A truly epic film. Sure, it only clocks in under 110 minutes but it has this wide-ranging and grand tone to it. Maybe its because it documents a whole decade? Maybe because Cagney, as usual, is such a joy to watch? It just has this very long feel to it, but at the same time, the story just flies by. It’s another remarkable accomplishment by Raoul Walsh, perhaps second only in his own filmography to They Drive By Night. On the other hand, this might be my favorite “gangster” film from the Warner Brothers cycle of the 1930s, and I don’t think it is a coincidence that it is one of the last.
I’ve never really favored narratives that are spread out over multiple years, as they tend to document the simplistic tone of a “rise and fall” story, and The Roaring Twenties is not any different. Returning from the first world war, James Cagney finds that things have changed in America while he was fighting. He can’t get his old job back. He depends on his friend, a taxi driver, to help him get his career moving, which inadvertently leads him into the underworld of bootlegging. While Cagney’s character (and ego) continue to grow, so does the chaos and pressures of American society.
Third-person voice overs are almost always a bad technical move, but here, the narration is so bland, dull, and unemotional that it completely works. The words seem to have come directly from a contemporary news blimp about America in the 1920s, which works perfectly with Walsh’s documentary-esque montages. It isn’t the most original idea to document a character’s development underneath something bigger (in this case, the development of pre-war America) but it is done so gracefully by Walsh. It seems like there’s so many times that he could have taken his film in the wrong direction, but somehow, everything works.
It’s probably worth noting that this is one of the first gangster films from the WB cycle of the 1930s that doesn’t even attempt to present itself as some sort of social warning. In fact, the opening titles, written by Mark Hellinger, forthrightly declare the story as a fondly remembered point in time. Hellinger’s introduction isn’t necessary, but there’s something very poignant (and poetic) in his words. This is the only instance I can think of such a thing happening in a pre-war Hollywood movie.
It is very difficult, at least for me, to describe any element of Walsh’s masterpiece without beginning to overuse words like “poignant” and “poetic” because there’s this sincerity dripping off the screen. It is instantly noticeable and instantly lovable. There’s many brilliant sequences, but I am particularly fond of the one in which Cagney’s character is talking with Jean Sherman, who has developed into a beautiful woman; she was still a girl during their first encounter. To escape from his crime life, he questions her own lifestyle. He has a cliche-filled, idyllic vision of her life – “I bet you spend a bunch of time in the garden.”
This, as Sherman points out in her response, couldn’t be further from the truth. Cagney’s personal and emotional sacrifices for Sherman are so endearing not because he loves her, but because he has fallen in love with a character he has created on his own. Before the final, brilliantly staged shoot-out, Cagney stops at a piano and just stares longingly at nothing. Possibly, he has realized his mistake in characterizing Sherman, but he doesn’t seem to care, and that is just proof that Walsh’s gangster classic is also an observant character study.