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 

Film Review: Esther and the King (dir by Raoul Walsh)

The 1960 Italian-American co-production, Esther and the King, opens in ancient Persia.  King Ahasuerus (Richard Egan) has just returned from conquering Egypt and he is angered to discover that his wife, Vashti (Daneila Rocca), has been cheating on him with not just his main advisor, Haman (Sergio Fantoni), but also with the entire palace guard as well.  After the Queen shows her further displeasure with the King by doing a topless dance in front of the entire royal court, the King banishes her from his life.

Since the king now needs a new wife, every attractive woman in the land is dragged off to the palace so that she can audition for the role.  Among those forcibly recruited is the strong-willed Esther (Joan Collins), who was previously engaged to a rebel named Simon (Rick Battaglia).  What the king doesn’t know is that Esther is both Jewish and the cousin of Mordecai (Denis O’Dea), who has recently offended Haman by refusing to bow down before him.  Haman and his wife (Rosalba Neri) are now plotting to execute all of the Jews is Persia.  Despite her love for Simon, Esther remains in the competition to become the Queen so that she can save her people….

There are a few things that you immediately notice about Esther and the King.

First off, it’s an extremely loose adaptation of the story of Esther, one that is designed to make the King out to be a far more sympathetic figure than he actually was.  Whereas the King actually banished his wife after refused to attend a banquet where the drunken King wanted her to pose naked, Esther and the King presents the King as being the wronged party as his wife is literally cheating with every available man in the kingdom.  (Ironically, the film actually presents the King as being forced to banish his wife after she removes her top during a banquet whereas, in actuality, it was her refusal to do so that led to be her being exiled.)  The film also adds in considerably more battles and a lot more court intrigue as all of the king’s potential wives compete for his attention.  And, of course, then there’s Esther’s fiancee, Simon, who does not appear anywhere in the original text.

The other thing that you immediately notice about Esther and the King is that ancient Persia apparently looked a lot like ancient Rome.  That’s not surprising when you consider that this was an Italian co-production and that Esther and the King is as much of an old school peplum film as a biblical adaptation.  This is a biblical adaptation that is as concerned with sword fights and banquets as it is with prayer and religion.

Regardless of whether it’s historically accurate or not, it’s an entertaining film.  Admittedly, Richard Egan is a bit of a stiff as the King and Joan Collins really doesn’t bring much beyond beauty to the role of Esther.  But the sets are properly ornate and the costume are to die for.  Mario Bava was the film’s cinematographer (and some sites credit him as being the film’s co-director as well) and Esther and the King is gorgeous to look at.  This is one of those historical epics where almost everything feels appropriately big, from the palaces to the emotions to the melodrama.  The supporting cast is largely made up of Italian actors who all appear to be having a great time playing up the drama of it all.  Sergio Fantoni is wonderfully hissable as the evil Haman.  (Boo!  Haman!  Boo!)  Rosabla Neri also has some memorably manipulative moments as Zeresh, the wife of Haman (boo!)  For those of us who like big and not necessarily historical accurate epics about the ancient world, Esther and the King is a lot of fun.

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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No Surprises Here: GUN FURY (Columbia 1953)

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I watched GUN FURY expecting a surprise. What I got instead was a routine Western, not bad for its type, bolstered by a better-than-average cast, solid direction from veteran Raoul Walsh , and some lavish Technicolor location footage from Sedona, AZ. But I kept waiting and waiting for that “surprise” that never came. What am I talking about? Read on and find out, buckeroos!

Ben Warren, a peaceful Civil War vet, meets his intended bride Jennifer Ballard at the stagecoach station. The two lovebirds intend to travel to the next stop and get hitched. Also onboard the stage is mean desperado Frank Slayton, an “unreconstructed Southerner” feared across the territory, and his partner-in-crime Jess Burgess. Frank’s gang, disguised as Cavalry soldiers, lie in wait and rob the stage of it’s shipment of gold, stealing the loot killing everyone except Jennifer, who Frank has designs on and kidnaps.

But wait! Ben’s…

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The Last Gangster: James Cagney in WHITE HEAT (Warner Brothers 1949)

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When James Cagney burst onto the screen in THE PUBLIC ENEMY, a star was born. Cagney’s machine gun delivery of dialog, commanding screen presence, and take-no-shit attitude made him wildly popular among the Depression Era masses, if not with studio boss Jack Warner, with whom Cagney frequently battled over salary and scripts that weren’t up to par. Films like LADY KILLER , THE MAYOR OF HELL , and ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES made Cagney the quintessential movie gangster, but after 1939’s THE ROARING TWENTIES he hung up his spats and concentrated on changing his image. Ten years later, Cagney returned to the gangster film in WHITE HEAT, turning in one of his most memorable performances as the psychotic Cody Jarrett.

