Roaring is set during the twenties when Prohibition was in, and the snooty law opened up new business opportunities for organized crime, but this 1939 production is actually two films: a nostalgia trip for story originator Mark Hellinger, and a best-of-compendium of James Cagney, who stepped away from sneering gun-toting meanies for almost 10 years until White Heat.
Cagney was clearly tired of the genre and needed an out, and Hellinger’s concept - fleshed out by writers that included future producer Jerry Wald and future auteur Robert Rossen (The Hustler) – offered an intriguing collection of characters that made it worthwhile to say ‘yes’ when the actor’s gut was probably in knots for agreeing to do more same old-same old.
The actor’s dilemma was simple: he was just too good at playing a crook, whether all-black, grey, or a good guy forced to take the wrong tracks to success. The screenwriters fashioned the role of Eddie Bartlett into a decent WWI vet who comes home and discovers his old boss didn’t bother to hold his job, work options were non-existent, and as a vet, no one seemed to care what he’d been through except his war buddies from the front: aspiring lawyer Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn), and psycho-killer George Hally (Humphrey Bogart).
Not unlike Public Enemy, there are characters who come home from the Great War, and encounter disillusionment and the lack of opportunities and support - a toxic coctail that pushes Eddie to a desperate career (even though there’s little doubt fellow vet and business partner George will either become a serial killer, or a hood who bumps off anyone he feels might be thinking mediocre criticisms of his methodology or twitchy behaviour).
Cagney’s Eddie is in fact the middle shade of what’s really three facets of one character: he’s the man who started out tough but good at heart, tried to maintain some fairness and trust during his subsequent crime career, but became a lethal force because it’s how one survives in a distrustful world. Ultimately, he falls from his royal chaise, and when humbled, finds an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past (including George’s bad ways), and redeem himself before bowing out.
That’s Eddie’s arc, but as a character, he’s a fascinating barometer of the limited mores filmmakers were allowed to play with onscreen, now that the Production Code was law. Like the prohibition of booze, the Code restricted the delivery between filmmakers and audiences of adult elements – here it’s behaviour, imagery, suggestiveness, dialogue, and relationships – so unlike the sexed-up Tom Powers from Public Enemy, Cagney’s new crime variation is a strangely asexual or virginal male.
Whereas Tom struggled with loving his Ma and wanting a lover with Ma characteristic (found in Jean Harlow’s character, Gwen Allen), Eddie never gets the girl nor wants to; he’s a workaholic who falls for aspiring singer Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane), but he maintains a respectful distance, shepherding her career and loving at arm’s reach without any touchy-feely moments; gifts of jewelry, a propped up singing career, and a crystal radio set are as his equivalents of a kiss.
That weird fidelity within a gangster film is goosed with Eddie never touching the alcohol he makes – any alcohol. Like a child, he drinks milk, and it’s only when he’s betrayed by a close friend that he steps into adulthood, experiences rage and jealousy, and goes on a long-term bender, pickling himself while the motherly older woman who does love him, Panama Smith (Gladys George), watches with sadness, and acts as his handler.
Panama clearly has a rapport with Eddie, but she’s no more than a Ma; even when Eddie is mentally drooling over Jean during a singing set at the club, he clutches Panama’s hand, transferring the affection he can’t share with Jean to the older woman that never leaves his side, and always gives him sage advice.
Any of the meanness and psychotic behaviour of Tom is distilled into the purely evil George, whom Bogart enlivens with beautifully rendered sneers, and eyes constantly scanning other characters for weaknesses. (One suspects he was channeling anger at studio brass into his character, being trapped in small parts. Bogie’s next film, The Return of Doctor X, would be his next punishment, playing a zombie.)
Lloyd’s desire to do lawyerly goodness begins when he bails out Eddie from jail after getting caught with booze, and one can see why Lloyd could keep a balance between practicing the law, and being the chief council for Eddie’s gang: it’s friendship, plus Eddie maintained an invisible buffer zone that ensures Lloyd remained the respectable face of the gang, unaware of any spilt blood or cruelty.
