Roaring Twenties (1939)

Viewed February 23

This Raoul Walsh film depicts the rise and fall of bootlegging gangsters in the '20s.

A grand story that purports to balance two things: (1.) a historical explanation of how the 1920s became such a hotbed of gangsterism in the United States, and (2.) an emotionally involving, character-based narrative. If it worked, it would be a grand cinematic world in the style of, say, Gone With the Wind that came out that same year. And it comes close, but ultimately too much of the story is weighted in the direction of showing the cause and effect of historical incidents so that the characters too often feel like they're representing concepts rather than living and breathing there on the screen. It needs more eroticism, more close-ups, more sweep and less newsreel didacticism. Scenes can feel like they're happening one after another in a somewhat stilted way rather than as a romantic wave passing through on the screen. James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart are two of the greatest male stars in classic Hollywood and their mere presence adds an emotional & aesthetic depth and intensity, but it's not enough...until, that is, the final twenty or so minutes, when Cagney's character is down and out and is reduced to working as a taxi driver. In this third act, the diagramming of history becomes less pressing and we're allowed to inhabit this world of a lost soul that had felt a bit out of reach prior to that. The violence and the emotion and the way the camera moves all feel less constrained and by the time the credits begin to roll, the film has won you back.

Despite any issues in the way the film balances the telling of history and the unfolding of a story, it's no surprise that its ambitious structure inspired more erotic, romantic, violent, cinematically-rich films later on. Scorsese is on the record as having stated that Goodfellas and Casino are indebted to Roaring Twenties, but you also see it in interesting ways in his Taxi Driver (including in one elegiac scene set in a taxi that's basically ripped right out of the older film). Also, the finale, in which the camera tracks down the street with stumbling, bullet-wounded Cagney, seems to have echoes in the finale to Godard's Breathless.