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 

Sweet Land of Liberty: Alfred Hitchcock’s SABOTEUR (Universal 1942)

cracked rear viewer

The Master of Suspense puts the pedal to the metal once again in SABOTEUR, another “double chase” spy thriller that doesn’t get the attention some of Alfred Hitchcock’s other films do, but should. I’ve always enjoyed the performance of Robert Cummings as the “ordinary man caught in an extraordinary situation”; his naturally laid-back, easygoing charm makes him perfect playing Barry Kane, accused of sabotaging a wartime aircraft plant and killing his best friend in the process, who winds up on a cross-country chase alongside reluctant heroine Priscilla Lane . SABOTEUR is certainly an  important film in Hitchcock’s body of work for one important reason: it’s the director’s first film for Universal Pictures, a studio he’d have a long and profitable association with, and where he’d later create some of his finest movies.

SABOTEUR is in many respects a loose remake of Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS , transplanted to America and…

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

cracked rear viewer

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 #4: Four Daughters (dir by Michael Curtiz)


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.

44 Days of Paranoia #34: Saboteur (dir by Alfred Hitchcock)

For today’s entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, we take a look at the 1942 Alfred Hitchcock film, Saboteur.

Saboteur opens at an aircraft factory in Glenda, California.  Co-workers Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) and Ken Mason (Virgil Summers) notice a stand-offish new guy named Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd, who appropriately looks something like a rodent).  When a fire breaks out at the factory, Fry hands Barry a fire extinguisher which Barry then hands off to Ken.  The extinguisher, however, is full of gasoline, both causing the fire to turn into an inferno and killing Ken.

When questioned by the FBI, Barry explains that Fry handed him the extinguisher, just to then be informed that no one named Fry worked at the plant and that no one saw Fry — or anyone else — hand Barry the extinguisher.  Realizing that Fry has framed him and also remembering the address on an envelope that Fry was carrying, Barry runs.  With the FBI and police pursuing him, Barry tries to track down the real saboteur.  Along the way, he discovers a friendly rancher (Otto Kruger) who is actually a Nazi agent and gets some help from a group of circus freaks, a blind man, and the blind man’s model daughter (Peggy Cummings).  He also discovers that the U.S. is crawling with Nazi double agents who hide behind a veil of respectability and are plotting to destroy historic landmarks across the country.  It all eventually leads to a genuinely exciting climax atop the Statue of Liberty.

Saboteur doesn’t get as much attention as some of the other films that Hitchcock directed in the 40s and perhaps that’s not surprising.  It’s not as technically audacious as Notorious nor is it as thought-provoking as Shadow of the Doubt or as flamboyant as Spellbound.  While Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane make for perfectly likable leads, they certainly don’t generate the chemistry of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.  When one looks at the masterpieces that Hitchcock directed in the 40s, it’s easy to dismiss Saboteur as being a well-made B-movie.

And yet, I love Saboteur.  The film is pure non-stop melodrama and, over 70 years since it was first made, it remains an exciting and entertaining film.  Despite the fact that some critics may not hold Saboteur in as high regard as some of Hitchcock’s other films, Saboteur is full of moments of the director’s trademark ambiguity and irony.  This is one of Hitchcock’s wrong man films, where innocent men are chased across a shadowy landscape by the forces of law and order who, in many ways, are portrayed as being just as menacing as the film’s nominal villains.  Meanwhile, the Nazi agents hide behind warm smiles and friendly words, their evil only apparent when it’s too late to stop them.  Despite his rather fearsome reputation, Hitchcock’s sympathies always lay with the powerless and the wrongly accused.

It’s those sympathies that make Saboteur into far more than just another B-movie.

Instead, it’s one of Hitchcock’s best.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer
  25. Chinatown
  26. Compliance
  27. The Lives of Others
  28. The Departed
  29. A Face In The Crowd
  30. Nixon
  31. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  32. The Purge
  33. The Stepford Wives