The Roaring Twenties (1939)*

*or, My Introduction to Film Noir

*or, An Introduction to the Superlative Star-Power of THE James Cagney (a Man Without Peer)

Well, at long last, we’ve reached the end of this fun and fantastic foray into the thrilling theatrical watershed, 1939.  The year of such great films as Stagecoach, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Wuthering Heights, Ninotchka, and Midnight, 1939 has long been considered the finest year in Hollywood history.  Surely, it is a testament to the era of Great American Screenplays in which it was born.  One way in which this era of the great screenplays in American history was characterized was by the star-power it conceived.  And, in The Roaring Twenties, we see exactly what sort of star-power the era could produce.This film represents the third and final time that Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney would work together on the same project.  The star status of Humphrey Bogart has been addressed to a significant-enough extent in this blog, and we will continue to talk about his star power in future posts.  But, the great James Cagney has not been discussed quite so well.  This is by no means an implication that Cagney was some sort of smaller star, a man of lesser reputation than the sort held by movie stars like Bogart, Stewart, and Wayne.  As a matter of fact, Cagney’s vivacious magnitude and inimitable personality were, probably, the most torrential force in all of Hollywood.  Even more than colleagues like Clark Gable and Cary Grant, James Cagney was an actor who took the audience’s attention with nothing more than a smile, and then had the strangely paradoxical ability to welcomely overcome them with his dexterous mix of rage and grace.

In Roger Ebert’s review of Yankee Doodle Dandy (Cagney’s only song-and-dance film aside from 1933’s Footlight Parade), he gave what might be the best description of Cagney’s style in the fewest words available.

“There is a story that James Cagney stood on his toes while acting, believing he would project more energy that way. That sounds like a press release, but whatever he did, Cagney came across as one of the most dynamic performers in movie history—a short man with ordinary looks whose coiled tension made him the focus of every scene….

“He doesn’t dance so much as strut; he doesn’t act so much as sell you his desire to entertain. In dialogue scenes, when other actors are talking, his eyes dart across their faces, silently urging them to pick up the energy; he’s like Michael Jordan impatiently willing his co-stars to keep up with him. And when he’s in full sail, as in ‘Give My Regards to Broadway’ or ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy,’ it’s like regarding a force of nature.”

Energy.  Tension.  Dynamic.  Force of nature.

Such are the words that describe the master of the 1930s crime drama.  Even in a studio which hired Edward G. Robinson and the aforementioned Humphrey Bogart, Cagney was Warner Brothers’ premier star, not just in the crime genre, but in most any drama.  And in his three films with Bogie (Angels With Dirty Faces, The Oklahoma Kid, and The Roaring Twenties), Cagney’s indomitable presence made the great Humphrey look a lot smaller than he actually was. Granted, Bogart was still an upstart in the Hollywood game, and he had yet to be granted a headlining protagonist (or anti-hero) role like the roles that would come to him in just the next few years.

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Cagney gave life to The Roaring Twenties, the sort of life that nobody else could give.  The whole premise of the film is one of greatness and power; in an era still wrestling with the pangs of the Great Depression, the prosperity of the 1920s was something greatly missed.  People longed for the time that they used to enjoy, and youth longed for the posterity that their parents talked about so often.  The richer were richer and the poor were richer than they ever had been in the country at any time.

Now, that came with a price.  You’ll get plenty of explanations as to what caused the 1920s to end with its rapid descent into economic melancholy.  From conservative railings against the growth of progressivism to the Keynesian condemnation of commercial inactivity, you’ll see a plethora of finger-pointing and cross-examination trying to find fault and explain the run-on-the-bank that led to Depression.  Whatever explanations you may find, the popular opinion is rather consensus-based: the 1920s were not what they seemed to be on the surface.  Were they really the golden age of the American way?  Or, was it more like the Gilded Age that preceded it?

You’ll find that the principles introduced here bring light to an analytical comparison between this film and a film at which we looked in the recent past, Gone With the Wind.  Like in Gone With the Wind, when we were looking at a land romanticized despite its flaws (or in full refusal of those flaws), we are, in The Roaring Twenties, seeing a story about a gilded era, one where the romance on the surface did not necessarily reflect the flaws underneath.  (Your typical David Lynch fan will make an obligatory reference to Blue Velvet at this point.  I am not a David Lynch fan, and will, therefore, forgo the obligation).

The difference between the approach taken in The Roaring Twenties and the one taken in Gone With the Wind lies in their relationship with the object of mythos that acts as their film’s subject.  In Gone With the Wind, the story is one of myth.  (Please read the review to understand what I’m talking about).  In The Roaring Twenties, though, the story is one of anti-myth.  In essence, the film takes the myth (in terms of its being a cultural foundation, not in terms of it being untrue) of the 1920s in the American psyche and turns it on its head.  It decides to take a more vérité approach to the retelling of the cultural myth, and, as a result, gives us what would become a new genre in American cinema.

We had a cinema that told us of myths and heroes.

We were about to have a cinema that told us of anti-myths and anti-heroes.

This would become the central premise that drove the great films of the 1940s, and, in truth, it remains in force today.  It is so frequent it’s almost reprehensible that critics are constantly referring to a film’s ability to “expose the truth”, “peel away the surface”, and “show the reality”.  The movement that movies like The Roaring Twenties began is one with complete power in today’s artistic circles.  As I stated in my essay on morality in film, the whole essence of film—even its very process—is rooted in “exposure”.  While, as I said in the same essay, there are some downsides to this approach (in particular, it alienates us from those more hopeful pictures of the early sound years), there is still a special power that truth-telling films offer.