Cagney is older and meaner than ever as Jarrett, a remorseless mad-dog killer with a severe mother complex and more than a touch of insanity. Jarrett has frequent debilitating headaches…

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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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Lisa Marie Reviews An Oscar Nominee: In Old Arizona (dir by Raoul Walsh and Irving Cummings)


Since the Oscars are approaching, I thought I would devote February to continuing my never-ending quest to watch and review every single film nominated for best picture!

With that in mind, I recently watched the 1928 film In Old Arizona.  In Old Arizona is a bit of an oddity in Oscar history.  Even though it is considered to have been a best picture nominee, it was never officially nominated.  In fact, in 1929, there were no official nominees.  Instead, the Academy simply announced the names of the winners.  The winners were selected by a small committee of judges.  The committee’s intentions are particularly obvious when you notice that not one film won more than one Oscar in 1929.  At a time when the industry was struggling to make the transition from silent film to the talkies, the 1929 Oscars were all about spreading the wealth and reassuring everyone that they were doing worthwhile work.  In Old Arizona‘s star, Warner Baxter, was named the year’s best actor while Broadway Melody was declared to have been the best picture.

(At that year’s Oscar ceremony, the second in the Academy’s history, the awards were reportedly handed out in 10 minutes and nobody gave an acceptance speech.  If this all seems strange when compared to the annual extravaganza that we all know and love, consider that Louis B. Mayer originally formed the Academy in order to give the studio bosses the upper hand in a labor dispute.  The awards were largely an afterthought.)

Years later, Oscar historians came across the notes of the committee’s meeting.  The notes listed every other film and performer that the committee considered.  Before settling on Broadway Melody, the committee apparently considered In Old Arizona.  For that reason, In Old Arizona is considered to have been nominated for best picture of the year.

If it seems like I’ve spent a bit more time than necessary discussing the history behind the 1929 Oscars, that’s because In Old Arizona isn’t that interesting of a film.  It was a huge box office success in 1929 and it was an undeniable influence on almost every Western that followed but seen today, it’s an extremely creaky film.  Influential or not, there’s not a scene, character, or performance in In Old Arizona that hasn’t been done better by another western.

Based on a story by O. Henry, In Old Arizona tells the story of a bandit named The Cisco Kid (Warner Baxter).  Cisco may be an outlaw but he’s also a nice guy who enjoys a good laugh and occasionally sings a song while riding his horse across the Arizona landscape.  (California and Utah stood in for Arizona.)  The Cisco Kid may rob stagecoaches but he always does it with a smile.  Besides, he only needs the money so that he can give gifts to his girlfriend, Tonia (Dorothy Burgess).  What the Cisco Kid doesn’t know is that Tonia is bored and frustrated by his frequent absences and she has been cheating on him.  Then she’s approached by Sgt. Mickey Dunn (Edmund Lowe), the big dumb lug who has been ordered to bring the Kid in (dead or alive, of course).  Will Tonia betrayed the Kid?

If you’re watching In Old Arizona and hoping to be entertained, you’ll probably be disappointed.  Almost everything about this film has aged terribly.  Watching the film, it’s obvious that none of the actors had quite figured out how to adapt to the sound era and, as such, all of the performances were very theatrical and overdone.  Probably the easiest to take is Edmund Lowe, who at least managed to deliver his lines without screeching.  Sadly, the same cannot be said of Dorothy Burgess.  As for Warner Baxter, he may have won an Oscar for playing the Cisco Kid but that doesn’t make his acting any easier to take.

And yet, if you’re a history nerd like me, In Old Arizona is worth watching because it really is a time capsule of the era in which it was made.  In Old Arizona was not only the first Western to ever receive an Oscar.  This was also the first all-talking, all-sound picture.  Watching it today, without that knowledge, you might be tempted to wonder why the film lingers so long over seemingly mundane details, like horses walking down a street, the ticking of a clock, a baby crying, or a church bell ringing.  But, if you know the film’s significance, it’s fun to try to put yourself in the shoes of someone watching In Old Arizona in 1929 and, for the first time, realizing that film could not just a visual medium but one of sound as well.  For some members of that 1929 audience, In Old Arizona was probably the first time they ever heard the sound of a horse galloping across the landscape.

(I have to admit that, as a student of American history, I couldn’t help but get excited when one of the characters mentioned President McKinley.  McKinley may be forgotten today but audiences in 1929 would not only remember McKinley but also his tragic assassination.  By mentioning that McKinley was President, In Old Arizona not only reminded audiences that it was taking in the past but that it was also taking place during what would have been considered a more innocent time.  Much as how later movies would use John F. Kennedy as a nostalgic symbol of a more idealistic time, In Old Arizona uses William McKinley.)

In Old Arizona is no longer a particularly entertaining film but, as a historical artifact, it is absolutely fascinating.

