The Roaring Twenties (1939)


Raoul Walsh

In this movie, Bogart proves to be the sneering, sadistic gangster…

After nearly a decade of concentrating on the gangster period of the twenties, it appeared that Warner Brothers had decided to make one, final glorified kiss-off to the genre in the spectacularly staged “The Roaring Twenties.”

Director Raoul Walch was an odd choice for what turned out to be a first-rate action film, for Walsh was not normally a crime-film director… The film contained every possible cliché connected with the era…

Bogart’s portrayal was interesting as we watched him coldly murder an ex-army sergeant who had given him a rough time in the service, and then set put to get rid of Jeffrey Lynn, now a successful lawyer working for the district attorney and intent on crushing Bogart’s empire…

Cagney, whose energy gave him a panerotic sexual magnetism, was evident with his two relationships which both tend to increase our valuation of Cagney as a person as are the two ladies involved: Priscilla Lane, the innocent whom Cagney helps and loves, and the experienced Gladys George who is evidently devoted to him but never expresses her feelings to him…

This basic relationship between Cagney and the two female characters does not take away the great merit of “The Roaring Twenties”—much more it proves the skill of Raoul Walsh and the writers in deploying conventional elements in an effective and meaningful way.


Three men meet in a foxhole during the waning days of World War I: Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney), George Hally (Humphrey Bogart) and Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn), and experience trials and tribulations from the Armistice through the passage of the 18th Amendment leading to the Prohibition period of the 1920s and the violence which erupted due to it, all the way through the 1929 stock market crash to its conclusion at the end of 1933, only days after the 21st Amendmentbrought an end to the Prohibition era.

Following World War I, Lloyd Hart starts his law practice, George Hally, a former saloon keeper, becomes a bootlegger, and Eddie Bartlett, a garage mechanic, finds his old job filled. At the suggestion of his friend Danny Green (Frank McHugh), Eddie becomes a cab driver. While unknowingly delivering a package of liquor to Panama Smith (Gladys George), he is arrested. Panama is acquitted and after a short stint in jail, they go into the bootlegging business together. Eddie uses a fleet of cabs to deliver his liquor, and he hires Lloyd as his lawyer to handle his legal issues. He re-meets Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane), who is now an adult – a girl he formerly corresponded with during the war while she was in high school – working at a nightclub. Eddie gives her a job singing in Henderson’s cabaret, where Panama is hostess. Eddie wants Jean as his wife, but she does not return his affections.


Eddie and his henchmen hijack a shipload of liquor belonging to fellow bootlegger Nick Brown (Paul Kelly) who had refused to cooperate with him. In charge of the liquor shipment on board is George who proposes to Eddie to bring him in as a partner. Eddie agrees, and back home they tip off the Feds of a liquor shipment of Brown’s that is then confiscated. Eddie, George, and their henchmen raid the Fed’s warehouse stealing the liquor. 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 quits while being threatened by George. In time, as the bootlegging rackets prosper, Eddie sends Danny to arrange a truce between him and Brown, but Danny’s life-less body is dropped off in front of The Panama Club. Eddie and his henchmen plan a surprise visit to Brown’s establishment, but George, resentful with Eddie’s increasing power, tips off Brown, who sets a trap. A gunfight ensues, and Eddie kills Brown while escaping. Figuring out George’s duplicity, he dissolves their partnership.


While being in love with Jean, Eddie catches Jean and Lloyd together. Subsequently, after speculating in the stock market, Eddie’s bootlegging empire crumbles in the 1929 crash. He sells his fleet of cabs to George, who mockingly leaves Eddie one to drive, like the cab he drove at the end of the Great War after losing his job at the garage. As by chance one day, Jean steps into Eddie’s cab. Eddie is upset at her for leaving him for Lloyd, so he’s standoffish. Jean invites him back to her house to help Lloyd with a problem that he has with George. Now in the District Attorney’s office, Lloyd has received a death threat from George unless he stops working on the case to convict George as his crimes have caught up to him. Eddie is introduced to their 4 year-old son, but is noncommittal He agrees to be friends with them and leave it at that.

