Boy, did those Twenties roar; or they certainly do in Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939), which is one of the most self-propulsive films I’ve ever come across. Here, in 106 minutes, we have the rise, fall and redemption of the gangster Eddie Bartlett, played by — who else? — James Cagney. But what this really is is the tale of an entire decade, from the closing gunshots of World War One to the despair of the Wall Street Crash. Somehow The Roaring Twenties manages to range across acres of social history, and all without feeling forced or ill-paced.
Of course, much of this is due to the raw skill of The Roaring Twenties’ cast and crew — except it’s something more than that too. For my money, this is the defining Cagney performance, even more so than those he gave in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and White Heat (1949). It is the film in which Raoul Walsh gets to deploy all the tricks and techniques he had learnt in a quarter-century of Hollywood filmmaking; resulting in some startling images, such as the skyscrapers of New York melting in the heat of a financial crash. And it even contains one of Humphrey Bogart’s scariest characters, more unhinged than Fred Dobbs and more disdainful than Sam Spade.
Given these choice ingredients — and, if you like, the topicality — it’s puzzling why The Roaring Twenties isn’t a better-known, more celebrated dish. But no matter, that just means it needs shouting about more fervently from the cinema rooftops. Yep, this movie deserves to be what Eddie Bartlett was formerly: a big shot.
P.S. I was very pleased to get The Roaring Twenties into the list of ''50 essential films'' that I compiled with Matthew d'Ancona for The Spectator in 2009. Here, by way of a quick supplement to the above, is the short write up that I gave it at the time.
“Few films convey the tidal force of history upon men and their fortunes as successfully, or as succinctly, as The Roaring Twenties. Right from the off, it’s clear that Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) is more a victim of circumstance than an agent of free choice. Returning to America from the trenches of Europe, he’s soon forced to become a bootlegger by the limited opportunities that await him. And his subsequent rise and fall follows the grim oscillation of the titular decade itself: a party followed by a crash. It’s this historic sweep, along with Cagney’s effervescent performance, which elevates The Roaring Twenties above every other entry in the 1930s gangster film cycle. And it makes Eddie Bartlett’s ultimate redemption all the more moving; as he finally escapes from the clutches of fate, and takes his life — and its ending — into his own hands.”
Pete Hoskin is an associate editor of ConservativeHome and edited The Spectator's political blog, Coffee House, for four years. He has written, and continues to write, on politics and culture, for The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph.