Tuesday March 02, 2021
Movie Review: The Roaring Twenties (1939)
There’s a nice musical homage near the beginning of Raoul Walsh’s “The Roaring Twenties” that’s indicative of the place James Cagney held in 1930s cinema as well as the attention to detail of the artists and artisans at Warners Bros. Or it’s just a nice coincidence.
Eddie Bartlett (Cagney) is returning stateside after WWI, but late, more than a year after the war ended. I'm reminded of Hemingway's short story, “Soldiers Home”: “People seemed to think it was rather ridiculous for Krebs to be getting back so late, years after the war was over.” Both characters were patrolling the Rhine, but the situation is slightly more ridiculous for Eddie because everyone thinks he’s dead: his landlady, his old boss at the garage, his best friend Danny (Frank McHugh). It’s a running gag for a bit. At this point, though, Eddie doesn’t know any of that. He’s fresh off the boat, in fighting trim, garrison cap at a jaunty angle. And just before he walks up the steps to his old brownstone, he smiles as an organ grinder plays “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” in the crowded streets outside. That's the same song that played over the opening credits and in the closing scene of “The Public Enemy,” the movie that made Cagney a star eight years earlier.
So: homage or coincidence?
In homage’s favor is the level of detail in the scene. Walsh could’ve just had Cagney walk up the steps but instead we get this great tableau: two boys share an apple, two girls dance with each other to the organ grinder’s song, and a kid in a whoopee cap stares up solemnly at the organ grinder’s monkey. A tall, older well-dressed man enters the shot looking for an address. People keep coming and going. I suppose it represents a return to normalcy. Or the promise of.
The song may recall “Public Enemy” but Eddie Bartlett is no Tom Powers. Start with the fact that Eddie went to war. To Tom, that’s for saps—like his older brother Mike, the ding-ding. Eddie may be tough like Tom, but he’s also a nice guy. He winds up in a foxhole with a bully named George (Humphrey Bogart), and not only stands up to him, but stands up for another soldier, a law grad named Lloyd (Jeffrey Lynn), who, after admitting he’s scared, is taunted by George.
George: He’s one of them guys that cheer the loudest back home, and then when they get over here, and the going gets tough, they fold up.
George: I’m talking to him.
Eddie: And I’m talking to you. I don’t like heels or big mouths. We’re all scared, and why shouldn’t we be? What do you think they’re using in this war—water pistols? [To Lloyd] You’re all right, kid. I like guys who are honest with themselves. Stay that way.
Love that scene. At this point, Eddie is the perfect balance between nice (Lloyd) and nasty (George), a la the split halves of Capt. Kirk in “The Enemy Within,” an early, first-season episode of “Star Trek.” He doesn’t run from trouble but he’s not looking for it, either. Later, in fact, as the boys talk up what they’re going to do when the war is over, Eddie says he just wants his old mechanic’s job back: “All I know is I don’t want any more trouble,” he says. Great, ironic line.
So how did this great guy become a gangster? Blame the times.
This is the only Cagney gangster movie that suggests as much, isn’t it? Tom Powers and Rocky Sullivan were into crime at a young age, and I assume Cody Jarrett, too. They didn’t need Prohibition and the Volstead Act. Eddie does.
Back home, the mechanic’s job isn’t waiting for him, no job is, and Eddie winds up driving/sharing Danny’s cab. Then one night, delivering a package of bootleg booze to Panama Smith (Gladys George), the cops slap the cuffs on him. He’s innocent, Panama isn’t, but he’s the one who gets 60 days. Guess who his lawyer is? Lloyd, forever ineffectual. But Panama pays his fine and introduces him to the world of speakeasies. He and Danny start out in distribution—the cabs are a good way to deliver booze—but when the supplier jacks up the price they get into production as well: bathtub gin. The money comes fast and easy. And Eddie changes.
He doesn’t become mean or violent so much as obsessed with money—and, oddly, workplace efficiency. It's less forever blowing bubbles than forever counting bills. Then he gets really greedy. He tries to make a deal with Nick Brown (Paul Kelly), a bootlegger who has the good stuff; but Brown, a WASP eating spaghetti in an Italian restaurant, can’t be bothered. So Eddie hijacks the stuff off of Brown’s boat, which just happens to be captained by George. That’s how Bogie is reintroduced into the narrative—he becomes Eddie’s right-hand man. Per ’30s Bogie, he's also restless, thin-skinned, and dangerous.
At this point, it become ante-upping in the gangster tradition. For heisting the booze, Brown kills Danny; Eddie kills Brown for killing Danny. George had tipped off Brown, but Eddie doesn’t have proof so he merely delivers a warning to George. Bad move. One of many he makes around this time.
Weaving throughout all this is a romance that’s awkward, one-sided, and keeps running hot and cold in a way that doesn't feel real. It starts back in France with American girls sending photos to soldiers. George gets one from an unattractive woman—they’re quite cruel to her—while Eddie lucks out with Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane), a pretty blonde with long hair, beret, and a come-hither look. Back home, he visits her in Mineola on Long Island and it turns out she’s …15 or something. Meaning she was 14 or 13 when she sent the photo? Yikes. The photo came from a high school play (“The Fortune Teller” by Victor Herbert), and Eddie tries to politely excuse himself. She: “Oh, aren’t you going to tell me about the war? And how you suffered?” He: “Honey, you’ll never know how I suffered.”
Years later, a theater manager keeps stiffing him for bootleg booze, so Eddie pays him a visit but becomes distracted by a girl in the chorus line: Jean, of course, now a young adult. In the earlier scene, she was interested in him, he wasn’t in her. Now she can't be bothered with him—at all—while he won't go away. He waits outside the stage door, insists on walking her to the station, then takes the train with her to Mineola. He even walks her to her door at like 2 a.m. (Where did the doll she’s holding come from, by the way? Did we lose a scene?) By now she’s relaxed around him, saying she’s had the best time, even though on the train he seemed a little dickish—mocking her youth and ambitions. He’s also not exactly a gentleman by the door. She says good night, he says “Kind of a quick brushoff, ain’t it?” She suggests the porch, he suggests inside. She’s about to let him inside (good god, girl) when she mentions in passing that her mother died the year before. It's at this moment, when nothing’s stopping him, that Eddie suddenly becomes a gentleman. She re-invites him inside and he's like, “Oh no. As you said, it’s getting late.” I guess the dead mother touches his heart? Anyway he goes to Panama’s place to get Jean a regular singing gig.
Is this the beginning of the divide in Cagney’s cinematic treatment of women? Early in his career, particularly pre-code, he was always checking them out and leering after them and dragging them across the floor by the hair. From the 1940s on, he’s almost paternal with his romantic partners: patting their cheeks and kissing their foreheads. Maybe because he’s so much older by then? He only had seven years on Joan Blondell but 16 on Priscilla Lane, and this gap will just grow: 28 on Barbara Payton (“Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”), 31 on Anne Francis (“A Lion is in the Streets”) and 35 on Shirley Jones (“Never Steal Anything Small”).
The whole “gangster gets girl a singing gig” is based on the Moe Snyder/Ruth Etting story, which Cagney played for real with Doris Day in 1955, where he was obsessive and cruel. Not here. Around Jean he’s smitten and solicitous. Does he even make one move? Mostly, he sits in the audience, squeezes Panama’s hand, smiles up at Jean singing. Whatever interest Jean had in him, meanwhile, has long vanished—particularly after she meets Lloyd. They start up a relationship which everyone but Eddie can see. George tries to tell him, Panama tries to tell him. No soap. The nightclub owner calls him a sucker and Eddie yanks the dude’s cigar out of his mouth and mashes it back in. It’s the grapefruit scene all over again but with a dude. One wonders if it wasn’t a constant Warners directive: Find something Cagney can mash into someone’s face.
Eddie finally finds out about Jean the night Danny dies. Helluva night: He loses his best friend, his right-hand man, and his girl. No wonder he sidles up to the bar. Up to this point, Eddie’s been a teetotaler, literally drinking milk, but now he orders a bottle of the hootch he’s been peddling. We suspect it’ll lead to his downfall.
Except that’s not what leads to his downfall. What does? Blame the times again.
Throughout, we’ve been getting faux “March of Time” montages—anticipating “Citizen Kane” by a few years, and apparently put together by a young Don Siegel, who was a montage man back in the day. They’re not bad. John Deering’s stentorian voice moves along the action and the years until we reach the stock-market crash:
1929! … Confusion spreads through the canyons of New York's financial district, and men stare wild-eyed at the spectacle of complete ruin. More than 16 and a half million shares change hands in a single day of frenzied selling. The paper fortunes built up over the last few years crumble into nothing …
That’s what does him in. He loses tons of money, and then, to shore up his losing position, he stupidly sells his only tangible assets—the fleet of taxis—to George, the traitor, for a pittance. He panics, George doesn’t, George wins. Then George sticks the knife in. “I’m gonna leave you one [cab],” he says. “Just one. Cause you’re gonna need it, pal.”
Which he does. Another montage of Eddie in increasingly shabby clothes and settings, often with Panama, and when Prohibition ends he’s back to driving the cab George left him. Eddie Bartlett is our representative 1920s figure: He rose with Prohibition and fell with the stock-market crash.
Don't worry, there’s more downfall. We've got to tie up all the loose ends. One day, outside of a fancy department store at Christmastime, who happens to get into his cab but Jean. She’s excited to see him—chattering away about Lloyd’s work with the D.A.’s office and their four-year-old son—but Eddie’s dead-eyed, flat voiced, and she eventually gets the message and sinks back into her seat. Oddly, he helps take the packages into the house, where he meets her bratty kid (“Come over someday and shoot Indians WITH ME!”), as well as Lloyd, whose D.A. team is going after George’s racket. Eddie warns him that George plays rough, and in the next scene George’s men deliver just that warning to Jean: “If your boyfriend don’t bury [the evidence], your boyfriend will get buried himself.”
