Like Angels with Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties is a gangland crime drama showcasing the immense talent of established 1930s movie star James Cagney, with emerging movie star Humphrey Bogart as an colleague-turned-antagonist who disappears for about half of the plot. Like Michael Curtiz’s 1938 morality play, Raoul Walsh’s 1939 picture sticks to a tried-and-true narrative formula: energetic young man with a potentially good heart adjusts to difficult economic circumstances by turning to crime, where he makes wads of cash and parties in swanky nightclubs, becomes a craven killer, and can’t avoid the inevitable doom that waits for all who flout society’s norms of right and wrong. Although both movies are satisfying as comfortably worn-in genre pictures running on pure star power, Curtiz did it looser and sillier and with more preachiness and gravitas; Angels with Dirty Faces is the bolder melodrama of the two. The Roaring Twenties, however, is both more conventional and more subtle, with lots of little memorable bits and some lasting influence on both its genre and cinema as a whole.
Walsh positions The Roaring Twenties as a chronicler of the age, beginning in 1917 on the battlefields of The Great War, after which three comrades-in-arms (Cagney, Bogart and Jeffrey Lynn) return home and settle with varied uneasiness into a decade-plus of Prohibition Era bootlegging, and endure all of its expected ups and downs. One of the hallmarks of genre cinema during the 1930s and 1940s was the depiction of the passage of time via montages of spinning newspaper headlines, flipping calendar pages, and (in this genre) superimpositions of champagne glasses and showgirls and tommy guns. Walsh not only relies on this technique more than usual in The Roaring Twenties, he focuses these montages not on his own narrative but as a wider recap of historical events and cultural trends throughout the 1920s. These “newsreel” interstitials are lively and engaging, bursting with iconic era-specific imagery, and narrated with a barker's simplistic enthusiasm; a two hour-long movie wholly composed of Walsh-directed montages recounting the history of humanity might have been one of the great cinematic achievements. Walsh nails this stylistic trope with such expressive flair — one montage includes one of the most startling car crashes ever filmed — that it almost overshadows the Cagney+Bogart+”Crime Doesn’t Pay” headliner.
Of its two magnetic stars, Cagney is the only one featured in The Roaring Twenties in any detail, and he gets to bask in his effusive charm as well as his essential vulnerability. Cagney also gets to show-off some sharp switches in temper, including one in which he memorably shoves a cigar into a man’s mouth. Bogart has more to do here than he did in Angels with Dirty Faces, and gets to lean into the darkness that defined his best performances as a leading man, but he’s never given the chance to outshine Cagney. Priscilla Lane, who is billed above Bogart, is refreshingly a bit off-beat for a leading lady but is also never fully convincing, while Gladys George lurks undeveloped in the shadows until tasked with delivering the movie’s surprisingly impactful final line of dialog.
Maybe this is just a side-effect of “Mank Mania,” on the heels David Fincher’s recent Netflix release, but the script for The Roaring Twenties — written by Jerry Wald, Richard Macaulay and Robert Rossen, based on Mark Hellinger’s memoir The World Moves On — shares some common plot points, character traits and themes with Citizen Kane, which began filming a year later, the series of small coincidences capped off by Cagney mocking someone as a “poor, delicate little rosebud.” Even if those influences are merely speculative, the great Ernest Haller’s cinematography is indelibly integrated into the language of the genre, perhaps at this point merely echoing from several direct notations in The Godfather, making this an indispensable stop in movie history for its style alone.