The Roaring Twenties (1939)

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  • directed by Raoul Walsh
  • starring James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Jeffrey Lynn, Priscilla Lane, Gladys George
  • Upon returning home from World War I, three men attempt to make a living in Prohibitionist America.

“A guy in the cell with me was talkin’ about bumpin’ himself off. Until I get around to that, I’m doin’ all right.”

Hungry for more diversity in the work he was doing, this was actually Cagney’s final gangster role until White Heat, ten years later. It felt like the story of Eddie Bartlett was the perfect note on which to end this segment of his career. Though it had its share of crime, action, and “retro” 1920’s style, this was really a story about the degradation of a man that fought valiantly for his country and returned home to find it closed off, ignorant to his sacrifices, and a different place altogether. Through Citizen Kane-like newsreel sequences, Walsh planted the story of Bartlett firmly into the real world during one of the most tumultuous times for our country as the War ended, Prohibition began, and the country for the entire decade was blindly heading towards a meltdown in 1929.

Eddie Bartlett himself shouldered all those pains on a personal level–no job, no home, no woman. He was a guy of no sharp intellect or particular skill, bouncing around in search of a stable existence and finally able to capitalize on the only small window presented to him at the time. He doesn’t give much consideration to the legality or effects of what he ends up doing with his life. His biggest concern, whether in war or back at home, is survival.

The success or failure of Eddie was connected directly to that of the country at large through the 20’s. With the implementation of the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act he was able to achieve top dog, almost hero-level status as the guy leveling the playing field for imbibers everywhere. But as the economy began to deteriorate so too did his modest empire, sending him back to the outskirts left alone to sulk and gawk at a society that cares little for his plight. His partners from the war, George and Lloyd, have moved up the ladder in their own ways and Jean cared more about her singing career than she did Eddie who got her on a stage in the first place. The only person that had any emotional investment in Eddie’s happiness and perhaps knew him more than anybody was Panama. Which led to the sad and ironic finale when she’s asked how she knew him and you see her confused, not quite able to conjure a clear answer.

This was another brilliant performance from Cagney. He showed equal parts naivety, violence, sadness, greed, disillusionment, and sometimes all in the same sentence. He’s too human to ever come across as a one-note gangster. Some crime films require that, but Walsh and the writers were able to corral much larger world issues into the action and it’s interesting to think that most actors if substituted into the role of Eddie would have made it a different, much less nuanced, and far worse film than it was.

As the country goes so goes Eddie and as Cagney goes so goes the film. I was happy to see Humphrey Bogart who up until now I’ve only seen in bland supporting roles begin to take some chances in his work. He was great in this though I was disappointed that just as he was beginning his death scene in the same over-the-top fashion as he did in Angels With Dirty Faces Walsh abruptly  cut away from it. My hunger for a stylish death was then satisfied by Cagney in the beautiful sequence on the snowy steps of the church. Fans of wrestling will immediately be able to identify the dazed and wounded saunter followed by a pronounced flop as, what I thought was trademark Ric Flair, but turns out to be trademark Cagney.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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