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Roaring Twenties, The
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by MP Bartley

"Cagney and Bogart - Together!"
5 stars

Not for the first time of course, as Bogart took a small role in Angels with Dirty Faces only a year previously. That film however, was when Bogart was just starting to make a name for himself whilst The Roaring Twenties is when Bogart's star power was just beginning to equal Cagneys. And as befits the star power of the two leads, The Roaring Twenties is much more than just a 1930s gangster film, instead coming across like the flipside of It's A Wonderfu Life, where it doesn't have a happy ending.

Eddie (James Cagney) and George (Humphrey Bogart) meet on the battlegrounds of World War One and serve their army with distinction. On their return home however, they part ways only to find that while they may be war heroes, their country has no need for them. America is gripped by spiralling poverty and unemployment, with the situation only worsened by the introduction of prohibition. Eddie finds the only job he is suitable for is booze running, a profession he doesn't particularly like, but one he does have the aptitude for. As he quickly rises the ranks, he discovers that George has also travelled the same career path as himself, but with a more ruthless edge. Throughout the film, Eddie does what he can to help others around him, gets little in return and by the end of the film (New Year's Eve instead of Christmas), unlike George Bailey finds that there is no guardian angel or rallying crowd for him - ending as alone at the end of the 1920s as at the beginning.

The Roaring Twenties is not like any other gangster film that was produced during the 1930s by the Warners studio. It has an epic decade-long sweep that it crams under two hours, while as mentioned above the main protagonist finds himself on a journey similiar to that of George Bailey. If It's A Wonderful Life showed the positive side of the American dream, then this is the opposite side of the coin. War heroes are forgotten not celebrated, there are no jobs for someone willing to work and the only reason that Eddie falls into crime is because he is falsely imprisoned, embittering him forevermore against the American judicial system and society in general.

Director Raoul Walsh manages to cram an immense amount of time and story into a fairly slim running time, all the while never letting the story feel thin or underdeveloped. Instead, he directs it at a cracking pace with a whipsmart intelligence. Utilising fake newsreels and an authoritative voiceover, The Roaring Twenties comes across like a stern lecture on lifes pitfalls at times. What stops it being patronising however is the fact that nothing is ever deemed wrong as such (prohibition is judged to have caused more problems than any it was supposedly solving), and there's a strong current of humanity coursing through the film. It spends just as much as time on Eddie's romantic longing for a nigthclub singer as it does on his eventual conflict with George. Walsh keeps several balls juggling in the air at the same time, whilst demonstrating through several brilliantly edited and creative montages (watch out for that city collapsing...) just how much change can be found in a ten year period.

With such a wonderful script to work with, it's no surprise to see the stars turn in some of the best work they ever did. It's a shock to see Bogart not playing the romantic lead, or a cynical, tough anti-hero here, but a viscious and cruel villain instead. He delights in trying to destroy Eddie's empire and in chilling moment early on, is caught in a ruined building on the battleground with Eddie and another soldier. When their fellow soldier balks at gunning down a German solider because he only looks about 15, George has no problem slaying him instead, remarking with a cruel grin "Well, he'll never be 16".

As the erstwhile hero of the film, Cagney turns in perhaps the greatest and most multilayered turn of his career. This isn't the psychopath of White Heat or the petty thugs of The Public Enemy or Angels with Dirty Faces, Eddie is someone totally different. He's a booze smuggler who doesn't drink, he's a gangster who'd rather be wooing Jean (Priscilla Lane) than fighting and he's a war hero that ends up as society's villain. Cagney is wonderful throughout, and he could really play a romantic lead if ever given a chance. Sure, he instills his customary toughness into Eddie, but he's not a violent man. He looks to slap around a friend of his who he discovers is also trying to woo Jean, but it's done with extreme reluctance and is half-hearted at best, the crumpled expression on his face suggesting someone led by the heart rather than the head or the temper. By the end, he's a scruffy, broken man a million miles way from the tough guy roles he's usually associated with and it's a heartbreaking performance from Cagney. Littering the film with little Method details (watch what he does with the alcoholic drink George offers to him on the tugboat), it's one of Cagney's least appreciated performances, yet one of his very best.

The scenes with him and Bogart really spark and they have an irrestible pull, which has arguably only ever been equalled with Pacino and De Niro's team up in Heat. But unlike that film, which only included that scene because it felt it had to, and struggled to find any real relevance or meaning to it, there isn't a wasteful minute here with the two of them, and it's terrific to see Cagney and Bogart spitting insults and threats at each other. Together, they give The Roaring Twenties the speed of a tommy gun and the kick of badly distilled gin.

The film is more than a gangster film, and it's more than a lazy team up of the two biggest stars at the time. It's the ugly cousin of It's a Wonderful Life and has a scope comparable to Leone's Once Upon a Time in America. That's extremely distinguished company and The Roaring Twenties deserves its place there absolutely - it's not just a thriller, it's a great American tragedy.

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originally posted: 02/06/07 02:48:15
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User Comments

7/05/21 Suzanne thought-provoking and heart-breaking - great script 5 stars
11/12/10 Josie Cotton is a goddess Great to see this classic rated so highly! 5 stars
11/17/09 R.Nixon good but overacted by Cagney and Bogart 4 stars
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  23-Oct-1939 (NR)
  DVD: 05-Oct-2010



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