So who does she run to? Eddie, of course. By now he’s in a dive bar with Panama, oiled to the gills, trying to douse the torch he still carries for Jean. For all the build-up of him drinking, this is the one time we see him drunk. It’s also the one time he turns down Jean, who wants him to talk to George. “Why should I?” he asks. “Lloyd’ll be killed. … Eddie, please, for my sake.” He still refuses. You know who convinces him? Panama, the one holding a torch for Eddie. I guess? Sorta?
Alright, I’ll say it: A lot of the movie doesn’t make much sense. “Roaring Twenties” is a movie beloved by cineastes, but of Cagney’s four big gangster flicks I think it’s his weakest. It starts strong, is well-made, but the characters serve the needs of the plot rather than themselves. The shift from nice-guy Eddie to greedy Eddie, for example, never feels real, nor does his stock-market panic, while the relationship with Jean is full of starts and stops and odd turns. More, if your hero is going to make a fool of himself over a girl, she needs to be worth it. Jean isn't worth it.
There there’s the final act bit about Eddie telling himself he’ll bounce back? As a gangster? Could no one remind this guy what he was before the Volstead Act? It’s not just that he’s forgotten, I get the feeling the movie’s forgotten. According to Patrick McGilligan’s book, “Cagney: The Actor as Auteur,” the original “Roaring Twenties” screenplay was one of the worst Cagney’s brother and manager William had ever seen, and up to 10 Warners screenwriters tried to improve it. And even then Cagney, McHugh and Bogart wound up improvising a lot of dialogue.
But we do get a good end. At this point, George lives in a mansion with half a dozen gunmen protecting him, and they decide to bring in the soused, disheveled Eddie for a laugh; but George thinks that Eddie, like Lloyd, knows too much. Eddie, who could never read Jean, reads this threat fine, disarms and kills a gunman, then kills George (who, like all Bogie villains, proves a sniveler in the end), then blasts his way out of the joint. He almost makes it, too, but he’s shot running down the street. That sets up our famous ending in the snow. As he stumbles up and back down the church steps, he’s tracing his own rise and fall, before dying, in pieta fashion, in the arms of the ever-loyal Panama. A passing cop asks who he was and what was his business. “This is Eddie Bartlett,” she says. “He used to be a big shot.”
Pullback, rising music, The End.
Interesting footnote: I assumed this movie—whose working title was “The World Moves On”— was eventually called “The Roaring Twenties” because that’s what everyone called the 1920s back then. It was the definitive phrase. Now I’m thinking it’s the definitive phrase because of this movie. According to newspapers.com, which tracks American newspapers through the years, the phrase comes up only 198 times in the 1920s, and in the 1930s it ranges from just six mentions in 1932 to 78 mentions in 1935 and ’37. But the year this movie came out, that number suddenly shot up to 4,164. Maybe “Roaring Twenties” would’ve become definitive anyway, but I like to think Cagney helped.
For all my complaints, the movie is still fun. Gladys George is excellent. Her character, originally called Kansas Smith, is based on Texas Guinan, a one-time actress who ran speakeasies in the ’20s and greeted crowds with the phrase, “Hello, suckers!,” which George does here. Bogie is excellent, too. You begin to understand why he was stuck playing second-rate gangsters with chips on their shoulders for so long: he does it well. There’s that great heist scene at the government facility where he disarms the guard (Joe Sawyer), then realizes who it is: “Well, if it ain’t my old sergeant,” he says, practically licking his lips. “I told ya we’d meet some time when you didn’t have no stripes on your sleeves.” BLAM! This is the last of three movies Cagney made with Bogie, and Bogie’s killed in all of them; it’s the first of four movies Cagney made with Raoul Walsh, and Cagney is killed in three of them.
Cagney’s in fine form, too. I like the foxhole scene— the steel that goes up in Eddie’s eyes with George, his gentleness toward Lloyd. In the cigar-mashing scene, I like how Eddie is ready to deck the guy but checks himself, calculates, goes for the cigar instead, which may be less paintful but much more humiliating. It's often such little touches that make a movie. In the dive bar near the end, Jean’s left, Panama has made her case and been rebuffed, and Eddie is waiting for Panama to get her coat. As he stumbles through the bar, he passes a man playing a tune on the piano, “My Melancholy Baby," I think, the same song Jean sang on the train to Mineola. Eddie listens with a wistful look on his face. When he helps Panama on with her coat, he finally admits she was right: They had finished out of the money. It’s never stated, but that’s when he decides to confront George. The understated that says so much.