Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Good, The Bad, The Inbetween

Movie: The Roaring Twenties (1939)
Setting: France, New York; 1918-Dec 31, 1933

It's amazing how quickly a decade can by mythologized. The full nostalgia treatment is given this Raoul Walsh directed love letter to the entire gangster genera. This is not to say that the movie has nothing new to offer, or that it isn't an accomplishment in it's own right, because it really is. Based on a story by Mark Hellinger, himself a rather well known crime reporter of that era, we have here one of the more well developed, near Shakespearean efforts offered in this particular type of film pre-Martin Scorsese. We have the three great movie types in the good and principled young lawyer Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn), the bad and subtly sadistic George Hully (Humphrey Bogart), and the conflicted Eddie Bartlett (as essayed by James Cagney). All three characters meet up in France during their service in the first world war, only Bartlett has the toughest time getting on upon his return home. While Lloyd has his law practice, and George slips into the vague recesses that lead to organized crime, Eddie tries desperately to get work in an economy already overrun with returning G.I.'s.

Eddie's descent is tragic and identifiable because he is the everyman character here, he's on the whole a good an honest guy, but he's frustrated by a run of bad luck and a desire for the good things in life. A cabbie, he is wrongly convicted of running liquor during prohibition, only to get into actual bootlegging after his release, a release facilitated by speak easy madam "Panama" Smith (Gladys George), who has the hots for Eddie. Eddie however is taken by young Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane, who I'm sorry but she's not a great singer), who as a high schooler wrote Eddie during the war, and who he runs into again by accident (having meet her once briefly upon his return from the war, only to be disappointed upon learning how young she was) while collecting late liquor money from the producer of a theatrical show. Jean however is an Innocent, even as she so easily seems to accept the criminal lifestyle of her one time "dream solder". But in the end she falls for straight arrow lawyer Lloyd, who had tried in vain to set poor Eddie straight. Lurking again in the background off all this is clever George, just waiting to make his move.

This movie quickly grew on me upon reflection, though I actually only finished it several hours ago. It didn't strike the emotional gut, lest not mine, but it was so well executed that I'm appreciative. Don't make this your first Cagney gangster picture, but rather save it for a sort of epilogue after you've finished both his early entry's in the genera, and his valedictory White Heat (1949). Like the sense of nostalgia it was designed to solicit, this feature brought back many a memory of the great mobster films of Jimmy Cagney.

Note: DVD contains (among other things) a decidedly unfeminist short called The Girls Takeover, in which acting mayor June Allyson sings "We've Got to Make the City Pretty", and somehow sells it.


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