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The Roaring Twenties

By the end of the 1930s, the gangster genre had run much of its course, and the gangster picture itself began to transmogrify into film noir. Perhaps the rise and fall of violent men could only yield so many pictures, but as the genre waned, it had a couple of great gasps left. Some of the best latter entries were done by Raoul Walsh — one of the masters of these types of films, and one of the great Hollywood directors. With such entries as The Roaring Twenties (1939), High Sierra (1941), and White Heat (1949), Walsh attracted a following from French critics, though his career in Hollywood labeled him as a journeyman, and it was only later that he was heralded in America. What marks his films above other genre fare is the simple humanity he gives his characters; though all gangster must pay the price for their transgressions in studio pictures, Walsh makes their preordained fates tragic. The Roaring Twenties follows Eddie Barlett (James Cagney). Having survived World War I, he returns stateside to find that there's precious little work. Surviving only by borrowing roommate Danny Green's (Frank McHugh) cab in the evening, he gets busted for bootlegging when he delivers some bottles for a passenger and realizes that breaking the Volstead Act might be the best way to get ahead. Finding that the money flows from his enterprise like the bathtub booze he sells, Eddie hires old army buddy Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn) as his lawyer, who helps him buy the cabs he needs as a front for his operation. Eddie is also able to set up Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane), a girl who wrote him while he was in the military, but whom he rejected when he returned because — at the time — it turned out she was still in high school. Unfortunately Jean is more interested in Lloyd because he's an honest individual, while club hostess Panama Smith (Gladys George) is in love with Eddie but won't interfere. Trying to get ahead, Eddie partners with his other old war buddy-turned-bootlegger George Hally (Humphrey Bogart), but getting ahead in the business means violence, something Eddie was able to sidestep, while George is more than bloodthirsty. After the stock market crash, Eddie is left a penniless cabbie, while George has become a high rolling gangster, and Lloyd has moved up to become a district attorney and has married Jean. But Lloyd's new job threatens George, so the now drunken Eddie (who didn't drink a drop until Jean broke his heart) is called into action to keep George from killing Lloyd.

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The Roaring Twenties has long been praised by Martin Scorsese, and it's easy to see why: This is one of the great gangster pictures, and one of the great studio films. Working within the genre, its sense of melodrama is perfectly defined as we see the three war veterans in their different situations, with Cagney in purgatory between the good Lloyd and evil George. One of the most impressive things about the film (and perhaps why it keeps harking that it's a period piece) is that Cagney's rise to the top of the bootlegging business is never portrayed as all that shady or unscrupulous. The story lets viewers root for him because he's not as criminally minded as Bogart's character. But perhaps the sympathy comes from the innate gifts of James Cagney. Having made his gangster reputation through 1931's Public Enemy, Cagney was comfortable in this milieu, but his fireball presence was magnetic in whatever he did, and he is simply one of the screen's great actors. Watching him for five minutes — any five minutes — of this film proves it; he draws the viewer in like few actors before or since and can make the most of the minutia, the sign of any great screen presence. And though the story follows the rise and fall of Eddie, like numerous movies before and after, it's Walsh's sense of character and humanity that makes it feel one of kind. Warner presents The Roaring Twenties in its original aspect ratio (1.33:1) and monaural Dolby Digital audio. As one of the six films included in Warner's "Gangster Collection," it comes in part of Warner's "A Night at the Movies" series, which includes an introduction by Leonard Maltin (5 min.), a bonus trailer for Each Dawn I Die, a newsreel (2 min.) , short films "All Girl Revue" (8 min.), "The Great Library Misery" (11 min.), and Looney Tunes cartoon "Thugs with Dirty Mugs" (8 min.). Also included is a commentary by Lincoln Hurst, the new featurette "The Roaring Twenties: The World Moves on" (17 min.) featuring Andrew Sarris and Martin Scorsese among others, and the film's theatrical trailer. Keep-case.

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