Saturday Night Cinema: The Roaring Twenties (1939)


Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema classic is The Roaring Twenties (1939). Dynamic, quintessential gangster film, wonderfully stylized by director Raoul Walsh.

The Roaring Twenties

The New Yorker

Raoul Walsh’s 1939 crime drama, starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, looks back at Prohibition-busting gangsters as quaint and curious objects of nostalgia, a mere six years after alcohol became legal again. Yet its wide historical span, invoking the social shocks and moral crises that arose from the First World War, spoke to contemporary matters—including the Depression—as another European war was heating up. Cagney plays a downwardly mobile mechanic—unemployed, struggling, and lonely—whose unhappy new job as a cab driver gets him into inadvertent trouble. Bogart plays the crime boss who makes him a partner. Walsh unfolds the practical details of bootleggers’ nocturnal maneuvers with quiet comedic flair alongside harrowing violence. The over-all tone of the drama—concerning foxhole friends who end up as partners in crime but rivals in love—evokes the flailings of unformed men whom a heedless society tossed in harm’s way and then cast aside.

— Richard Brody

The Roaring Twenties (1939) is action director Raoul Walsh’s first gangster film (and first film for Warner Bros.). [Note: Walsh replaced director Anatole Litvak at the last minute.] This newsreel-like, semi-documentary, authentic-looking film, with both hard-hitting gangster genre action and romantic sentiment, shares a lot of similarities and is reminiscent of the greatest gangster films of the 30s, including Little Caesar (1930), Scarface: The Shame of the Nation (1932), and Public Enemy (1931). All of these films portray bootlegging, numerous murders, gangster life, and the death of the hero at the conclusion.

At the end of the thirties, Walsh’s ‘social history’ film eulogizes and recreates the entire Jazz Age decade, Prohibition and its repeal (including the process of manufacturing bathtub gin), and the Depression era (through the mid 1930s) with an expansive, eulogistic perspective within an historical framework. However, the protagonist is portrayed as a reluctant victim of social and environmental conditions during the time period – as a returning WWI doughboy to a 1918 America of unemployment, he is lured to a corruptible life as a small-time hood after being denied his old job and after taking advantage of poorly-conceived government laws. Then, as a struggling taxi-cab driver after a change of fortune during the Depression, he becomes a poverty-stricken, alcoholic “forgotten man” in the 30s.

It is a classic, realistic, crisp Warner Brothers melodrama with stars James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart – quintessential gangland characters, electrifying actor Cagney as the reckless leader of the gangland and Bogart as his ruthless second-fiddle lieutenant and then as his rival. This old-style film was the third and last time that the two were brought together. [They had earlier appeared in Michael Curtiz’ Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and Oklahoma Kid (1939).] This was Cagney’s last gangster film until he returned to the genre ten years later in Walsh’s excellent White Heat (1949). The film also features many popular songs of the era it portrays, including Melancholy Baby, I’m Wild About Harry, It Had to Be You, and In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town.

The screenplay for the film, written by Jerry Wald, Richard Macaulay, and Robert Rossen, was based on an original screen story by Mark Hellinger. Hellinger’s prohibition saga, originally entitled The World Moves On, was based on his experiences as a New York news-reporter during the Roaring 20s, and his familiarity with the illegal clubs of the day (i.e., the Hotsy-Totsy, Dizzy, and Blackbottom).

This last of the gangster films in the 30s, with James Cagney in a thinly-disguised (and humanized) lead role, was based upon the real-life rise and fall of New York mobster/racketeer Larry Fay who had a business relationship with his brassy, frowsy saloon singer-promoter and hostess Texas Guinan (Gladys George’s role as Panama Smith). [Guinan was known for her famed greeting to patrons – "Hello, suckers” – that was changed to the likable "Hello, chumps” in the film)]. This superb film was not nominated for a single Academy Award.


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