The Roaring Twenties is a mid period James Cagney gangster picture which co-stars Humphrey Bogart in the third and final film in which the two screen legends shared billing. The film takes on the epic task of depicting the rise and fall of a big shot gangster from his humble beginnings in the trenches of The First World War, through the heights of the prohibition era, the crippling Stock Market Crash and the subsequent repealing of the Volstead Act. This is a film which never feels epic in scale and instead closely follows its protagonists within their ever changing world. It’s also a film which has few standout moments and although considered a classic of the genre, dragged and felt much longer than it truly is.
The romantic elements of the story felt forced and the film was on more solid ground during the rat-tat-tat-tat, fast talking, “What’s the big idea” back and forth of the scenes set in the underworld speakeasies or liquor distilleries. Pricilla Lane is excellent in her early scenes as a wide eyed, inexperienced girl next door but suddenly seems swamped when placed inside the illegal world of the bootlegger. Her voice is sweet sounding and she can certainly hold a tune but she’s at sea when unaccompanied by an orchestra.
What I really enjoyed about The Roaring Twenties was the relationship between Cagney’s good guy gone bad, Eddie Bartlett and Bogart’s bad guy gone worse, George Hally. This was one of Bogart’s final typecast gangster roles and it’s still a little unsettling to see him play such a villain given the characters of his most famous roles. Here though, you have no doubt as to his character following an early war scene in which he happily kills a teenaged German mere minutes before the armistice. Bartlett is less cut and dry and initially attempts to make good in the world but he finds the world has moved on during his years in the trenches and an honest living is something that’s hard to find. The way in which he turns to his bootlegging lifestyle is natural and well written. The political and satirical undertones are also never far from the surface in these scenes and bubble up from time to time in a pleasing manner.
Cagney lights up the screen with his villainous behaviour and rolled up sleeve attitude but it’s really towards the climax that his acting prowess shines though. He plays down and out superbly and is offset nicely by Bogart’s shark like Hally. The ever changing power struggle and one-upmanship in their relationship, coupled with deep mistrust, helps to keep the film flowing through some of its duller moments. Considering the film whizzes through over a decade of history in fewer than two hours, I felt that the pacing was a little slow. The dialogue was generally very good but it sometimes took a long time for a scene or sequence to get going. Some rather uninspiring direction from the normally reliable Raoul Walsh also seems to slow things down. In addition to this are some fairly mundane action sequences which featured slapdash choreography and looked a little too amateurish for a film with such talent both in front of and behind the camera.
Like the central character, the film redeems itself in its final moments and it’s the ending where the best action and drama is to be found. Cagney excels in these late scenes and the movie beautifully pulls all the strings of the plot together, satisfying the Breen Office and audience alike. Had the remainder of the film been pitched the same, I would have enjoyed it a lot more than I did.
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