An Offer You Can’t Refuse #7: The Roaring Twenties (dir by Raoul Walsh)


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.

This is definitely an offer not to refuse.

Previous Offers You Can’t (or Can) Refuse:

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface
  3. The Purple Gang
  4. The Gang That Could’t Shoot Straight
  5. The Happening
  6. King of the Roaring Twenties: The Story of Arnold Rothstein 

Crashing Out: Humphrey Bogart in HIGH SIERRA (Warner Brothers 1941)


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Humphrey Bogart played yet another gangster in Raoul Walsh’s HIGH SIERRA, but this time things were different. Bogie had spent the past five years at Warner Brothers mired in supporting gangster parts and leads in ‘B’ movies, but when he read John Huston and W.R. Burnett’s screenplay, he knew this role would put him over the top. James Cagney and Paul Muni both turned it down, and George Raft was penciled in to star, until Bogie put a bug in his ear and Raft also refused it. Bogart lobbied hard for the role of Roy Earle, and his instincts were right: not only did HIGH SIERRA make him a star at last, it led to him getting the lead in his next picture THE MALTESE FALCON , the directorial debut of his good friend Huston.

Roy Earle is an old-school criminal pardoned from an Indiana prison thanks to the machinations…

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Pre Code Confidential #26: THREE ON A MATCH (Warner Brothers 1932)


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Mervyn LeRoy is usually talked about today as a producer and director of classy, prestige pictures, but he first made his mark in the down-and-dirty world of Pre-Code films. LeRoy ushered in the gangster cycle with LITTLE CAESAR, making a star out of Edward G. Robinson, then followed up with Eddie G in the grimy tabloid drama FIVE STAR FINAL . I AM A FUGITVE FROM A CHAIN GANG tackled brutal penal conditions in the South, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 featured half-naked showgirls and the Depression Era anthem “Remember My Forgotten Man”, and HEAT LIGHTNING was banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency! LeRoy’s style in these early films was pedal-to-the-metal excitement, and THREE ON A MATCH is an outstanding example.

The film follows three young ladies from their schoolgirl days to adulthood: there’s wild child Mary, studious Ruth, and ‘most popular’ Vivien. I loved the way writer Lucien Hubbard’s…

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THE MALTESE FALCON is the Stuff Film Noir Dreams Are Made Of (Warner Brothers 1941)


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1941’s THE MALTESE FALCON may not be the first film noir (most people agree that honor goes to 1940’s STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR ). It’s not even the first version of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective story – there was a Pre Code film with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade that’s pretty good, and a 1936 remake titled SATAN MET A LADY with Warren William that’s not. But first-time director John Huston’s seminal shamus tale (Huston also wrote the amazingly intricate screenplay) virtually created many of the tropes that have become so familiar to fans of this dark stylistic genre:

THE HARD-BOILED DETECTIVE – Private investigators had been around since the dawn of cinema, from Sherlock Holmes to Philo Vance to Charlie Chan, but none quite like Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade. Both Cortez and William played the character as flippant skirt-chasers, but in Bogie’s hands, Sam Spade is a harder…

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Face the Darkness: Bogie & Bacall in DARK PASSAGE (Warner Brothers 1947)


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“Tuesdays in Noirvember” concludes with the genre’s biggest icon, Humphrey Bogart (and he’s bringing Lauren Bacall along for the ride!):

The year 1947 belonged to filmnoir, as some of the dark genre’s true classics saw the light of day: Robert Mitchum donned that iconic trenchcoat in OUT OF THE PAST , Richard Widmark snarled his way through KISS OF DEATH, Burt Lancaster battled sadistic Hume Cronyn with BRUTE FORCE , Tyrone Power got trapped in NIGHTMARE ALLEY , Rita Hayworth bedeviled Orson Welles as THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI , Ronald Colman won an Oscar as a cracked actor leading A DOUBLE LIFE, and Lawrence Tierney terrorized the hell out of everyone in his path in BORN TO KILL . Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, noir’s power couple thanks to the previous year’s THE BIG SLEEP , teamed again for DARK PASSAGE, an slam-bang crime drama that may not…

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The Big Let-Down: THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (Warner Brothers 1947)


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You would think THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS is just the type of movie I’d love. It’s a Warner Brothers pic from the 1940’s, it’s got Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck , there’s mystery and murder, a Gothic atmosphere… and yet, I didn’t love it, or particularly like it, either. For the first three-quarters, it’s too mannered, slow-moving, and (the cardinal sin) boring for my tastes. Things do pick up a bit towards the end, with Bogie menacing Babs alone in that gloomy mansion, but the denouement failed to satisfy me.

