The Roaring Twenties (1939)

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*. Pauline Kael: “The title and the names of the stars — James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart — make it sound like a lot more fun than it is. . . . The movie has a very mechanical and moralistic view of character; nobody ever says or does anything that surprises you.”
*. I’d agree with all this, and also say the same of another movie of three veterans returning home: The Best Years of Our Lives.
*. 1939 was the end of a lot of things, one of them being the first great era of the gangster film. James Cagney was sick of these parts and Humphrey Bogart’s career was going nowhere playing an endless stream of creepy gunsels. That would soon change. Cagney would be in Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1942 and wouldn’t play a gangster again until White Heat (1949). Bogie would do High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon in 1941. But as for now, 1939, what better time for gangster nostalgia?
*. Gangster nostalgia: a look back at the good ol’ days of Prohibition, the good ol’ days of the gangster film, and the good ol’ days (revived and improved) that the main characters here imagined they were going to enjoy on their return. No dice. When Rambo has a meltdown in First Blood about not being able to get a decent job he makes it sound like this was something new experienced by returning soldiers. It wasn’t.
*. A note on the etymology of nostalgia: it comes from a pair of Greek words meaning “home” and a wound or scar. So it’s a feeling very much in play here.
*. We start off with a written introduction to “this photoplay” by writer Mark Hellinger. He was sort of a big name at the time (dare I say he used to be a big shot?), but nobody much cared for his script, then or now. Cagney improvised a lot. I find it surprising that Hellinger would be given such prominent billing here, but writers were more important then.
*. After this we settle into a sprawling gangster film that’s overlain with a bunch of material that, while decent in itself, only weighs the movie down. Epic is a late development, a sign that a genre has begun to sprawl and bloat. There have been great gangster epics (The Godfather) and very bad ones (Once Upon a Time in America). Here we’re somewhere in the middle.

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*. The newsreel-style “March of Time” montage inserts (with special effects by Byron Haskin and composed by Don Siegel, I believe) are quite well done, especially the one for the Crash of 1929 with its ticker-tape Mammon and melting skyscrapers. But I don’t think they work with the rest of the movie. They give it a kind of epic flavour, but diminish the characters and their struggles, making them seem more like representative types.
*. The musical numbers cover a lot of hits, with “Melancholy Baby,” “Wild About Harry,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and “Had to Be You” all getting some air (and Lane doing her own singing). They’re great tunes, but the whole Eddie-Jean-Lloyd triangle is dull, and making Jean a nightclub singer is trite formula.
*. Am I the only one troubled by Priscilla Lane’s Jean? She is perfectly happy, at least for a while, to be a gangster’s moll (Eddie even gives her a tour of the still!), then opts for the square life while the getting is still good.
*. Then there’s Jeffrey Lynn’s Lloyd the lawyer. He’s a bore, and just as easily compromised as Jean, quickly becoming Eddie’s consigliere. He draws an arbitrary line after the warehouse robbery, but, as Bogie snarls at him, he came into this business with his eyes open.

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*. It seems almost as though the movie wants to be about the seduction of innocence, but all the main players give in to temptation pretty quickly, protesting hardly at all. I hardly think Lind is representative of “absolute good” and “the epitome of virtue and rectitude,” which is how Lincoln Hurst casts him in the DVD commentary. Everyone we meet here has dirt on their hands.
*. You should try and expand your vocabulary with every vintage gangster movie you see. I learned the word “gilpin” from this movie. It basically means a sucker. For some reason being a sucker is the one thing that Eddie is paranoid about. Perhaps he unconsciously recognizes that he’s too soft for the gangster life and it will be his undoing.

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*. When Cagney uses Lefty (Abner Biberman) as a human shield it must be one of the earliest examples of this happening in a movie. In The Black Pirate Douglas Fairbanks uses Sam De Grasse as a shield but De Grasse is already dead. Lefty is alive until he stops some bullets. This would go on to become a film cliché used for comic overkill effect in movies like Total Recall and Payback.
*. It’s New Year’s Eve, so that’s supposed to be snow on the steps of the church at the end. Movie snow rarely looks like real snow, but here it looks like sand.
*. Despite its credits, I don’t like this movie much. The energy is gone, the cycle played out. Neither Cagney nor Bogart wanted to be here and it doesn’t help that we end with a long, downbeat final act. It’s just a tired movie, wearing too many clothes, and a great last line doesn’t save it.

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