Now, you may be concerned, especially if you’ve been on this journey with me from casual movie-watching to film competency since the outset of this blog.  You may find it counter-intuitive, even hypocritical, to spend three years preaching forbearance from an appeal to reality in film criticism (in what I’ve called the “A Slice of Cake” theory), only to now be glorifying what seems like just such an appeal.  Well, you just wait.  I plan on only confusing you more in coming segments and series, particularly when we pass over the film noir series and into the upcoming series on “Realism”, “Neo-Realism” and the gangster film.  All will make sense in due time.  The “Slice of Cake” isn’t going stale or moldy.  It will still stand, even at the end of these.  Suffice it to say, for argument’s sake at this point in the blog, the point of a film being a “slice of cake” is to take us away from the reality of our own lives and our own expectations of what life should be, could be, or is.  It’s about giving a reality separate from our own, through the eyes of its maker.  And, The Roaring Twenties does just that.

The maker of the film, in this case, is Raoul Walsh.  And the story he tells is haunting.

Three men, Eddie (Cagney), George (Bogart), and Lloyd (Jeffrey Lynn), meet in a foxhole in World War I.  Like the terrifying imagery of the foxhole scene in All Quiet on the Western Front, which won Best Picture nine years earlier, the foxhole in this film shows the deepest and darkest of deep, dark places.  War is a true backdrop for human suffering, and a foxhole the symbol of entrapment.  The movie starts with these three in this, the worst of places.

We then follow them up to a greatness, and back down again to the deep and dark places (in this case, death).  It’s classically indicative of the gangster genre for an arc to end up back where it started.  Out of impoverishment rises a crime lord, and out of crime comes his steep fall.  Here, the arc is simpler, though starker: out of a land of death comes death.

When they come home, Lloyd becomes a lawyer, Eddie becomes a taxi driver, and George becomes a bootlegger.  One on one side of the law, one on the other, and one, a pawn in the middle.  Of course, the role of the middle man is the most interesting.  He’s the one by whom we see the forces of myth pull in all their strength, both heroic and realist.  So, of course, that role was Cagney’s.  He’s the one who falls in love with Jean Sherman, played by the talented Priscilla Lane, who remains ignorant to his affections.  All the while, there’s bar hostess, Panama, who loves Eddie, though he’s too caught up in Jean to notice.  And, at the end of the day, Jean loves Lloyd, and here we see the first love interest that is not unrequited.  Again, who’s in the middle?  Eddie.

Perhaps this is what makes The Roaring Twenties work so well as a Cagney masterwork.  Such a powerful force playing such a malleable character, a character at all times self-confident yet unaware of his pawn-status, who, despite his being pulled in every direction is able to enjoy a short-lived term on the top…such a role is one perfect for a bundle of energy and passion like the James Cagney.  And a term at the top it was.  After a clever sting to the cops, and a successful raid of the Feds, Cagney and Bogart team up to take Prohibition-era New York by storm.  But, pride gets the best of all parties.   And, treason is in the works.

In a way, Eddie is a symbol of the hard-working American in the 1930s, at all times a victim, yet harboring a resolution that overcame the reality of the times.  There was something atoning in Panama’s final scene, when the worst has finally caught up with Eddie, and she says, in effect not only to the redemption of the character, but to the redemption of the entire Depression-era generation, “he used to be a big shot.”

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Perhaps I’m making too much of this movie.  The reality is, it is a gangster/crime thriller.  It’s a movie replete with the aggression, pace, and intensity of the two men who were arguable the finest receptacles of pent-up power and timing in all of Hollywood.  There is little time for depth or pondering, there is far too much story going on.  Between the love triangles, the action, the betrayals, the friendships, the music (including Lane’s performance of “It Had to be You”, one of the great movie songs), the power, the glory, and the fall, this is a movie meant to be enjoyed before it is philosophized.  One writer online even called the film a primitive example of the “buddy flick” where “the ties of buddy-dom are pushed to the limit.”

I don’t think I am though.  The reality is, I’ve made this movie no bigger or more important than it really is.  I think that Walsh and the writers, producers, and actors knew they what they were doing.  They were making a movie that was not only a retreat from the anguish of the Depression, but indicative of the great victory that the American population had in surviving thus far, a decade into the ordeal.  Maybe they thought it would be money-maker, I’m sure they did.  But, regardless, they built a bridge.

The bridge they built will be studied in more depth in my next chapter on film noirFilm noir was born in the early 1940s from the foundations built by the 1930s gangster film.  It would run a parallel course to the Western film of the 1940s, providing the American anti-myth that would have as much impact on world cinema as the Western did.  By making a movie about the most mythical of all post-war American decades, one gilded and long gone, and showing it in the context of three World War I soldiers, Raoul Walsh made live a movement that had been in the works for several years.  That movement was to take the crime drama (the 1930s gangster film) and bring it down to the level, personalize it, stylize it, and create anti-heroes that operated against a shady backdrop, anti-heroes who lived a world of sharp angles and sharp wit, where relationships were more important than gun fights, and the answer to the mystery was less important than mystery itself.

4 thoughts on “The Roaring Twenties (1939)*

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