The Roaring Twenties (1939) a perfect summation of how the 1930s perceived the decade

A decade long recount of the highs and lows of a raucous era, following it all through the eyes of the archetypal young man entering adulthood in James Cagney’s portrayal. It follows him from coming home from a war to the inability to get work and how that transition often led to organized crime formulating. Especially in a time of prohibition. Cagney is fantastic, showing a real emotional side not normally associated with mobsters, and how one coped with the viscosity of the roaring twenties. Priscilla Lane and Humprhey Bogart are also great in smaller roles, as they add higher stakes to the explosive lifestyle of the 20s. The dynamics between these characters brings out the radicalism in one another that defines the decade.

Raoul Walsh had a larger scope in mind when approaching the decade, telling a contemporary story with a sense of recency. Based on the short story A World Moves On, it’s a film that tells an industrial sized narrative centered around the archetypal male of the twenties. It’s not only focused on the people of these industries but the industries themselves. From booze to factory work and even as an early homage to early Hollywood and the mobster films. 

Even more, people looking to follow characters will find something special in Cagney’s portrayal, covering a decade he largely defined in the zeitgeist as the mobster figure on screen. Starting with his time as a soldier, where Walsh pumps a surprising amount of budget into the no man’s land recreation and the exhaustive look of the WWI battlefields. The story quickly switches back to Cagney in society, trying to work in manufacturing and learning there’s not much in terms of a job market. It speaks to the larger issues of society in the 1920s and how this environment nurtured crime.

Lastly, Priscilla Lane’s involvement here is the emotional center of Cagney’s world. At first, it was difficult to decipher how she factored into Cagney’s life, but is ultimately a sore spot that brings out the range in Cagney. The melodrama does get a bit dry compared to the hectic pacing of the first half, but it does serve to expand the narrative in interesting ways. 

Even if it’s a sensationalized version of the decade, it’s fascinating to experience how the 1930s saw the 1920s. The ups and downs and how it informed the culture of when the film was made.


★★★½/ out of 5★s (85)

(88-84-91-80-87-86-88-90-82-85-82-85-88-80: 85.35)

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