Saturday, July 9, 2011

Story of Prohibition Bootleggers is Fantastic

The 1920s is and was a very famous part of American history. It was an innovative decade in which music became more liberating, films began to talk, and a movement to ban the sale and consumption of alcohol, known as prohibition, began. Prohibition, in turn, gave rise to people known as bootleggers, who transported alcohol for profit, and the underground tavern, called the speakeasy. This also introduced much violence and competition, not only from the battle between the police and the bootleggers, but among regular citizens as well. "The Roaring Twenties" made in 1939, tells the story of warring factions of bootleggers.

James Cagney stars as Eddie Bartlett. Eddie comes home from Europe after fighting in World War One. He arrives, expecting for his life to pick up where it left off. But what he finds is that his world has changed. His job as an auto mechanic has been given to somebody else, and now he is out of work and nearly destitute. His friend and roommate Danny (played by frequent Cagney collaborator Frank McHugh) is a down and out taxi driver. Eddie begins to pick up twelve hour shifts as a driver to help make ends meet. Suddenly, he's thrust into the underground world of bootlegging. As business picks up, he builds a fleet of taxis, for the purpose of delivering the illegal substance. With the help of a his partner, an ex-saloon keeper named George, played by Humphrey Bogart, and a lawyer he's retained as is own, Lloyd, played by Jeffrey Hart, Bartlett begins to manufacture his own product for the sole purpose of selling to the speakeasies. It soon gets complicated when Eddie falls for a beautiful young actress and singer, Jean, played by Priscilla Lane. But she has eyes for Bartlett's lawyer, Lloyd. Enter speakeasy owner Panama Smith, played by Gladys George, who only has eyes for Eddie. Where as Jean is sweet and innocent, and perhaps a little naive (which may be why Eddie falls for her) Panama is more like Eddie. She's rough around the edges and fully aware of what Eddie and his crew are involved in. What ensues is a story of violence, love and betrayal. It's a complicated and beautiful film.

The film was based on a story by Mark Hellinger. As it's explained at the onset of the film, Hellinger lived a similar story to the one depicted in the film. To me, this makes it more real than other films I've seen about the prohibition era. While parts of the film are likely dramatized, the film possesses an authenticity that may be lacking in other similar films. It would have been a much different film without it's director, Raoul Walsh. He and Cagney (as well as other actors in the film, namely McHugh), were frequent collaborators. Walsh had many filming signatures. He loved long panoramic shots, and his female characters were often as hard and tough as the male leads. This can be seen in the character of Panama Smith. She's a complete contradiction to the other female lead in the film, Jean. She's outspoken, and hard living. Walsh also used this method in another film (one of my absolute favorites) "White Heat". The difference is that there is definitely a contrast to the two female characters in this film. In "White Heat" both of the women are strong and independent. In "The Roaring Twenties" the contrast between the two female leads adds even more to the authenticity of the film. Finally, it goes without saying, but Cagney is most definitely the star of this film. He is absolutely in his element in the gangster persona. Eddie is not pure evil though. We can see his human side. We can see that Eddie loves Jean, and we feel for him when she falls for Lloyd instead. He becomes despondent and throws himself into his work. At the end of the film, when he picks up Jean in his taxi, he's a regular guy. While it may be hard for him to face the love of his life, he's very genuine and kind-hearted. The scene in which he is meeting Jean and Lloyd's young son (who is supposedly four years old, but seems to be more like ten), is very touching, and Cagney does an excellent job of playing this type of role, then, in the next scene, playing the part of the fearless antagonist. Cagney was one of the few actors of his, or any era for that matter, who could achieve playing the role of both protagonist and antagonist in one character. He and the rest of the cast are fantastic.

While other films of this era, and of this subject can often just become convoluted and frustrating, this film is not one of them. It's filmed and acted brilliantly, and it's one of the best films I've seen recently.

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