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Raoul Walsh found himself thrust into directorial duties at the last minutefor The Roaring Twenties (1939), replacing Anatole Litvak. It provedto be an inspired choice, as James Cagney and Walsh found a mutuallyrewarding working relationship. Walsh certainly had his hands full,skillfully directing a story that covered several decades. The film was hisfirst for Warner Brothers, which had recently signed him to a seven-yearcontract.
Characters in The Roaring Twenties were based loosely on actualProhibition-era personalities, such as nightclub hostess Texas Guinan("Hello, sucker!" was her refrain to club patrons) and New York gangsterLarry Fay, who was reportedly the model for the literary character JayGatsby.
Incorporating newsreel clips and popular music from the period, and avoiceover by an omniscient reporter who assures the audience that what theyare about to see is based on true events, The Roaring Twenties hassomething of a pseudo-documentary feel.
Humphrey Bogart co-starred in the film with Cagney; that year, they madethree memorable gangster films together for Warners, which specialized atthat time in gritty crime dramas. In addition to The RoaringTwenties, their last film together, the two appeared in Angels WithDirty Faces and The Oklahoma Kid, both in 1939.
Cagney found that the freedom to improvise that Walsh allowed him helpedboost the script into an above-average genre film. Cagney recalled thecollaborative atmosphere on the set, remembering how one actor, FrankMcHugh, suggested a different opening scenario than the one provided in thescript. All agreed to trash the opening scene and go with McHugh'ssuggestion, thus providing the irreverent banter between Cagney and Bogart,who meet as doughboys in a World War I foxhole.
Cagney reminisced later about the little touches that he felt "added flavorto bland writing," including the addition of the hilarious exchange betweenhis character and Priscilla Lane's, in which his advances are turned down inhumiliating fashion. In another scene, Cagney spiced up a run-of-the-millfight by positioning one opponent to accidentally hit another adversaryafter being punched by Cagney's character. The film also benefits from anable supporting cast -- notably Gladys George (who inherited the part fromAnn Sheridan) as the Texas Guinan character, plus McHugh and Lane, as Cagney's romantic interest.
The film did extremely good box office and Cagney won a Best Actor awardfrom the National Board of Review -- quite an accomplishment in a year thatsaw the premieres of such classics as Gone With the Wind, Mr.Smith Goes To Washington, and Stagecoach.
The Roaring Twenties turned out to be a transitional film in Cagney'scareer; his subsequent roles during the 1940s would focus on hissong-and-dance talents in such movies as Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).Walsh would work with Bogart again in They Drive By Night (1940) andHigh Sierra (1941), in which Bogart started to create the world-wearycharacter that would be most identified with the Bogie legend. Ten yearsafter The Roaring Twenties, Cagney would reunite with Walsh forWhite Heat (1949), in which he would revive the gangster characterthat put him on the map.
Producer: Sam Bischoff
Director: Raoul Walsh
Screenplay: Richard Macaulay, Robert Rossen, Jerry Wald
Art Direction: Max Parker
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Costume Design: Milo Anderson
Film Editing: Jack Killifer
Original Music: Ray Heindorf, Heinz Roemheld
Cast: James Cagney (Eddie Bartlett), Humphrey Bogart (George Hally), Priscilla Lane (Jean Sherman), Jeffrey Lynn (Lloyd Hart), Gladys George (Panama Smith), Frank McHugh (Danny Green), Paul Kelly (Nick Brown), Elisabeth Risdon (Mrs. Sherman).
BW-107m. Closed captioning.
by Genevieve McGillicuddy