Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Black Mass currently in theaters, and Legend on its way to them, we’re recommending gangster movies.
The Roaring Twenties (1939)
Warner Bros. defined the American gangster picture at the start of the 1930s with the classics Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, two movies about ambitious hoods who rocket to the top of their organizations before getting tripped up by old enemies and untrustworthy friends. But by 1939—when the studio converted newspaper columnist Mark Hellinger’s spec-script The World Moves On into The Roaring Twenties—the genre was starting to open up and evolve, and its biggest stars along with it. Early on, James Cagney had been the handsome, energetic, quick-tempered, dangerously charismatic alternative to Warner Bros.’ more sullen gangster antihero, Edward G. Robinson. But in The Roaring Twenties, Cagney is more of an ordinary Joe: a well-meaning, working-class guy who only turns to crime because the Great Depression has limited his choices.
Cagney plays Eddie Bartlett, a WWI veteran who finds a job driving a cab, discovers he can make money on the side smuggling illegal booze through the city, and then parlays his distribution business into a new gig as a club owner. Humphrey Bogart plays George Hally, Eddie’s double-dealing army buddy, who takes advantage of his friend’s good nature to usurp him, and to bump him back down to cabbie. Eddie’s story shadows the story of America between the end of the war and the onset of economic collapse. Director Raoul Walsh and a team of screenwriters punctuate the action with delirious newsreel recreations, making a pulpy, sensationalistic movie feel like a history lesson.
A lot of Warner Bros.’ crime films had that kind of grounding in a specific time and place. The Public Enemy starts in 1909 before moving ahead to the present-day, while Angels With Dirty Faces begins in the the early 1920s. The difference in The Roaring Twenties’ case is that it’s presented as a period piece, made at the end of the 1930s but spanning the years 1919 to 1933. It opens in the trenches of Europe, where young men have been trained to “safeguard humanity,” and it closes with the U.S. government repealing prohibition and effectively destroying the livelihoods of enterprising bootleggers. This is an exciting, sweeping vision of American life, which treats crime like the ultimate small business, crushed by the machinations of the truly powerful. And its final line—“He used to be a big shot”—is a punchy summation of what happened to so many Eddies between Armistice Day and Black Tuesday.
Availability: The Roaring Twenties is available on DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be purchased through the major digital services.