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Warner Home Video presents
"He used to be a big shot."
DVD ReviewJames Cagney made more archetypal gangster movies than probably any other leading actor—The Public Enemy, Angels With Dirty Faces, White Heat. Yet The Roaring Twenties is arguably his best. More than a standard mob yarn, Raoul Walsh's ambitious, fast-paced, and terrifically entertaining homage to the Prohibition era embraces a large canvas, and paints a vivid portrait of one of American history's most fabled periods. With an absorbing story that crackles with smart dialogue and colorful characters, The Roaring Twenties stands as a prime example of the rough-and-tumble style that defined Warner Bros. filmmaking during Hollywood's Golden Age, and remains one of the many highlights of that legendary movie year, 1939.
Although memories of the 1920s were still fresh in the minds of adult moviegoers when the picture was first released, The Roaring Twenties treats its subject as if it were ancient history. The film plays like a newsreel, with an authoritative narrator talking us through the decade as the story unfolds. The gimmick works better today than it probably did in 1939, lending the movie a quaint aura that helps excuse its dated elements.
The saga begins in a World War I foxhole, where three soldiers seek shelter from hostile fire and share their post-war dreams. Law school grad Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn) hopes to someday open his own practice, while George Hally (Humphrey Bogart) vows to return to the lucrative saloon business despite the impending passage of Prohibition. Eddie Bartlett (Cagney), however, has no visions of grandeur; he just wants his old job back at a New York City garage and to stay away from trouble.
Trouble, however, finds him. Eddie tries his best to walk the straight and narrow, but like many war vets, society foils his good intentions at every turn, and winds up pushing him down the crooked path of bootlegging. In the underworld of speakeasies and smuggling, Eddie becomes an instant magnate, and takes an obsessive interest in young girl singer Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane), who's grateful for Eddie's attention but doesn't return his affection. He also hires his old pal Lloyd to run legal clearance, and enters into a risky partnership with trigger-happy George. Although the future seems bright, the high times of Prohibition can't last forever, and when the stock market crashes, so does Eddie's world.
The Roaring Twenties tells its epic tale with typical Warner efficiency, yet adds a hint of wistful nostalgia to slightly soften the hard-boiled plot. Although the script doesn't condone the corruption and excess that defined the decade, it doesn't exactly denounce them either. The '20s may have been violent and immoral, the film seems to say, but they were a heck of a lot more fun than the Depression! And The Roaring Twenties makes that point by marvelously depicting the era's livewire social history through humor, sentiment, and music. Songs like Melancholy Baby, It Had to Be You, and I'm Just Wild About Harry (all winningly sung by Lane) underscore the action, and supply some glamour to offset the Warner grit.
Eddie Bartlett would be Cagney's last screen gangster until the iconic Cody Jarrett in White Heat 10 years later, yet if he was tired of portraying cocky criminals, it doesn't show here. Cagney attacks the milk-swilling Eddie with his patented pugnacity, and does for cigars what he did for grapefruits in The Public Enemy. He also shades his portrayal with enough sensitivity and pathos to become the movies' first sympathetic gangster. For despite his dirty deeds, deep down Eddie is a good guy, and his noble character keeps us squarely in his corner throughout the film. Bogart makes a fine foil (and a wonderful heavy), and punches up his subordinate role with plenty of charisma.
With two legends vying for attention, it's easy to dismiss the ladies of The Roaring Twenties, but Lane and especially Gladys George also file memorable portrayals. Though largely forgotten today, Lane brightened up several films in the late '30s and early '40s, using her perky, sincere personality and cute-as-a-button looks to sensitize the screen personas of Cagney and John Garfield. Here, she makes the most of her one-dimensional role, and sparkles in her musical numbers. George, however, outshines her as Panama Smith, the brassy, wisecracking nightclub owner who tries to hide her heart of gold and deep love for Eddie. George masterfully mixes warmth and toughness, and delivers the film's famous last line with heartbreaking resonance.
The Roaring Twenties sadly marked the end of the Warner gangster era—not with a whimper, but a bang. And today, it evokes nostalgia not only for that decade of wild partying, rampant materialism, and underworld violence, but also for the gangster genre itself. Coppola, Scorsese, and DePalma have since tweaked the mold, but Warner Bros. created it, and more than 65 years later, The Roaring Twenties proves their product still packs a helluva punch.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: Warner offers up a stunning transfer of this gangster classic. Ernest Haller's lush cinematography gets the red carpet treatment, with inky, rock-solid blacks and a wide gray scale producing exceptional contrast and vibrancy. The nightclub sets look crisp and glitzy, while scenes shot on a misty boat deck and in a dark, grimy foxhole possess terrific levels of detail. A few speckles intrude now and then (but not nearly as many as usually dot a film of this vintage), light grain enhances the period atmosphere, and close-ups radiate with clarity. Classic film fans will be thrilled with this superior effort from Warner.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: The mono track exceeds expectations as well, with no hiss, pops or crackles mucking up the presentation. Dialogue is always clear and comprehendible, and the songs possess a good dynamic range. With so many early gangster films hampered by primitive recording techniques, the smooth, full-bodied sound on The Roaring Twenties is a real treat.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring Each Dawn I Die
1 Feature/Episode commentary by film historian Lincoln Hurst
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Layers Switch: 57m:34s
An audio commentary by film historian Lincoln Hurst is engaging enough, but lacks the flair of similar efforts on other Warner classic discs. Hurst is certainly qualified to voice his opinions—he claims he's seen The Roaring Twenties 25 times—and although he spends a little too much time recapping and analyzing the plot, he relays some good information. Hurst points out instances where Cagney strays from the written script, and how he devised a fresh way to slug a couple of on-screen adversaries. We also learn some notable facts about Walsh, and how producer Hal Wallis found himself consistently at odds with the director (and Cagney) throughout filming.
The all-new featurette The Roaring Twenties: The World Moves On salutes the movie through an array of glowing comments by such figures as director Martin Scorsese, critic Andrew Sarris, and authors Eric Lax, Alain Silver, and Lincoln Hurst. Hurst calls the film "the apex of the Warner gangster cycle" and "the quintessential film that celebrates the 1920s," while Scorsese cites its "giant, sprawling nature." The interesting 17-minute piece includes segments about legendary producer-writer Mark Hellinger, who contributed the film's original story, the artistry of director Raoul Walsh, and the frustrations felt by Cagney and Bogart over their respective typecasting. Most cast members receive at least a cursory mention, but once again Priscilla Lane is inexplicably ignored—another indication of how history has forgotten this lovely star.
The film's lengthy original trailer completes the extras package.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsOne of the all-time great gangster films, The Roaring Twenties captures the reckless flavor of a colorful era, and features memorable portrayals by James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Gladys George, and Priscilla Lane. Director Raoul Walsh maintains a breakneck pace, and Warner trims this classic with a gorgeous transfer, solid audio, and a diverse array of supplements. Highly recommended.
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