As a nostalgia trip, Roaring delivers the goods with gunfights, explosions, swanky clubs, hit songs, pretty women, and retro montages that give the film a semi-documentary feel – less so than Public Enemy, but more in tune with the newsreel style of the era, making the film literally feel like a story torn from the newspapers and adapted for the masses by former crime columnist Mark Hellinger (who also penned the film’s prologue).
Being produced during the Code years, the implied sleaze of the pioneering crime films is gone, and Eddie’s tale is a classic Code-approved redemption fable. While the first 2/3 of the film cover the group’s rise in crime circles, the last third is both short and rather perfunctory: once Eddie’s out, the whole redemption package happens in a few fast-paced scenes, thusly enabling movie patrons to leave cinemas knowing Crime Doesn’t Pay, because Eddie’s the Everyman who tried to have fun being bad, and lost so much because of poor moral judgment.
Director Walsh showed he had a flair for action, wry comedy, and mounting beautifully kinetic films, which is why Warner Bros. pushed him further up the A-list, directing the studio’s top macho talent. Walsh subsequently directed Bogart in High Sierra (1941), and a slew of Errol Flynn actioners, including the WWII propaganda films Objective, Burma! (1945), Uncertain Glory (1944), Northern Pursuit (1943), and the buddy actioner Desperate Journey (1942), re-using the same bunker / warehouse set!
WHV’s DVD includes another set of Warner Night at the Movies extras, including a short trailer for the Cagney-George Raft teaming (‘firebrands of the cinema!’) Each Dawn I Die, a Hearst newsreel with snippets from the World’s Fair (billed as a “$155 million dollar wonderland!”) and King George and Queen Elizabeth’s visit to ‘the new world’ (Quebec).
The musical short “All Girl Revue” (1940) is headlined by June Allyson (as The Mayor) and other crooning lasses in WAC uniforms, and features a Broadway hoedown in a train station and lots of legs, so the women can make New York City “pretty.” The songs by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin drape the short in a veneer of frivolous preciousness.
The comedy short “The Great Library Misery” deals with a newcomer to the big city who wants to take out James Hilton’s “We’re Not Alone,” but runs into a morass of bureaucratic nonsense. Starring Arthur Q. Bryan (the voice of Elmer Fudd!) as Mr. Smith, there’s a silly wraparound story of Smith applying for membership in “The Grouch Club,” but the short’s core is a generally amusing chronicle of an average guy jumping through boneheaded legal hoops and never quite getting the prize.
The last extra is the WB cartoon “Thugs with Dirty Mugs,” where copper Flat-Foot Flanagan (“with a Floy Floy”) tracks down Killer Diller and his gang for robbing national banks in numerical order (except #13), including ‘the Worst National Bank’ of America. The police ‘grill’ a (real) rat, and director Tex Avery breaks the third wall by having a “little tattle-tale” from the audience helping the cops. Brilliantly conceived lunacy with “Jeepers Creepers” constantly worming its way through the soundtrack, and a finale appropriated and integrated into the Simpsons main title sequence!
The cartoon connection to the film also goes beyond the caricature of Edward G. Robinson, as the Roaring Twenties score contains the Eubie Blake classic “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” used many times in WB cartoons, particularly “Yankee Doodle Daffy” (1943) with Dafft Duck crooning the song with slight modifications in the lyrics about shouting and shooting off one’s mouth.
The included making-of featurette provides a compact overview of the film within the gangster genre, with comments from various film historians and director Martin Scorsese. Lincoln Hurst’s audio commentary is filled with ephemera, and should provide a number of details unknown by genre fans.
This title is available separately or as part of the 4-film set TCM Greatest Gangster Films, which includes Little Caesar (1931), Smart Money (1931), The Public Enemy (1930), and The Roaring Twenties (1939).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan