By: Oberst Von Berauscht (Three Beers) –
“What’s That?” you might ask, “James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart played in another gangster movie together?”
You can pretty much take the plot of Angels with Dirty Faces, and replace the priest with a moralistic lawyer, and it’s the same movie. (And this time Bogart is the one who kills for little reason, and Cagney is more “business” driven, but that’s about all they change)
In spite of a story that was overused even in its own time, The Roaring Twenties does manage to have a lot going for it. James Cagney gives yet another fascinating performance, this time as a character driven to crime through desperation, but hypnotized by the lifestyle it creates. He is obsessed with winning the love of Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane), who it could be argued is the true antagonist of the film. (She strings Cagney along for the money and glamor while seeing one of his best friends on the side).
This will not end well
Upon the revelation that she doesn’t now or ever will love him, his character breaks down, losing everything he built in the process (coinciding with the collapse of the stock market). Director Raoul Walsh uses the theme of betrayal throughout the film, and capped off by the subtext hinted at via historical background segments that augment the feeling of each act, he easily rises above the relatively mediocre story. This makes for quite an entertaining gangster yarn, though maybe not quite on par with the absolute greats of genre.
One of the problems that plagues the movie is the rather unwieldy way the historical background is woven into the movie, through fourth-wall breaking segments structured like old newsreel films. These segments feel out of place, providing an unnecessary amount of information that is already conveyed in the narrative itself. On the plus side, it does provide sufficient excuse to use this movie in a history class on Prohibition.
Especially early on in the film, there are a lot of attempts to inject a lighter comedic tone into the film with wisecracks and double-takes that simply don’t translate well to a modern audience. It is thankful that this humor is more or less absent in the third act, because many of these moments are cringe-worthy at best. This isn’t by any means to say that humor in the 1930’s was all bad, just the sort they put in this film.
While not on par with the best, it is still great entertainment for fans of Gangster movies.
Bonus Drinking Game
Drink a Beer: for every drink that Cagney turns down
Drink a Beer: for newsreel narration
Drink a Shot: for the death-count