King of the Roaring ‘20s (1961): Biopic of Arnold Rothstein Starring David Janssen

Based on the novel “The Big Bankroll” by Leo Katcher, and directed by Joseph M. Newman, The King of the Roaring 20” (aka “The Story of Arnold Rothstein”) is a passable, B-level biopic of the notorious gangster Arnold Rothstein.

The book was a best seller and several companies were interested in film rights, which were bought by Allied Artists, a company that enjoyed big commercial success with “Al Capone” (1959) and was interested in making more gangster films.

When David Diamond was assigned to produce, he wanted Dean Martin to play the lead. Instead, it was cast with David Janssen, who had recently made Hell to Eternity and Dondi for Allied Artists.

Jo Swerling’s scenario is too generic and fictionalized in its chronicle of the violent rise and fall of the notorious gangster Arnold Rothstein, best known for fixing the 1919 World Series.

Sam Bischoff and David Diamond had previously produced a better film noir, “The Phenix City Story.”  As the producers couldn’t get releases from the real-life people depicted in the film apart from Rothstein’s wife Carolyn, the only figures using their real names are Arnold Rothstein, his wife and his father. Others, like Tim Sullivan, were renamed Tim O’Brien.

Mickey Rooney’s son Tim played the character depicted by his father as a child.

Early on, Arnold’s father reproaches his son: “You have no faith in anything but money, and we won’t go into the sources of your income,” and the ensuing story goes on to prove his point.

Newman’s direction is decent but the pacing is too slow and deliberate for such a narrative.

In the lead role, David Janssen gives a decent performance, but he’s miscast as Rothstein was short and fat and Jewish.

Thus, it’s the secondary character actors that elevate the picture.  The impressive ensemble includes Jack carson, Mickey Rooney, Dan O’Herlihy, Keenan Wynn, William Demarest, Joseph Schildkraut, and others.

Scorsese used elements of Rothstein’s life in his crime-gangster film “Casino,” in 1995.

David Janssen – Arnold Rothstein
Dianne Foster – Carolyn Green Rothstein
Diana Dors – Madge (based on Peggy Hopkins Joyce)
Jack Carson – Timothy W. ‘Big Tim’ O’Brien (based on “Big Tim” Sullivan)
Dan O’Herlihy – Detective Phil Butler (based on Charles Becker)
Mickey Shaughnessy – Jim Kelly
Keenan Wynn – Tom Fowler (based on Bill Fallon)
William Demarest – Henry Hecht
Regis Toomey – Bill Baird (based on Herbert Bayard Swope)
Robert Ellenstein – Lenny
Tim Rooney – Johnny Burke as young boy
Joseph Schildkraut – Abraham Rothstein
Mickey Rooney – Johnny Burke


TCM showed the movie on August 21, 2020 as part of a tribute to Diana Dors.