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 

End of an Era: THE ROARING TWENTIES (Warner Brothers 1939)


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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…

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Cleaning Out The DVR, Again #37: All This And Heaven Too (dir by Anatole Litvak)


(Lisa is currently in the process of trying to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing all 40 of the movies that she recorded from the start of March to the end of June.  She’s trying to get it all done by the end of July 11th!  Will she make it!?  Keep visiting the site to find out!)

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The 37th film on my DVR was the 1940 film, All This, And Heaven Too.  It originally aired on June 21st on TCM.

All This, and Heaven Too is one of the many melodramatic historical romances in which Bette Davis appeared in the late 30s and early 40s.  These films usually featured Bette as a strong-willed woman who was often condemned for not conforming to the rules of society.  Typically, she would end up falling in love with a man who society said she could not have.  Bette almost always seemed to end up alone, which I guess was the way women who thought for themselves were punished back then.

In this one, Bette plays Henriette Deluzy, a French woman who ends up in America in the 1850s.  When she shows up to start teaching at a private, all-girls school, her students immediately start gossiping about her.  It seems that Henriette was at the center of some sort of European scandal and everyone is speculating about what happened.  Finally, at the start of class, Henriette tells her students that she’s going to tell them the true story of what happened back in France.

It turns out that Henriette was a governess.  She took care of the four children of the Duc de Praslin (Charles Boyer) and his wife, the Duchesse (Barbara O’Neil).  The Duchesse was mentally unstable and soon came to suspect that her husband had fallen in love with Henriette.  Though she may have been insane, it turned out that the Duchesse was correct.  When the Duchesse fired Henriette and then lied to her husband about it, the Duc flew into a rage and murdered his wife.

Under the laws of the time, the Duc could only be judged by his fellow noblemen.  He was told that if he simply confessed and said that Henriette was the one who drove him to commit the murder, he would be set free.  (As opposed to the characters that Bette Davis played in The Letter and The Little Foxes, Henriette was totally innocent.)  Would the Duc confess and allow Henriette to be blamed or would he deny his love for her and sacrifice his life as a result?

All This, And Heaven Too is a rather slow movie and it’s hard not to be disappointed that Henriette is such a boring character.  She’s so innocent and victimized that the role almost seems like a waste of Bette Davis’s talents.  A big production that featured lavish (though black-and-white) recreations of 19th Century France, All This, And Heaven Too was probably a big deal for contemporary audiences and, if you’re a Bette Davis or Charles Boyer completist, you might enjoy it.  But otherwise, it’s really nothing special.

All This, And Heaven Too was among the 10 films nominated for Best Picture of 1940.  However, it lost to Rebecca.

Cleaning Out The DVR #4: Four Daughters (dir by Michael Curtiz)


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Last night, after I finished watching My Sweet Audrina, I decided to watch one more film off of the DVR.  Seeing as how I had already watched a coming-of-age drama, a classic war film, and a Lifetime melodrama, I decided that my final film of the night would be 1938’s Four Daughters.  According to the plot description, it was the story of four musically talented sisters and their father.  It sounded nice and undemanding.

I recorded Four Daughters off of TCM, where it was shown as a part of the 31 Days of Oscar.  When it originally aired, I was warned about it by some of my fellow Oscar fanatics.  They all told me that it was an okay movie but it was nothing special.  “Don’t let the best picture nomination fool you!” they all said.  And, it’s true that the Four Daughters is one of the more forgotten best picture nominees.  Go check out the list of external reviews on the imdb and you’ll see that only a handful of reviews have been posted for Four Daughters.

But you know what?  I liked Four Daughters.  Yes, when compared to some of the other films that have been nominated for best picture, Four Daughters may seem rather slight.  Just compare it to some of the other films that were nominated for best picture of 1938: Grand Illusion, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Jezebel, and the winner, You Can’t Take It With You.  Interestingly enough, Michael Curtiz directed both The Adventures of Robin Hood and Four Daughters.  Curtiz was nominated for directing Four Daughters, though Robin Hood is certainly the better regarded film.

And yet, with all that in mind, Four Daughters is still a perfectly charming and rather sweet movie.  Adam Lemp (Claude Rains) is a musician who loves classic music.  He has four daughters, all of whom are musically talented.  The oldest, Emma, is played by Gale Page while the other three daughters are played the Lane Sisters, who were apparently a very popular singing act in the 30s.  Lola Lane plays Thea Lemp, Rosemary Lane plays Kay Lemp, and the youngest daughter, Ann, is played by Priscilla Lane.

While the film was obviously designed to capitalize on the popularity of the Lane Sisters, it’s not all just music and performing.  The Lemps also own a boarding house, which is frequently visited by potential suitors.  While Kay Lemp struggles with whether or not to accept a music scholarship and leave home, Emma is pursued by Ernest (Dick Foran) and Thea is courted by Ben (Frank McHugh), a wealthy older man.

And then there’s Ann, the youngest daughter and the one to whom I most related.  Despite saying that she never wants to marry, Ann finds herself being pursued by two men.  One of them is a composer named Felix Deitz (Jeffrey Lynn).  The other is Felix’s best friend, Mickey (John Garfield).