There are a number of reasons why the movie just doesn’t work. It was filmed in 1945, but held back two years by the studio for some reason or another (reports vary). Director Peter Godfrey, a Stanwyck favorite, just wasn’t up to the task of creating much suspense. Then again, the screenplay by Thomas Job practically gives everything away early…

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Moanin’ Low: On Claire Trevor and KEY LARGO (Warner Brothers 1948)


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John Huston’s filmnoir KEY LARGO is a personal favorite, and a bona fide classic in its own right that works on many different levels. Much of its success can be credited to the brilliant, Oscar-winning performance of Claire Trevor as Gaye Dawn, the alcoholic ex-nightclub singer and moll of gangster Johnny Rocco (played with equal brilliance by Edward G. Robinson ). The woman dubbed by many “Queen of Noir” gives the part a heartbreaking quality that makes her stand out among the likes of scene stealers Robinson, Humphrey Bogart , Lauren Bacall , and Lionel Barrymore .

Claire Trevor (1910-2000) arrived in Hollywood in 1933, and almost immediately became a star. Her early credits include playing Shirley Temple’s mom in BABY TAKE A BOW (1934), the title role in the Pre-Code drama ELINOR NORTON (also ’34), Spencer Tracy’s wife in the bizarre DANTE’S INFERNO (1935), and the reporter out…

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Cleaning Out the DVR #17: Film Noir Festival 3


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To take my mind off the sciatic nerve pain I was suffering last week, I immersed myself on the dark world of film noir. The following quartet of films represent some of the genre’s best, filled with murder, femme fatales, psychopaths, and sleazy living. Good times!!

I’ll begin chronologically with BOOMERANG (20th Century-Fox 1947), director Elia Kazan’s true-life tale of a drifter (an excellent Arthur Kennedy ) falsely accused of murdering a priest in cold blood, and the doubting DA (Dana Andrews ) who fights an uphill battle against political corruption to exonerate him. Filmed on location in Stamford, CT and using many local residents as extras and bit parts, the literate script by Richard Murphy (CRY OF THE CITY, PANIC IN THE STREETS, COMPULSION) takes a realistic look behind the scenes at an American mid-sized city, shedding light into it’s darker corners.

Andrews is solid as the honest…

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Here’s Looking at You On The Big Screen, CASABLANCA!


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Longtime readers of this blog know CASABLANCA is my all-time favorite film. It’s blend of stars, supporting cast, script, direction, drama, romance, and humor is the perfect example of 1940’s Hollywood storytelling,  when Tinseltown was at the peak of its moviemaking powers . I’ve seen the film at least 80 times in many different formats, from broadcast television to cable and satellite, from VHS to DVD to DVR, but never before on the big screen – until this past Sunday, that is!

Fathom Events, in conjunction with TCM, presents classic films on a monthly basis in theaters across the country. In my area, they’re shown at Regal Cinemas in Swansea, MA, a half hour drive down the highway. I’ve been tempted to make the trip a few times, but never got around to it for one reason or another. But when I heard CASABLANCA was this month’s feature, I knew…

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Hoods vs Huns: ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT (Warner Brothers 1942)


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A gang of Runyonesque gamblers led by Humphrey Bogart take on Nazi spies in ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT, Bogie’s follow-up to his breakthrough role as Sam Spade in THE MALTESE FALCON. Here he plays ‘Gloves’ Donovan, surrounded by a top-notch cast of character actors in a grand mixture of suspense and laughs, with both the action and the wisecracks coming fast and furious in that old familiar Warner Brother style. Studio workhorse Vincent Sherman, whose directorial debut THE RETURN OF DOCTOR X also featured Bogart, keeps things moving briskly along and even adds some innovative flourishes that lift the film above its meager budget.

Bogie’s gangster image from all those 1930’s flicks come to a humorous head in the part of ‘Gloves’. He’s a tough guy for sure, but here the toughness is humanized by giving him a warm, loving mother (Jane Darwell ) and a fondness for cheesecake…

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