Jean tries a second time to ask Eddie for help. She locates him at a bar with Panama. After appealing to a drunken Eddie, he agrees to go to George’s house. While there, Eddie is mocked again by George for his shabby looks and cannot convince him to lay off Lloyd. This results in a shootout in which Eddie kills George (“Here’s one rap ya’ won’t beat…”) and some of his men, redeeming himself. After running outside, he is shot in the back by another cohort, and collapses on the steps of a nearby church. As the police arrest the remainder of George’s gang, Panama runs to Eddie, and being interviewed by a cop while she cradles Eddie’s lifeless body, she informs the officer, “He used to be a big shot.”



Gladys George had replaced Ann Sheridan who had replaced Lee Patrick who had replaced Glenda Farrell for the character of Panama Smith.

Anatole Litvak was the original director.

He Used To Be A Big Shot

Author: theowinthrop from United States
12 October 2005

It is not as centrally dynamic as THE PUBLIC ENEMY nor as Freudian as WHITE HEAT, but THE ROARING TWENTIES is a leading gangster film for Jimmy Cagney as it details the rise and fall of a gangster Eddie Bartlett. The product of World War I and Prohibition, Eddie rises to great power as the head of a gang, always trying to return to legitimate society, and then to fall again due to the Wall Street Crash and the machinations of his right-hand man George Hally (Humphrey Bogart).


Both men’s characters are far more subtle as studies of success in criminal enterprise than the normal crime bosses of the 1930s. Eddie painstakingly builds up a taxicab corporation to gain legitimacy, as well as his stock acquisitions. Bogart, a bit more realistic on what types of businesses he understands, does not get involved in the stock market. But he enjoys the trappings of the upper class. Witness the scene when he is talking with his underling (Abner Biberman) and he is practicing his putting in his office. At the conclusion, Bogart is living in a townhouse (a sign of his financial success).

There is a tradition in the films of the depression that some gangsters are not as bad as others. This is not to be taken seriously in real life, but the idea is that certain people are driven to crime by economic circumstances (Cagney returning to no job at the end of World War I) and some are driven by pure evil (the sadistic side of Bogart’s nature). Cagney, on his rise, gains the friendship of people like Gladys George (actually the unrequited love of Ms George) and tries to find room in his organization for people like Frank McHugh, a nice guy who really never fit in properly as a criminal – and dies as a result. Bogart gains the support of like villains (Bibberman, who shares Bogie’s fate at the end), and keeps showing a contempt for human life in most of the film (witness how he kills a cop on one of the rum runners he and Cagney are on, because the cop was once his sergeant in the army who punished him for breaking the rules when he did). But Cagney turns out to have more guts in him than Bogie. At the end of the film the latter, facing his own demise, turns into a total coward.


The film has many touches to set the tone of the 21 years it covers (1918 – 1939). At the start newsreel footage takes the audience back to the end of World War I, showing Presidents and events up to Wilson (who, curiously enough, is shown by an actor playing the President, not as part of an old film). It has been noted that Gladys George’s Panama is based on Texas Guinan, the speakeasy hostess. The death of Cagney on the steps of a church is based on the death of Hymie Weiss, a Chicago gangster rival of Capone who was killed that way in 1927. It was too good a death to not use in a gangster film, as it seems more symbolic than it was in real life (it does remind us of how Cagney, for all his good intentions, came up short due to his profession in violence).

I have not commented on the love triangles involving Cagney, Jeffrey Lynn, and Priscilla Lane (and Cagney, Lane, and Gladys George). The irony that Cagney never sees that George is more than just a good friend is rather poignant, for both of them. And it is George who cradles his dead body in the end and gives his epitaph. Perhaps today a director would allow Cagney to wise up and get away with George. But that would spoil the full effect of the film’s conclusion.

In 2009 Empire Magazine named it #1 in a poll of the 20 Greatest Gangster Movies You’ve Never Seen*


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