John  Garfield was one of the first Method actors to make the transition from stage to screen.  (It’s generally argued that, in the beginning, Paul Muni begat John Garfield who begat Montgomery Clift who begat Marlon Brando who begat Robert De Niro who begat Leonardo DiCaprio.)  Four Daughters was one of his first major roles and it also provided him with his first Oscar nomination.  It’s interesting to contrast Garfield’s brooding and internalized performance with the somewhat more bland actors who play the other suitors.  He grounds Four Daughters, giving the film a necessary jolt of reality.

However, I have to admit that my main reason for liking Four Daughters is a personal one.  I am the youngest of four sisters and there was so much about Four Daughters that I related to.  (I saw a lot of myself in Ann Lemp.)  From the opening scenes of the sisters fighting and laughing at the same time to the countless scenes of the sisters supporting each other, Four Daughters gets it right.  The film may have been made in 1938 but sisterhood is eternal.

In the end, I glad that I took the time to record and watch Four Daughters.  It’s a sweet movie, one that will be enjoyed by sisters everywhere.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #18: A Letter To Three Wives (dir by Joseph L. Mankiewicz)


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Last week, I started a little series that I call Embracing The Melodrama, Part II.  Over the next three weeks, I will be reviewing, in chronological order, 128 cinematic melodramas.  I started this series with the 1927 silent film Sunrise and now, we have reached our 18th film, the 1949 best picture nominee, A Letter To Three Wives!

Now, I’m going to start this review by pointing out something that will probably scare off some of our readers.  So, before you read the next paragraph, understand that A Letter To Three Wives is a great film that’s full of great performances and witty dialogue and you really should watch it the next time that it’s on TCM.  Got all that?  Okay.  Good.  Moving on…

A Letter To Three Wives feels a lot like a 1949 version of Desperate Housewives.  Now, before you freak out, I’m talking about early Desperate Housewives as opposed to later Desperate Housewives.  The similarities are actually pretty striking.  Both A Letter To Three Wives and Desperate Housewives take place in an upper class suburb.  Both of them deal with women who appear to have happy marriages but who are all actually dissatisfied with how their lives have turned out.  Both of them are satires disguised as mystery stories.  (The mystery in Desperate Housewives involved murder.  The one in A Letter To Three Wives involves adultery.)  Perhaps most significantly, both Desperate Housewives and A Letter To Three Wives are narrated by a snarky woman who exists largely off screen.

The narrator in A Letter To Three Wives is named Addie Ross and voiced by Celeste Holm.  We never actually see Addie but we hear a lot from her and a lot about her.  Apparently, every man in town has, at some point, been in love with Addie.  Every woman is jealous of her.  And Addie, amazingly enough, seems to have the power to know exactly what’s happening in everyone else’s marriage.  At the start of A Letter To Three Wives, Addie has sent … well, a letter to three wives.  In the letter, Addie explains that she’s run off with one of their husbands but she declines to reveal which husband.  Each one of the wives thinks back on her marriage and wonders if her husband is the one.

Deborah (Jeanne Crain), for instance, is a country girl who met and married Bradford “Brad” Bishop (Jeffrey Lynn) during World War II.  Deborah is insecure about the fact that Brad comes from an upper class background and that he was apparently engaged to marry Addie before he met Deborah.

(Here’s an interesting piece of trivia for those of you who, like me, are into true crime stories.  Along with the movie character, there’s also a real-life murderer named Bradford “Brad” Bishop.  Like the character in the movie, he came from an upper class background.  Unlike the film character, the real Brad Bishop ended up murdering his wife, his children, and his mother and then fled to Europe.  He’s been a fugitive for close to 40 years and is believed to still be alive.  He’s currently on the FBI’s most wanted list.)

And then there’s Rita (Ann Sothern), who is an old friend of Brad’s.  Rita is married to George.  George is a quiet and intellectual English professor who is insecure over the fact that Rita, working as a soap opera writer, makes more money than he does.  George is played by Kirk Douglas and, admittedly, it does take a while to get used to the idea of Kirk Douglas playing an introverted intellectual.  But, once you get over the initial shock, Kirk Douglas gives a pretty good performance.  Kirk may be miscast but that actually works to the film’s advantage.  In a world where surface appearances hide the unexpected truth, it only makes sense that a mild college professor would look like Kirk Douglas.

My favorite wife was Lorna Mae (Linda Darnell), who grew up next to the train tracks and who pursues and eventually married a wealthy, older man (Paul Douglas).  It was impossible for me not to relate to and even admire Lorna Mae.  Much like me, Lorna Mae was determined to get what she wanted.  Perhaps my favorite scene with Lorna Mae was when she blatantly did everything possible to get stuffy old Paul Douglas to look at her legs, largely because I’ve done the exact same thing on occasion.

A Letter To Three Wives is an entertaining and witty film that still holds up today.  Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz deservedly won the Best Director Oscar for his work here.  The film itself was nominated for best picture but lost to All The King’s Men.  I actually happen to like All The King’s Men but, if I had been an Academy voter in 1949, my vote would have totally gone to A Letter To Three Wives.