An Offer You Can’t Refuse #6: King of the Roaring 20s: The Story of Arnold Rothstein (dir by Joseph M. Newman)


The 1961 gangster biopic, King of the Roaring ’20s: The Story of Arnold Rothstein, tells the story of two men.

David Janssen is Arnold Rothstein, the gambler-turned-millionaire crime lord who, in the early years of the 20th Century, was one of the dominant figures in American organized crime.  Though he may be best-remembered for his alleged role in fixing the 1918 World Series, Rothstein also served as a mentor to men like Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and Bugsy Siegel.  Rothstein was perhaps the first gangster to to treat crime like a business.

Mickey Rooney is Johnny Burke, Arnold’s best friend from childhood who grows up to be a low-level hood and notoriously unsuccessful gambler.  Whereas Arnold is intelligent, cunning, and always calm, Johnny always seems to be a desperate.  Whereas Arnold’s success is due to his ability to keep a secret, Johnny simply can’t stop talking.

Together …. THEY SOLVE CRIMES!

No, actually, they don’t.  They both commit crimes, sometimes together and sometimes apart.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Arnold turns out to be a better criminal than Johnny.  In fact, Johnny is always in over his head.  He often has to go to his friend Arnold and beg him for his help.  Johnny does this even though Arnold continually tells him, “I only care about myself and money.”

The friendship between Arnold and Johnny is at the heart of King of the Roaring 20s, though it’s not much of a heart since every conversation they have begins with Johnny begging Arnold for help and ends with Arnold declaring that he only cares about money.  At a certain point, it’s hard not to feel that Johnny is bringing a lot of this trouble on himself by consistently seeking help from someone who brags about not helping anyone.  From the minute that the film begins, Arnold Rothstein’s mantra is that he only cares about money, gambling, and winning a poker game with a royal flush.  Everything else — from his friendship to Johnny to his marriage to former showgirl Carolyn Green (Dianne Foster) to even his violent rivalry with crooked cop Phil Butler (Dan O’Herlihy) — comes second to his own greed.  The film’s portrayal of Rothstein as being a single-minded and heartless sociopath may be a convincing portrait of the type of mindset necessary to be a successful crime lord but it hardly makes for a compelling protagonist.

Oddly enough, the film leaves out a lot of the things that the real-life Arnold Rothstein was best known for.  There’s no real mention of Rothstein fixing the World Series. His mentorship to Luciano, Lansky, and Seigel is not depicted.  The fact that Rothstein was reportedly the first gangster to realize how much money could be made off of bootlegging goes unacknowledged.  By most reports, Arnold Rothstein was a flamboyant figure.  (Meyer Wolfsheim, the uncouth gangster from The Great Gatsby, was reportedly based on him.)   There’s nothing flamboyant about David Janssen’s performance in this film.  He plays Rothstein as being a tightly-wound and rather unemotional businessman.  It’s not a bad performance as much as it just doesn’t feel right for a character who, according to the film’s title, was the King of the Roaring 20s.

That said, there are still enough pleasures to be found in this film to make it worth watching.  As if to make up for Janssen’s subdued performance, everyone else in the cast attacks the scenery with gusto.  Mickey Rooney does a good job acting desperate and Dan O’Herlihy is effectively villainous as the crooked cop.  Jack Carson has a few good scenes as a corrupt political fixer and Dianne Foster does the best that she can with the somewhat thankless role of Rothstein’s wife.  The film moves quickly and, even if it’s not as violent as the typical gangster film, it does make a relevant point about how organized crime became a big business.

It’s not a great gangster film by any stretch of the imagination and the lead role is miscast but there’s still enough about this film that works to make it worth a watch for gangster movie fans.

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

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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Cockeyed Caravan: SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (Paramount 1941)


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I’m no expert on Preston Sturges, having seen only two of his films, but after viewing SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS I now have a craving to see them all! This swift (and Swiftian) satire on Hollywood stars Joel McCrea as a successful slapstick comedy director yearning to make important, socially conscious films who gets more than he bargained for when he hits the road to discover what human misery and suffering is all about.

John L. “Sully” Sullivan sets his studio bosses on their collective ear when he tells them he wants to film an adaptation of ” O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, a serious novel by ‘Sinclair Beckstein’. The head honcho balks, wanting Sully to do another comedy, but Sully’s not dissuaded, deciding to see what life among the downtrodden is first-hand. He dresses in rags and sets out on his quest, followed by a gaggle of PR flacks in a bus. Somehow he…

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Shattered Politics #6: The Great McGinty (dir by Preston Sturges)


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 “This is the story of two men who met in a banana republic. One of them never did anything dishonest in his life except for one crazy minute. The other never did anything honest in his life except for one crazy minute. They both had to get out of the country.”

