Roaring Twenties, The (1939): Raoul Walsh’s Crime Thriller, Starring James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart

Raoul Walsh directed The Roaring Twenties, a crime thriller, starring James Cagney, Priscilla Lane, Humphrey Bogart, and Gladys George.

Spanning the years between 1919 and 1933, the film was written by Jerry Wald, Richard Macaulay and Robert Rossen, based on “The World Moves On,” short story by Mark Hellinger, a columnist hired by Jack L. Warner to write scripts.

The story follows the experiences of three men during major events in the 1920s, such as Prohibition era violence, and the 1929 stock market crash.

The Roaring Twenties
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Theatrical release poster

The movie also serves as homage to classic gangster movies of the early 1930s, some of which starred Cagney.

The Roaring Twenties was the third and last film that Cagney and Bogart made together. The other two were Angels with Dirty Faces and The Oklahoma Kid.

Eddie Bartlett, George Hally, and Lloyd Hart meet in foxhole during the final days of World War I. Lloyd starts his law practice, George becomes a bootlegger, and Eddie a cab driver.

While unknowingly delivering a package of liquor to Panama Smith, Eddie is arrested. Panama is acquitted and after short stint in jail, they go into the bootlegging business. Eddie uses a fleet of cabs to deliver his liquor, and he hires Lloyd as his lawyer to handle his legal issues.

After encountering Jean Sherman, a girl he corresponded with during the war, he gets her a job singing in Panama’s club. Wishing to marry her, Eddie gives her engagement ring and asks her wait until he’s saved up money to quit the criminal rackets.

Eddie and his henchmen hijack a shipment of liquor of fellow bootlegger Nick Brown who had refused to cooperate. In charge of the liquor shipment is George, who proposes that Eddie bring him in as a partner. Eddie agrees and back home they inform the authorities about one of Brown’s liquor shipments. After the shipment is confiscated, Eddie and George raid the warehouse and steal it. As they are leaving, George recognizes one of the watchmen as his former sergeant that he disliked and murders him. After learning of the murder, Lloyd cuts ties with George, who then threatens to kill Lloyd if he informs on them. As the bootlegging rackets prosper, Eddie sends his friend Danny to arrange a truce with Brown, but Danny’s corpse is dropped off in front of Panama’s club. Eddie goes after Brown, but George, resentful of Eddie’s increasing power, tips off Brown, who sets a trap. A gunfight ensues, and Eddie manages to kill Brown. Suspecting George’s betrayal but unable to prove it, Eddie dissolves their partnership.

Eddie discovers that Jean has never really loved him, and is in love with Lloyd. After investing in the stock market, Eddie’s bootlegging empire crumbles in the 1929 crash, and he is forced to sell his cab company to George at a low price. George mockingly leaves Eddie a cab for himself, claiming Eddie will soon be forced to go back to driving a cab.

Jean hails Eddie’s cab and he renews his acquaintance with her and Lloyd, who now works at the district attorney’s office, preparing a case against George. The encounter leaves Eddie despondent as he still harbors feelings towards her.

When Jean discovers that George is planning to kill Lloyd, she appeals to Eddie for help. After initial decline, he asks George to have mercy on the couple. While there, Eddie is mocked again by George for his shabby looks. He decides to have Eddie killed– holding that Eddie will inform on him in order to help Jean. In a shootout, Eddie kills George and some of his men.

Eddie is shot by one of George’s men and collapses on the steps of a nearby church. As the police arrest the remainder of George’s gang, Panama runs to Eddie and cradles his lifeless body. When a police officer begins inquiring about who Eddie was, she replies, “He used to be a big shot.”

The Carol Burnett Show spoofed the movie as “The Boring Twenties,” with Burnett parodying the Panama Smith character as Havana Jones.

Cast

James Cagney as Eddie Bartlett
Priscilla Lane as Jean Sherman
Humphrey Bogart as George Hally
Gladys George as Panama Smith
Jeffrey Lynn as Lloyd Hart
Frank McHugh as Danny Green
George Meeker as Harold Masters
Paul Kelly as Nick Brown
Elisabeth Risdon as Mrs. Sherman
Edward Keane as Pete Henderson
Joseph Sawyer as Sergeant Pete Jones
Abner Biberman as Lefty
John Hamilton as Judge
Robert Elliott as First Detective
Eddie Chandler as Second Detective
Vera Lewis as Mrs. Gray
John Deering as the Narrator

Credits:

Directed by Raoul Walsh
Written by Jerry Wald, Richard Macaulay, Robert Rossen, based on The World Moves On (1938) by Mark Hellinger
Produced by Hal B. Wallis, Samuel Bischoff
Cinematography Ernest Haller
Edited by Jack Killifer
Music by Ray Heindorf
Heinz Roemheld
Distributed by Warner

Release date: October 23, 1939

Running time: 104 minutes