The Roaring Twenties (1939) may have even more resonance today than it did when it was produced. The year it premiered was only ten years after the 1929 Stock Market Crash, and the world had entered a new era in 1939 with a vengeance. This end of the Depression look back at how-we-got-to-where-we-are is certainly nostalgic, but it was also a critical success and should be regarded as one of the champion movies in that champion movie year of 1939.
The Roaring Twenties, fast-paced and well directed by Raoul Walsh, is remarkable for all the things it attempts to be and succeeds. It is a docu-drama as much as a melodrama. It is a gangster film, but there are so many musical numbers you could as easily call it a musical. It has some outrageously funny lines, but it contains scenes so heartbreakingly pathetic.
Most especially, it looks back on an era still so recent in 1939 and yet from such a remarkably distant perspective, the way we might pack for college and discover with condescending amusement some old souvenir from grammar school. It is a mere ten years from eight years old to adulthood. It also feels like a lifetime.
The film begins with a rolling title prologue that speaks to us today in our present economic crisis: “It may come to pass that, at some distant date, we will be confronted with another period similar to the one depicted in this photoplay. If that happens, I pray that events as dramatized here, will be remembered.” It is signed Mark Hellinger, the writer of the script, who took the stories of real people and real incidents as a basis for the film.
Then the stern voice of John Deering, the narrator, takes over and through a montage of images, the clock is turned back, year by year, to 1918, the last year of the Great War.
“What’s past is prologue” Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest, and as such it is appropriate to begin a story that concludes with the Crash at a point in time when the seeds for that event were sewn. Perhaps too often we look at a moment in time as if it really stands apart from other moments, but it does not. It cannot.
James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Jeffrey Lynn are doughboys in France. Cagney is the rough-and-ready average Joe. Jeffrey Lynn is the sensitive college boy who struggles with ideas of right and wrong. Bogart is the thug. It would be one of Humphrey Bogart’s last thug roles before he moved on to being the reluctant hero in 1940s films. He’s looking hale and hearty here, fit and much younger than he did even four years later in Casablanca.
In one scene, his thuggishness borders on the psychotic, when Jeffrey Lynn hesitates to shoot a German soldier because he looks only about 15 years old. Bogart plugs him with relish. He loves his gun.
The war ends, and Cagney straggles back home to New York to try to get his old mechanic’s job back, but his job has been given to someone else in the meantime, and he can’t find another one in the post-war recession. This is rather like a foreshadowing of Dana Andrews’ inability to fit in and find a place for himself after World War II in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). (It was in reaction to such conditions that the government mandated during World War II that returning veterans be guaranteed a job with their former employers.)
One very brief, but funny scene if you catch it, is when Cagney gives his old pal, Frank McHugh, a souvenir from the war. It is a German helmet, and McHugh hides it from would-be thieves by shoving it under his bed. Cagney wordlessly motions McHugh to turn the helmet over, because the way he placed it under his bed looks like a chamber pot.
The narrator comes back with more March of Time stuff about bobbed hair, shorter skirts, and the power that drives the rest of the film, Prohibition. Cagney, working as a cab driver, innocently delivers some bootleg liquor to Gladys George, who plays a gal-who’s-seen-it-all and runs a speakeasy. Cagney gets nabbed, takes the fall for Miss George, who later gets him out of jail and becomes his partner in the bootlegging business.
James Cagney spends the rest of the decade getting richer and richer, and more deeply involved in bootlegging, corruption, and gangland murders. Eventually, Priscilla Lane shows up to expose Cagney’s softer side. She had written him pen-pal letters during the war, but when he returned, he dismissed her as a schoolgirl when he had mistakenly thought she was much older. Reunited when she is a struggling dancer in the chorus, Cagney promotes her career in Gladys George’s speakeasy as a singer.
Priscilla Lane actually shares top billing with James Cagney in this movie, and would continue to have a successful year with Four Daughters where she was reunited in the first of several more films with Jeffrey Lynn. Here, likewise, Lane and Lynn fall for each other. Cagney falls for Lane. Gladys George falls for Cagney. It is an inextricable web of unrequited love.
Jeffrey Lynn, now a lawyer, helps Cagney with the legal aspects of his business empire and rather hypocritically tries to overlook the illegal. Eventually, Humphrey Bogart joins the business, and the intense scenes between Bogart and Cagney trying to assert their power over each other are something terrific.
