An epochal rise-and-fall epic of the gangster cycle, Raoul Walsh’s skittering, impetuous The Roaring Twenties (bookending the glorious ascent of James Cagney’s bootlegger with a cold reception for soldiers returning from overseas following WWI on one side and the ‘29 Crash on the other) hits the ground running, but a couple lengths further back on the track than one would expect. Mark Hellinger’s story begins not with the green-eyed and spry neophyte chump tripsying his way into the stage door of a hotbox revue, but with the same kid stumbling his way into a blown-out crater in Europe during the War. Maybe it’s because Cagney’s role as the rushed Eddie Bartlett (a principled soldier who blossoms into a hoodlum with a conscience) comes at a peculiar point in his career as a uniquely physical being (long past the point where his violent temper could be written off as arrested adolescence, a vulnerability seemingly entrenched in the two deep, Guy Pearce-like gashes that bisect his jaw), this lengthy prologue sets the stage for a gangster micro-epic that wobbles intriguingly on the moral imperative of the gangster ethic.
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; he may glamorize his thugs, but they are rarely glorified without compunction. And though The 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, admittedly does walk the same tightrope between corruption and godliness. (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.) Farber’s convincingly weak stomach for the film’s lilies of virtue can’t quite digest that most of the film’s wonky charm come courtesy of Cagney’s schizoid impulses, never quite settling on which moral imperatives to hold onto and which to disregard (a paradox that finds its best example when the rising ganglord Cagney 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).
Walsh’s swift 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 Hellinger’s opening credits scroll: “The characters are composites of people I knew, and the situations are those that actually occurred.” Climaxing with a tableau that is as iconic as it is melodramatic, The Roaring Twenties revels in a relativism that keeps its momentum fresh and elusive.