4K UHD Blu-ray Review: Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties on the Criterion Collection

The 4K presentation affirms the film’s position among the gutsiest Golden Age crime epics.

The Roaring TwentiesAn epochal rise-and-fall epic of the gangster cycle, Raoul Walsh’s skittering, impetuous The Roaring Twenties hits the ground running but a couple lengths further back on the track than one would expect. It bookends the glorious ascent of James Cagney’s bootlegger with a cold reception for soldiers returning from overseas following World War I on one side and the 1929 stock market crash on the other.

The plot, based on Mark Hellinger’s short story “The World Moves On,” defies genre conventions right out of the gate, beginning not with Cagney’s spry neophyte chump Eddie Bartlett traipsing his way into, say, the stage door of a hotbox revue but with him stumbling his way into a blown-out crater in Europe during the war. The role of Bartlett, a principled soldier who blossoms into a hoodlum with a conscience, found Cagney at a peculiar point in his career as a uniquely physical being, long past the point where his characters’ violent tempers could be written off as shows of arrested adolescence. Here, vulnerability seems well entrenched in the deep gashes that bisect his jaw. And the film’s lengthy prologue sets the stage for a micro-epic that explores the imperative of the gangster ethic from every moral angle.

When Bartlett stumbles downward (with only the faintest shading of metaphor) into the foxhole at the beginning of the film, he collapses onto George Hally (Humphrey Bogart, before his miscreant meatiness was forever tenderized down at Rick’s Café) and Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn). Very quickly, the two are established as extreme ends on the naughty-nice continuum, respectively, which is all more or less according to the Walsh action film blueprint. The filmmaker may glamorize his thugs, but they’re rarely glorified without compunction.

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Manny Farber wrote in an article extolling the work of Walsh that the director “goes to sleep when he handles Decency, the wooden lawyer who works for the DA’s office.” The DA, Bartlett’s lawyer and former foxhole companion Hart, does walk a samey tightrope between corruption and godliness that feels “second verse, same as the first.” (Cagney’s two love interests follow similar patterns, only Gladys George’s blowsy performance as Panama Smith clearly reveals Walsh’s sympathy for the spice of “naughty” girls.) But Farber’s convincingly weak stomach for The Roaring Twenties’s lilies of virtue can’t quite digest that most of the film’s wonky charm comes courtesy of George’s schizoid impulses, never quite settling into which moral imperatives to hold onto and which to disregard. It’s a paradox that finds its best example when Eddie the rising ganglord is approached by three previously jailed men looking for “work,” and only accepts the two that fess up to their guilt, dismissing the one who maintains that he was framed.

Ernest Haller’s camerawork is almost an extension of Cagney’s swift gait. Both seem to be landing each step on the front side of their feet, and the effect is that the camera is anticipating the catharsis between nitroglycerine crime partners Bartlett and Hally to tip the scales of moral alignment back to zero. In the same way, Walsh’s punchy interludes, in which a radio announcer and cross-fading montages four images deep detail the sociological background of the era (approximating the zingers between page turns in a pulp novel), almost seem to ludicrously trivialize the same economic plight that was played for sympathy in the opening credits scroll: “The characters are composites of people I knew, and the situations are those that actually occurred.” Climaxing with a tableau that’s as iconic as it is melodramatic, The Roaring Twenties revels in a relativism that keeps its momentum fresh and elusive.

Image/Sound

In assessing the 2005 Warner Home Video DVD transfer, I claimed that the studio’s then-recent crop of Golden Age studio releases looked good enough that they’d have some asking, “Criterion who?” Well, it took nearly two decades and two home video format cycles for the Criterion Collection to clap back, but the wait was more than worth it. Criterion’s 4K takes a film that was already quite evidently very well preserved (“jet blacks, quicksilver grays, a total monochromatic symphony in crisp focus” were the words I used back then) and emerges with what frequently feels like one of the best-looking presentations of a pre-war Hollywood movie to hit the high-definition marketplace. The Roaring Twenties isn’t technically a noir, but damned if the shadow delineation here doesn’t make it feel like it is. The mono sound is similarly well preserved and at least a notch or two above any number of other 1930s soundtracks out there, with punchy gunshots, clear dialogue, and music cues that steer reasonably clear of shrill.

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Extras

Criterion has taken its share of knocks lately when it comes to skimping on bonus features, and it’s probably worth mentioning here that the most significant extra in this set is actually a recue from Warner’s earlier release: the late scholar Lincoln Hurst’s feature-length commentary track. The track packs a full monograph’s worth of material into just over 100 fizzy minutes, and it strikes a true enthusiast’s balance between vital historical information and fun insider tidbits. It’s nice to see this track ported over and preserved under the Criterion banner.

Aside from that, though, the pickings are slim in number if not import. In a newly recorded interview, critic Gary Giddens looks back on The Roaring Twenties’s unique place among studio films from its era, and why it continues to endure today, even aside from the still-potent legend of James Cagney. There’s also a too-brief clip from an early-’70s interview with Raoul Walsh that will largely serve to leave you wanting more. Finally, the accompanying booklet’s liner notes are handled expertly by critic Mark Asch, who picks apart the film’s resonance within the canon of 1939 classics as well as explaining how it revitalized Walsh’s career.

Overall

Don’t just take Manny Farber’s word for it. Criterion’s sparkling 4K presentation of The Roaring Twenties more than affirms its position among the gutsiest Golden Age crime epics.

Score: 
 Cast: James Cagney, Priscilla Lane, Humphrey Bogart, Gladys George, Jeffrey Lynn, Frank McHugh, Paul Kelly  Director: Raoul Walsh  Screenwriter: Jerry Wald, Richard Macauley, Robert Rossen  Distributor: The Criterion Collection  Running Time: 106 min  Rating: NR  Year: 1939  Release Date: February 27, 2024  Buy: Video

Eric Henderson

Eric Henderson is the web content manager for WCCO-TV. His writing has also appeared in City Pages.

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