— The Great McGinty (1940)

For today’s final entry in Shattered Politics, we take a look at how elections are won north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

The Great McGinty begins in a bar located in an unnamed country in South America.  Tommy Thompson (Louis John Heydt) attempts to shoot himself but is stopped by philosophical bartender Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy).  Tommy explains that he can never return to the United States because, in one moment of weakness, he stole some money.  McGinty replies that he can never return to the U.S. either.  Why?  “I was the Governor of a state, baby…” McGinty replies.

In flashback, McGinty explains how he came to power.  One day, while standing in a soup line, the homeless McGinty was approached by a local political operative (William Demarest) and offered $2.00 on the condition that he vote for a certain mayoral candidate.  McGinty agrees and then proceeds to vote 37 times.  When McGinty demands $74.00 for his efforts, he’s taken to the headquarters of the Boss (Akim Tamiroff, giving a wonderfully comedic performance).

The Boss is impressed with McGinty and, despite the fact that the two of them are constantly getting into fights with each other, he employs McGinty as a collector.  Eventually, he also arranges for McGinty to be elected alderman and then, running as a reform candidate, mayor.

Along the way, the Boss arranges for McGinty to get married.  McGinty’s wife (Muriel Angelus) originally has little respect for McGinty but, after they marry, she starts to realize that McGinty is not quite as bad as she originally assumed.  Eventually, she’s even impressed enough that she even stops seeing her boyfriend, George (Allyn Joslyn).

Meanwhile, the Boss arranges for McGinty to be elected governor.  However, once McGinty has won the election, he declares that he’s going to run an honest administration.  How does that turn out?  Well, it should be noted that the film opens with McGinty tending bar in South America…

The Great McGinty is a lot of fun and it’s interesting to think that this unapologetically sardonic look at American politics came out just a year after Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  Imagine if Mr. Smith Goes To Washington had been told from the point of view of Edward Arnold’s Boss Taylor and you can guess what The Great McGinty is like.

If nothing else, The Great McGinty serves as a great reminder that political cynicism existed long before any of us cast our first vote.

Shattered Politics #4: Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (dir by Frank Capra)


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So, when you read that I was going to be reviewing 94 political films here at the Shattered Lens, you probably knew that one of them would have to be the 1939 best picture nominee, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

So, we all know that story right?  The senator from an unnamed state dies.  The weak-willed Governor (Guy Kibbee) has to appoint a new senator.  Political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) demands that the governor appoint one of his cronies.  The state’s reformers demand that the Governor appoint a never-seen crusader named Henry Hill (who, whenever I hear his name, makes me think of Ray Liotta snorting cocaine in Goodfellas).  The Governor’s children demand that he appoint Jefferson Smith (James Stewart, of course!), who is the head of something called the Boy Rangers.  The Governor flips a coin.  The coin lands on its edge but it also lands next to a newspaper story about Jeff Smith.

So, of course, Mr. Smith goes to Washington.

Now, as the movie quickly makes clear, Jeff Smith is immediately out-of-place in Washington.  For one thing, he’s actually excited to be there.  He’s convinced that he’s there to make America a better place.  When a bunch of drunken reporters (led by the great Thomas Mitchell) make Smith look foolish, Smith responds by running around Washington and punching them out.  (That whole sequence probably serves as wish fulfilment for a lot of politicians.)  When his cynical legislative aide Saunders (Jean Arthur) tells him that he’s too naive to survive in Washington, he wins her over with the purity of his idealism.  When his mentor, Senator Paine (Claude Rains), is revealed to be a part of Washington’s corrupt culture, Smith is stunned.  When Taylor tries to destroy his political career, Smith responds by giving the filibuster to end all filibusters.  He’s one man standing up against a culture of corruption and…

And there’s a reason why, 76 years later, aspiring political candidates still attempt to portray themselves as being a real-life, modern Jefferson Smith.

This is one of those films that everyone seems to agree is great and, of course, there’s many reasons to love Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  There’s the lead performance of Jimmy Stewart, of course.  While this may not be his best performance (I prefer the more layered characterization that he brought to It’s A Wonderful Life and Anatomy of a Murder), it is Stewart at his most likable and, most importantly, he makes you feel Jeff Smith’s pain as he discovers that Washington is not the great place that he originally assumed it to be.  Claude Rains was always great when it came to playing good men gone wrong and he’s perfect as Sen. Paine.  Thomas Mitchell and Jean Arthur are perfectly cast and I always enjoy seeing the bemused smile on the face of Vice President Harry Carey as Smith conducts his filibuster.

But I think the best thing about Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is that it actually makes you believe that there are Jeff Smiths out there who actually could make a difference.  And, until Judd Apatow gets around to remaking the film with Adam Sandler, audiences will continue to believe.