Imagine a World War I veteran just back from the front, his name is Eddie Bartlett. He goes to the garage where he'd been employed before the war seeking his old job back. Sorry, he's told, I can't very well let go the guy who took your place. Eddie knows the boss has a point. Still, he'd counted on the job. Had planned to save his money and some day have a a garage of his own.
Undaunted, Eddie seeks employment elsewhere. Surely there's a job somewhere, especially for someone who fought for his country. But no, there isn't. Eddie's not the only one looking for a job. Finally he accepts his best friend's offer to share a cab. Eddie will be a hack. No shame there.
Then one day fate intercedes in Eddie's life in a most unexpected way. A fare asks him to pass along a package. With a few bucks at stake, Eddie doesn't hesitate to run the simple errand. Unbeknownest to Eddie the package is liquor and conveying it in the time of prohibition is a federal offense. Cops apprehend Eddie. Before a judge he refuses to implicate the woman, Panama Smith, to whom he was delivering the booze. Eddie is found guilty and since he cannot pay the fine must go to prison. But the grateful Panama pays his fine and takes Eddie into her business: the production and distribution of liquor. It's an ironic twist for Eddie, who's a confirmed teetotaler.
Eddie Bartlett, who just wanted to realize the American dream through hard work, is now involved in a criminal enterprise. He is, by definition, a crook. Moreover, he's about to rise to the top of his new found profession.
I've just summarized the beginning of The Roaring Twenties (1939), directed by Raoul Walsh and starring James Cagney as Eddie. It is the story of a perfectly ordinary, decent man who is swept by circumstances to the leadership of a criminal empire. Eddie's descent will be as fast as was his rise.
Cagney was no stranger to playing gangsters. He was Tom Powers in Public Enemy (1931), Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949), and Rocky Sullivan Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). But Eddie Bartlett was different. He stumbled into the criminal world. He did not choose crime, crime choose him. Oh sure, Eddie had free will. He had opportunity to stop, turn around and return to the straight and narrow. But how easy is that to say from afar? He'd made an honest effort and all it got him was a jail term -- talk about ironic!
Eddie did not just gain money by going into crime. Don't sell him short like that. He got power. Eddie was in control of his own destiny, or it certainly seemed that way. After all power is what we all want. At least power over our own lives. It's the whole point of wealth. To be in a state of poverty is to be powerless. To be rich is to be able to do whatever the heck you want.
Also, Eddie was doing something with his life. Most people in their prime don't want meaningless jobs performing rote tasks. As "the boss" Eddie was organizing liquor production and sales. He was stealing hijacking, making deals and overseeing employees. That's pretty intoxicating (no pun intended.) Eddie wasn't just a participant in life, he was a controller.
All of this has really been an exercise to help answer a question I had: why do I love The Roaring Twenties so much? Cagney is wonderful in every film I've seen him and though not as demanding a role as some, like White Heat, he's especially good in this movie. His unrequited love for Jean Sherman (the lovely Priscilla Lane) is touching as is Panama's (played by Gladys George) unrequited love for him. Humphrey Bogart is along for the ride as George Hally an army buddy, business rival, partner ,and business rival again. it was one of the last films in which Bogie played second fiddle to anyone. Jeffrey Lynn is the third of the trio in the foxhole "over there" and he ends up being Eddie' lawyer, Jean's successful romantic pursuer and Hally's ultimate target. So it's a great cast but Cagney as eddie is the real draw. There is such a strong sense of decency and honesty to him that you root Eddie on every time. Not just because he's the central character, but because he deserved better from the get go.
The Roaring Twenties was based on real events. I know, what movie isn't? But it really does have a slice of history feel to it which is enhanced by the newsreel style narration of John Deering and the occasional use of actual footage.
It's a film I've long loved. Those who claim that 1939 was the greatest year for Hollywood films are wise to use it as an example. Walsh was an expert story teller and he had a great story to tell. Yes its about the crime that was prohibition and the crimes that prohibition spawned. But it's more that than. it's about how people on one track in life suddenly find themselves on another. Happens all the time. When Cagney plays the guy its happening to, you've got a helluva movie.