After the WWI Armistice Lloyd Hart goes back to practice law, former saloon keeper George Hally turns to bootlegging, and out-of-work Eddie Bartlett becomes a cab driver. Eddie builds a fleet of cabs through delivery of bootleg liquor and hires Lloyd as his lawyer. George becomes Eddie's partner and the rackets flourish until love and rivalry interfere.Written by
Ed Stephan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
On November 11, 1918, while Eddie, George, and Lloyd are shooting at the enemy, George says, "Prohibition law goes in next year." How would anyone know that then? By November 11, 1918, only 14 of the 36 states needed had ratified the 18th amendment. The 36th state, Nebraska, ratified it on January 16, 1919, giving the US one more year before prohibition went into effect on January 17, 1920. Granted, New York state was partially "dry" by 1918. See more »
[while running across the battlefield ablaze with an artillery barrage in progress, Eddie has just dived into a gaping shell hole for cover. He practically lands on top of another soldier who is already in the crater]
Now, do you always come into a rat hole like that?
What do you want me to do, knock?
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The cycle of gangster movies made at Warner Brothers in the 1930s, regardless of who was in them, who directed them or how their stories panned out, all had one thing in common. They came at their audiences at breakneck pace. While their ostensible aim was to condemn violence and lawlessness, their real agenda was one of thrills, danger and nonstop action.
The odd thing about The Roaring Twenties, is that there is not really a lot of action or typical gangster business in it, at least not at the beginning. Bootlegging is seen as a relatively tame activity, and criminality as something any reasonable person could slide into. There aren't even any scenes of gangland violence until 55 minutes in. However it still has that typical crime drama speed and punch. A lot of the impact comes from the regular background-info montages, a staple at Warner Brothers but rarely done better. Most of the shots are close-ups and almost all of them feature some sharp movement, like a kind of visual roller-coaster ride. A lot of thought has gone into how each shot will fit with the next. During the montage showing the effects of prohibition, we get one shot of a car crashing straight towards the camera, followed by a quick dolly in on a row of bottles, giving a dizzying push-pull effect.
Director Raoul Walsh also gives a racy feel to even the more straightforward scenes. He gets the actors constantly moving as they talk, and the camera stays tight on the action, constantly back- and- forth with the players. The first half hour is like a whistle-stop tour as we are buffeted from one scene to the next, and the dialogue is snapped out like gunfire, making up for the lack of real shooting. Even in the relatively sedate scenes towards the middle, where Cagney gets together with Priscilla Lane, Walsh still keeps a sense of nervous edginess with extras milling about in the background, with only one or two genuinely tranquil moments here and there to highlight something of importance or emotional intensity.
The Warner Brothers style had its ideal star in James Cagney, and here he is the usual bundle of shrugs, twitches and cracking delivery, albeit far from his best performance. He simply slots into the general pattern of punches and wisecracks, rather than commanding the screen as he did in Angels with Dirty Faces. His love interest Priscilla Lane makes a disappointingly dull leading lady, although she does have a lot of charm and character when singing. However the best turn of The Roaring Twenties is by alternate female lead Gladys George, billed lower but with comparable screen time and oodles more screen presence. George is the perfect moll, full of vibrant personality, and yet behind her eyes you can see the great weight of sadness. Her Panama Smith is the only truly real-looking character in this drama.
And this emotional strand brought in by the Gladys George character is important to The Roaring Twenties. While every gangster movie of the time finished up with the hero's ignoble demise, perhaps none before it had such a feeling of tragedy and nostalgia. It's no coincidence that the movie's signature tune is "Come to me, my melancholy baby", for this is the most poignant of all the Warner's gangster flicks. And yet this aspect is still underdeveloped, because this is still at its roots a standard genre movie, an uncomplicated action package. It's actually shame that in those days a picture like this had to be a certain kind of thing, because with a little more reflection and credibility The Roaring Twenties could have been a truly moving experience.
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