Happy Birthday Errol Flynn: DESPERATE JOURNEY (Warner Brothers 1942)

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The actor known for his “wicked, wicked ways”, Errol Flynn was born June 20, 1909 in Hobart, Australia. The dashing Flynn skyrocketed to fame with a series of swashbuckling exploits: CAPTAIN BLOOD , THE SEA HAWK, and most notably THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. He was also featured in some of the great Westerns of the era (THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, SANTA FE TRAIL). Like all stalwart screen heroes, during the 1940’s Flynn made a number of wartime propaganda films to boost morale for the masses. One of these was DESPERATE JOURNEY, a totally improbable but highly exciting action yarn from the two-fisted, one-eyed Raoul Walsh, director of such macho fare as THE ROARING TWENTIES, HIGH SIERRA, and WHITE HEAT.


An RAF bomber squad is sent on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines to take out a train depot. They accomplish the task, but are shot down by Nazi heavy artillery. Forced to…

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The Second Annual Academy Awards: 1915

Continuing to reimagine Oscar history one year at a time, LMB and I take a look at what 1915 could have been.

Through the Shattered Lens Presents The Oscars

John Wilkes Booth (Raoul Walsh) flees after shooting Abraham Lincoln in D.W. Griffith's Birth Of A Nation John Wilkes Booth (Raoul Walsh) flees after shooting Abraham Lincoln in D.W. Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation

The second annual Academy Awards were handed out on January 20th, 1916.  For the second and final time, the ceremony took place in the Empire Room of the Waldorf Hotel in New York City.  Just as in the previous year, the awards were handed out after dinner and a speech from Academy President Mack Sennett.  Again, the winners were announced before the actual ceremony and were given certificates of achievement.  According to contemporary reports, the winners who were present all gave brief acceptance speeches but nobody bothered to record what anyone said.

As in the previous year, winners were selected by a jury of distinguished citizens.  The 1915 jury consisted of:

  1. Harry Chandler, businessman
  2. Owen McAleer, former mayor of Los Angeles, California
  3. Ellery Sedgwick, publisher of…

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Benny’s From Heaven: Jack Benny in THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT (1945)

horn11Jack Benny claimed 1945’s THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT killed his movie career. After rewatching it, I can’t understand why. This comedy/fantasy is just as good as any Bob Hope or Red Skelton film of the era. Yet the critics of the time savaged it, and Benny spent the rest of his life cracking jokes about what a turkey the movie was. I disagree, and think THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT deserves a second look.

Jack plays Athanael, a third rate trumpeter playing third trumpet for a radio show sponsored by Paradise Coffee (“the coffee that makes you sleep”). Lulled to sleep himself by the dulcet tones of the show’s announcer, Athanael dreams he’s playing his trumpet in a heavenly orchestra. Beautiful harpist Elizabeth (Alexis Smith) recommends him to the chief angel (Guy Kibbee) for an important mission. It seems Earth has been acting up, with “persecution and hatred everywhere”, and The Big Boss (aka God) has decided to eliminate it. Athanael is sent to play “the first four notes of the Judgment Day Overture” precisely at midnight and signal the end of the world.

Our hero lands at a swank hotel, where he’s spotted by two fallen angels (Allyn Joslyn, John Alexander) who’re comfy with their corrupt lives. Athanael saves a desperate cigarette girl (Dolores Moran) from suicide and misses his chance to blow at midnight. He loses the trumpet when he can’t pay for a meal and Elizabeth is sent to straighten out the mess. The fallen angels conspire with a slick thief (Reginald Gardner) to steal the horn. A merry mix-up ends with everyone hanging from the hotel’s rooftop scrambling for the horn.


I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say Athanael wakes from his dream to deliver the punchline. There are lots of historical and heavenly puns (seeing people jitterbugging on the dance floor, Athanael exclaims “I must tell St. Vitus about this”)and plenty of silly sight gags. The score by Franz Waxman adds to the fun, aided by music cues you’ll surely recognize from Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes (an uncredited assist from cartoon maestro Carl Stalling).

The cast is loaded with comic actors like Franklin Pangborn, Margaret Dumont, ex-wrestler Mike Mazurki, and Hollywood’s favorite souse Jack Norton. And then there’s Jack. He’s perfect in the role, and his impeccable timing, comic delivery, and that unmistakable mincing walk are on full display. Director Raoul Walsh was better known for his tough, manly films (THE ROARING 20’S, HIGH SIERRA, WHITE HEAT), but handles the comedy with a sure hand.


While THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT is no classic, it’s not as bad as you may have heard. It’s certainly not as bad as Jack Benny made it out to be all those years. He certainly got some mileage out of making fun of it, though. Watch and judge for yourself. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Then again, I’m a huge Jack Benny fan, in case you haven’t guessed, so I may be a little biased.