If you have ever seen the Carol Burnett parody of this film with Carol as Gladys George, Steve Lawrence as Cagney, Harvey Korman as Jeffrey Lynn, and Sally Struthers as Priscilla Lane, then perhaps, like me, you are reminded of it all through watching this movie. Thanks a whole lot, Carol.
Gladys George, who played the world-weary dame with the heart of gold better than anyone (and speaking of The Best Years of Our Lives, pulled off the same magic there in a minor role), has some great lines and delivers them with deadpan humor. She is most effective silently pining after James Cagney. In the scene where Cagney brings Priscilla Lane to audition for Miss George, he fidgets with the excitement of a schoolboy crush, and he absently grips Gladys George’s hand as he listens to Priscilla Lane sing.
Gladys George seems to feel an electric current at Cagney’s touch, and sadly watches his enchantment for another, much younger, much prettier woman. Another actress might have shown a cliché tinge of jealously or resentment in her reaction, but Gladys George plays it inwardly, almost with shyness.
“What a load of ice!” she blurts when he shows her the diamond rings he has bought for Priscilla Lane. We know her heart is breaking, and we know that Cagney’s will, too, when he discovers Priscilla does not love him, despite the fact that he also bought her a new-fangled crystal set radio which she and Cagney listen to on headphones.
Speaking of 1920s paraphernalia, look at the scenes of Cagney and others handling money. The paper bills are much larger and wider than we have today. The government changed to the size bills we use today in July 1929, ostensibly to save paper. As a result, wallet manufacturers had to come up with new, slimmer, models.
We see the crystal sets, the bathtub gin, the rum runners, the Tommy guns, the gangsters, the cops on the make, but the film manages to give us a tour of the Roaring Twenties with only a little feeling of parody. Most of it is a survey class in what can happen when lives are lived to excess, without a thought of tomorrow.
On this 80th anniversary of the Crash of 1929, we may look for parallels between this time and our own. There are inevitably some parallels, but nothing so neat and clear. Time isn’t a blueprint for us to follow. We still have to make up much of it as we go along.
Perhaps at this anniversary, we may watch this movie with something more than just nostalgia. Perhaps we might even be moved to empathy as we understand a bit more about excess and failure with the economy of the last few years.
There are no films of “the Crash.” Newsreel cameras cranked out footage of panicked crowds at Wall Street this day 80 years ago, but that was rather like today when the news media shifts (and wastes) its enormous resources not to cover an event but to cover the public opinion poll about the event. Perhaps filming panicked crowds is more exciting than filming numbers on a chalk board being erased and written over.
This movie covers the Crash by framing it in the context of this whole era, from the end of World War I, through the Noble Experiment, from Main Street to Wall Street, and the resulting Great Depression. In the study of any historic event, it is the months and years preceding the event that really tell us all about the event. We might say our current economic challenges have their roots as far back as the 1980s. We do know, in hindsight, that the 1929 Crash devastated a generation, and forever colored the world of that generation’s children, the ones who would spend their childhoods during the Great Depression and would grow up to fight World War II.
For a long time after this movie, after that generation grew up, the perspective of this 1929 nightmare was growing dim and made somehow quaint by nostalgia crazes. Eighty years on, we might be in perfect position, the first audience for this film in generations, to really identify with the suckers and the straight arrows, the crooks and the gangsters, and the average Joes, and maybe even the omniscient narrator, the whole menagerie that make up The Roaring Twenties.
When this film was released in 1939, though it was a success, the world was moving at breakneck speed into another, even more sinister era. It was as if this film was a last look back at the life they knew before they became engulfed in the complete unknown.
James Cagney loses his shirt in the Crash, and loses much of his business to Bogart. Cagney is on the skids, but he has Gladys George to keep him company, now singing herself (“A Shanty in Old Shantytown” no less) in a cheap saloon. Prohibition is over.
“The days of the rackets are over,” Jeffrey Lynn tells Cagney, but he answers with more truthfulness than even the writer of the script probably knew,
“Don’t kid yourself about that.”
Cagney has one last, very violent, power play with Bogart, and in the memorable final scene on the snow-covered church steps, only Gladys George is left to comfort a dying Cagney. When a cop asks who the bum on the steps is, she replies, “He used to be a big shot.”
It might be a pronouncement upon that whole careless era -- or on any Ponzi schemer, unscrupulous investment manager, or average chump who lost a good chunk of his retirement in ours.
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress.
Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated