The 1939 gangster epic, The Roaring Twenties opens with newsreel footage of men like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Adolf Hitler. We watch as they give speeches and as armed soldiers march across Europe. For those of us watching in the present, these are figures from the past. For audiences in 1939, though, these were the men who were shaping both their present and their future.
A narrator informs us that the world has changed much over the past few years and that it’s on the verge of changing again. The world is preparing for war and who knows what society is going to look like afterwards. (Interestingly enough, at the time that The Roaring Twenties was released, the U.S. was officially neutral when it came to the war in Europe, with many politicians arguing that the U.S. should pursue an isolationist foreign policy. Though the film seems to be speaking to a nation that was already committed to war but that was actually not the case.) The narrator goes on to say that it’s easy to forget what America was like just 20 years ago. World War I was ending. Soldiers were returning home. Prohibition has just become the law of the land and, as a result, there was now a whole new way to make illicit cash. It was a different era, the narrator tells us, one that is running the risk of being forgotten.
With that narration, it’s made obvious that The Roaring Twenties is designed to be more than just a gangster film. It’s also a history lesson. With Americans aware that another war might be coming, perhaps they needed to be reminded of what happened during and after the previous one. By that same token, with people across the world already dying in the fight for freedom, perhaps Americans needed to be reminded of what happened the last time they allowed the government to take those freedoms away.
The Roaring Twenties tells the story of three men who first met in 1918, while they were all hiding out in a foxhole while a bloody and violent war rages all around them. (The narrator somewhat archly notes that the three men — like all the men who fought and died in World War I — had been told that they were making “the world safe for democracy.”) The three of them become friend while under fire and they remain friends when they return home to a war-weary nation that refuses to take care of its veterans. Unfortunately, that friendship doesn’t survive the roaring 20s.
George Holly (Humphrey Bogart) is a former saloon keeper who becomes a major bootlegger after the passage of prohibition. George is the type who takes pleasure in gunning down a 15 year-old during World War I. (“He’ll never make 16,” George says after pulling the trigger.) He doesn’t improve once he returns home but he does find a lot of success as a bootlegger. Soon, he’s got a mansion. He’s got bodyguards. He goes to the best clubs and owns the best clothes. Prohibition may have been meant to put George Holly out-of-business but instead it’s made him a rich and influential man.
Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn) is a college-educated idealist, one who becomes a lawyer once he returns home. Even the most successful of bootleggers needs a good lawyer but Lloyd refuses to compromise his belief in the law, even when it comes to helping out his friends. Lloyd will eventually end up working out of the district attorney’s office, where he builds cases against men like George Holly.
And finally, there’s Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney). Eddie is the film’s main character. He’s a criminal but, unlike George, he’s not totally corrupt. In many ways, he’s an idealist but he’s never as self-righteous as Lloyd. While his friends worry about their place and their role in society, Eddie is just trying to survive. Before he went off to war, Eddie was a mechanic but, once he returns, he discovers that his job has been filled. With no other work available, Eddie is finally hired to drive a cab. What is those cabs could be used to smuggle alcohol? Eddie finds himself working with Panama Smith (Gladys George) while, at the same time, going to war with Nick Brown (Paul Kelly). In between making and losing a fortune (due to both the end of prohibition and the 1929 stock market crash), Eddie falls in love with singer Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane). Because Eddie can’t leave the rackets, Jean ends up married to Lloyd instead.
The film follows these characters, from 1918 to 1933. Along the way, it also provides a critique of prohibition. Prohibition is presented as being a bad law, one that led to men like George Holly getting rich and which destroyed the lives of countless people. By making liquor illegal, the film argues, it also made it appealing to people who would have otherwise never had a drink. There’s a definite appeal to the forbidden. Interestingly enough, Eddie never takes a drink while he’s getting rich smuggling the stuff. It’s only after prohibition is repealed and Eddie finds himself once again reduced to driving a cab for a living that he becomes a drunk. Rich George and educated Lloyd might survive the end of prohibition by Eddie — who was as much a foot soldier during prohibition as he was during World War I — against finds himself cast out by a society that wants to forget about the national trauma that it’s just gone through. Eddie, however, isn’t going to go down without a fight. He’s played by James Cagney, after all.
The Roaring Twenties is a true classic. It works as a gangster movie, a historical epic, and a portrait of the side effects of out-of-control regulation. It tells the story about what happens when society becomes more interested in governing people than in helping them. Indeed, the film asks, what were men like Eddie Bartlett supposed to do when, after risking their lives for their country, they returned home to discover that their jobs were gone, rent had gone up, and the government wouldn’t even allow them to commiserate their sorrows over a cold beer? Who can blame America for rebelling? Who can blame the Eddie Barletts of the world for doing what they had to do to survive?
Finally, not only does The Roaring Twenties feature brilliant performances from genre veterans like Bogart and Cagney (in fact, this is a probably Cagney’s best gangster performance) but it also recreates the 20s with such skill that you can’t help but wish that you could have been a part of it. It all ends with a brilliant final scene on the steps of a church. “He used to be a big shot!” Yes, he was.
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