The Roaring Twenties — directed by Raoul Walsh. Gangster Drama. A WW I vet can’t find work and so starts up a bootlegging business which gains control of him. 106 minutes Black and White 1939.
Warner Brothers laid on the A-team for this one. Milo Anderson did the clothes: the ladies’ song costumes place a premium on our tolerance for the tacky, but they are right on the money and the period. Ernest Haller shot it; the same year he shot Gone With The Wind for which he won an Oscar, most of Bette Davis’s big films, Mildred Pierce, and later Rebel Without A Cause. And that sweet toughie Raoul Walsh directed it. It was made the wonder year of 1939, and would have won the Oscar any other year, had Oscars ever been given out for gangster flicks. The picture is set up as a March Of Time documentary of a period 15 years before it was made; it is a montage interspersed with montages – brilliantly shot by Don Siegel and organized by Byron Haskin. They are simply tremendous. Big male character talents fortify the story from the bottom up, topped off by Paul Kelly as the nasty ur-don, and Frank McHugh as the star’s pal played by James Cagney. Walsh and Cagney loved working together, and this picture is Cagney’s supreme performance as a motion picture actor. Until I saw it I never thought Cagney could act at all. All I ever saw in him was a bully with a tommy gun for a heart. And for the most part in his career, that is what he is. I steered clear of him. But in this piece he is quite something else besides. One sees him as if for the first time. For here he is — with his dancer’s wrists and carriage. He is open, he waits, he responds, his feelings are hurt, he ponders before he speaks, he does not fall back on his rapid timing for every reaction, he wants something he can’t have and doesn’t know he can’t have it, that is to say, for once, he isn’t entirely smart, he is a mess. You can’t take your eyes off him – because he is so real and because his body is fully alert and engaged. It is a pity this side of him was not ever used elsewhere again. Humphrey Bogart plays his crumby army pal, excellent especially in two execution scenes. And Jeffrey Lynn is the third musketeer, the one who gets the girl. She is played by Priscilla Lane, who has full lips and a sweet soft open look, rather like Betty Grable. She does her own singing, although the lip-sync is slightly off, as it is with Gladys George who plays Panama Smith, in a sketch of Texas Guinan. She is superb in the subtlety of her response in her every scene: she is an actress who can tell a story without spelling it out. But it is the director, of course, whose triumph this is. Look at the way he sets up his shots for the crowd scenes, the saloons, the brawls. Look at the time he gives to the love scenes – as an action director he is unique in taking his time for these and in giving equal range and ambiguity to all parties concerned. But what is especially powerful is his sparing use of close-ups and his refusal to do reaction shots. If two people are on camera, they are both always in frame, no matter which point of view is cut to. This means that you can always see the response of both actors at the same time and you never have a break in the animal energy between them. Kurosawa later used to do the same. McHugh and Cagney improvised their scenes together and you can see the freshness of them. Cagney, Walsh, Bogart and especially Frank McHugh rewrote the script as they went along and had a grand old time, and you can enjoy it in the choices, large and small, that animate the scenes as they unfold. Snappy dialogue throughout. Walsh’s first film at Warner’s and first of four with Cagney. The film actually speaks for a moral rather than a chronological era, and the era is not over. It was a huge hit. It still is. Don’t miss it.