The Roaring Twenties (1939) Review

Director: Raoul Walsh

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the last, if not the last, of the major gangster pictures of the 1930s, The Roaring Twenties ends a chapter in mob movie history on a decent note. The story here is about World War I veteran Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney), who gets mixed up with bootleggers during Prohibition and rises up among their ranks. It feels more epic-scale than many other films in this subgenre, but some intimacy is lost in translation.

The Roaring Twenties tries to juggle many elements: action, romance, music, historical background, etc., trying to please every type of moviegoer. The main plot of the flick is often overcome by a love triangle, and there’s just as much singing as there is shoot-’em-up, bang-bang stuff. The truth is, it feels more nostalgic than hard-boiled, lacking a certain meanness necessary for this sort of crime feature to work properly.

That being said, the action sequences are pretty good when they arrive (the movie definitely ends on a high note). There are some engaging montages to express the passage of time, although the narration for these sequences (done by John Deering) feels a bit dated nowadays. Raoul Walsh’s direction is solid, but the clean-feeling script doesn’t always help him.

The Roaring Twenties is just too romantic for its own good, both in the sense of the lovey-dovey stuff and in terms of rose-tinted nostalgia. It feels like one of James Cagney’s “bigger” films, but it’s certainly not among his best, in my book. It just doesn’t have the ultra-gritty intimacy of The Public Enemy (1931), the heroic badassery of ‘G’ Men (1935), or the lurid sadism of White Heat (1949). I’m not saying “don’t watch it,” just keep your expectations in check.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

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