The Roaring Twenties

By on February 11, 2012

Three dough-boys, played by James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Jeffrey Lynn, meet in the trenches just as World War I is ending.

Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) tries in vain to get his old job back. His friend Danny (Frank McHugh) comes to his rescue by allowing him to drive his cab at night. A fare asks Eddie to deliver some bootleg liquor and when he unwittingly complies, he is arrested and thrown in jail.

Gallant Eddie won’t rat out the woman to whom he delivered the hooch, speakeasy owner Panama Smith, (whiskey-voiced Gladys George). She bails him out and carries a torch for him for the rest of the movie, but he only has eyes for sweet little Jean (Priscilla Lane). Panama introduces Eddie to a life of crime, staking him in the bootleg business.

Eddie discovers that his unique skills are a perfect fit for bootlegging, and he is soon a success. He hires Army buddy Lloyd (Lynn) as his attorney to watch his back, and then teams up with George (Bogart), a liquor smuggler to be his muscle.

James-Cagney-and-Humphrey-Bogart-in-The-Roaring-Twenties-1939George is a cut throat racketeer and murderer who kills for the sheer pleasure of it and eventually manages to drag Eddie down with him. When Prohibition ends and the stock market crashes, Eddie loses everything and takes to the drink. This sets the men on a collision course.

The final scene is a stunning shootout between Cagney and Bogart. With lesser actors this film could be pure hokum. With Cagney and Bogart, it attains catharsis.

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.

Director Rauol Walsh does a superb job bringing out the nuances in Cagney and Bogart’s performances.

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