“Spaghetti puts on fat in the wrong places”

The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh, 1939)

Back to the golden age of Hollywood today and a gangster film from the Warners studio. If it’s an action-acked plot, quick wit, breakneck pacing and exuberant energy you want, it’s to these films you should go. I think the last Old Hollywood film I watched was His Girl Friday and the thing that struck me about both of these was the density of the script. Cynical, sardonic jokes and wisecracks come flying at you like a volley of tennis balls. Switch off for an instant and you’ll miss a few.

The script was credited to three writers and a fourth who came up with the treatment. I suppose it’s how they still work today on the likes of Curb Your Enthusiasm; you can visualise a Brill Building set-up where scores of writers clock in and sit around their office boucing thoughts off each other, building up a database of great one-liners to fit into their scripts.

It’s certainly different from the European cult of the director, where writers, photographers, actors, composers and set deisgners are all deployed to achieve one man’s vision. In Old Hollywood the sense is that the studio is king, and the director may supervise the rest but he’s still a worker bee doing a job of work and in thrall to MGM or whoever. Cinema is not a place for personal statements, it’s a place for stories and entertainment. “What’s my motivation?” “Your salary”. The discipline, it must be said, produced great cinema.

So, The Roaring Twenties. A great cast. Cagney is of course the swaggering tough, but there’s something effete about his pretty face. The film tells the story of his rise and fall. With an angel (Lynn) and a devil (Bogart) on either shoulder, he’s the everyman. Picked up and discarded by fortune and history, and he serves up both giddy hubris and quiet humility; a compelling turn. Bogart is cold, a little sadistic, with that sickly vampiric face of his. If he has a love life we see no evidence of it; Cagney’s character gives it his all but Bogart keeps his cards to his chest. Priscilla Lane’s leading lady has a wholesome, ruddy beauty in contrast to the slightly past-it, seedy/glamorous Gladys George- gay on the outside, sad on the inside.

Let’s go- opening credits spelt out in burning lightbulbs, before a backdrop of skyscrapers and brash Gershwin music: locating us in Runyonland. A foreword from one of the writers tells us that whether bitter or sweet, after some time “memories become precious. This is a memory, I am grateful for it”. We’re about to see some folks to do some truly terrible things, and look damn cool doing them.

We’re catapulted, as we will be at frequent intervals, straight into a montage of newsreel clips with a booming voiceover. You don’t quite see flipping calendars or newspaper front pages spinning rapidly but it’s that sort of thing. 1939, Hitler, Mussolini, lines of goosestepping boots. The voice tells us that in this age of “power-mad men”, we forget about one of the most significant episodes in recent history.

1918. A studio set made up like a battlefield, figures moving through the mud and wire. Grenades go off constantly, machine guns hum in the background, bits of earth blown into the sky. One by one, three soldiers take cover in a shell-hole. They are George (Humphrey Bogart), Eddie (James Cagney) and Lloyd (Jeffrey Lynn). The war doesn’t feel too real; they share a smoke and exchange witty put-downs as the bombs land all around them. When Lloyd does admit to fear, Bogart ridicules him (“No heart, eh? College kid?”) and Cagney has to defend him.

Back at camp, Bogart almost comes to blows with a buffonish sergeant. The boys receive letters and photos from the pen-pal girls assigned to them. Bogart throws his away but all agree that Cagney’s lass is “more like it”. When they go back into battle, Bogart is gleefully picking off Germans from behind a wall. Lloyd puts his gun down when he realises the Jerry in his sights “looks like a kid of 15”. Bogart helps himself; “He won’t see 16”.

1919 and a satirical newsreel bit. The people are “tiring” of having to welcome home wave after wave of soldier. A judge is astonished by a woman whose skirt starts six inches above her ankle; a glimpse of stocking is looked on as something shocking. Still in uniform and cute overseas cap, Cagney returns to the big city and sees his friends, in particular Danny the cab driver. The garage where he used to work promised “there would always be a job” for him but the boss turns him away and the workers sneer at another soldier back from their “picnic”. A montage of Cagney being sent away from all manner of workplaces. Worried about him, Danny offers him the use of his taxi for “the 12 hours a day I’m asleep”.

In need of cheering up, they drive out to Long Island to see Cagney’s penpal. All rose bushes and white picket fences. Jane (Priscilla Lane) is about 15, and still at school. Cagney is brusque with her to the point of callouness. Will you call me? “Yes- in two or three years”.

Prohibition is passed and the speakeasy comes into being; montage of suspcious eyes opening slots in the door, &c. Cagney’s cabbie is told to deliver brown paper bags to a madam, Panama Smith. Bottles clink inside. Cagney is naive and indiscreet- plain clothes detectives in the club arrest him. He’s sent to jail, where he tells a suicidal WWI veteran to buck his ideas up, before Panama pays his bail. A bewildered Cagney is taken to a bar in the back room of a hardware store. A policeman is one of the customers. Cagney orders a glass of milk. He is a “decent guy” and Panama wants to help him; she urges him to get into the liquor racket, which is on the cusp of a boom.

The next montage is of Cagney on the make, using a taxi fleet as a front for distribution of bootleg booze. The voiceover declares that in the face of this “grotesque” law, the public sees such gangsters as adventuring Robin Hood crusaders that “deal in bottles instead of battles”. The montage ends with a zoom into the glass window of an undertaker’s, just in case you hadn’t guessed what was coming.

When producers hike up their prices, Cagney and Danny start making their own “gin” in the bathtub. Two businessmen open a bottle in a motel room; “This is the real stuff, they can’t fool me”. The voiceover berates the decline in public morals as teenagers, schoolgirls, and football crowds swig from hip flasks. We can tell from the cut of his suit that Cagney is doing very nicely. Lloyd urges him to go straight, but he sees how fat his wallet is getting and he’s like Pooh in the honey pot.

So, what to spend it on? The producer of a musical is behind on his payments. Cagney pops over to the theatre to get nasty, but he spots Jane in the chorus line. She’s become a beautiful young woman. JC gets the cold shoulder but pursues her determinedly, stealing a flower from a street vendor for his buttonhole. His persistence is, ahem, rewarded. Jane is presented at Panama’s club for an audition. As she sings ‘Melancholy Baby’, we see Cagney chew his knuckles nervously.

They’ve heard worse, they’ve heard better- but Cagney insists on her getting top billing at the club. He’ll pay 70% of her fee, “as long as she doesn’t find out”. He shows off his business empire to Jane; the fake whisky with a 1200% mark-up, the “New Jersey applejack” that’s being bottled as vintage champagne. Jane meets Lloyd and their eyes light up immediately- you can see this one a mile off.

A full house at the club. The camera follows Cagney from above as he weaves his way through the crowds. He’s got a ring for Jane. “You’re moving too fast”, Panama warns him. She’ll turn you down. Jane is shown in soft-focus close-ups as she performs. Panama looks pained and Lloyd ecstatic; he claps wildly at the close of the number. In her dressing room, Jane tries to let Cagney down gently (“I do like you, but…”). He won’t listen. In a couple more years he’ll go clean and then they’ll marry.

The next level for Cagney will be the acquisition of authentic quality booze to distribute, the smuggling of which is controlled by Nick Brown. In his restaurant Brown concentrates on his plate of spaghetti, and dismisses Cagney as he might a fly. The gang acquire coastguard uniforms and a boat, in order to seize Brown’s next delivery. On the high seas Brown’s lads put up a (brilliantly choreographed) fight, but lose.

The skipper of Brown’s boat is Bogart- cue an emotional reunion. Cagney declines a glass of malt. When he realises that Cagney knows full well what he’s getting himself into, Bogie is impressed by the size of his cojones. Can I come and work for you instead? Thus begins a partnership based on mutual distrust. 1924: the next newsreels feature convoys of lorries, firebombs and tommy guns. The stakes have been upped considerably.

The boys perform a heist on a government warehouse of impounded alcohol. The outside wall is lined with huge triangular supports and the patrolmen are dragged behind one, to be beaten unconcscious out of our sight. It’s shot in a quite expressionistic way. The relief patrolman turns up as they’re filling up their lorries- it’s that pompous sergeant from WWI. The red mist descends and Bogart shoots him.

Jane is singing ‘It Had To Be You’ in the club. Bogart astounds Cagney by telling him what we’ve seen for an age- Lloyd is going to steal his girl with that “Joe College” act. Panama hangs back, looking slightly skeletal. Enter a furious Nick Brown; before the patrolman died, he named Cagney and Bogart as the culprits. They fight, tables are upturned and the punters flee the club. It’s a bridge too far for Lloyd, who resigns. He manages to steal a moment with Jane. Sweetheart, when are you going to tell him about us?

Cagney and Bogart call a conference of rival gangs, and send Danny to pick up Nick Brown. Danny’s corpse is dumped on the club doorstep. Cagney takes a posse to Brown’s restaurant and the machiavellian Bogart tips Brown off. A gunfight ensues (skilfully done, with frequent jump cuts). Brown dies and Cagney tells Bogart that although he can’t prove anything, “I got one with your name on it”. He storms off, and bumps into Lloyd and Jane together in the street. Heartbroken, he performs a u-turn to join Panama at the bar and try his merchandise for the first time- a turning point.

Right on cue, 1929 ushers in the Great Depression. Graphic effects show melting skyscrapers and a vast pyramid collapsing into worthless banknotes. Cagney is ruined, unable to clear his debts, allowing Bogart to buy the entire company for a fraction of its worth (“I’ll leave you one cab- just one. You’ll need it, pal”). Roosevelt ends prohibition and we see parties, ballons and streamers, bottles of gin on the production line. Cagney is a bum, frequenting pawn shops and the down-and-out hostels.

Laden with Christmas presents, Jane gets into Cagney’s cab. Lloyd is the district attorney and they have a son. Cagney is standoffish with her but when they reach her house he has a word of warning for Lloyd, who is preparing a high-profile lawsuit against Bogart; you are going to get yourself killed. On cue, a death threat is delivered the next day and Jane goes looking for Cagney- maybe he can speak to Bogart.

The consensus of his fellow cab drivers is that JC’s a drunkard. He’s to be found in a smoky dive bar where the camera follows Panama, walking around and singing a little creakily to an indifferent audience. It’s a big contrast from her swanky club. Cagney looks awful. He insists he’ll be “up there again” but Panama knows better. As they leave, for no apparent reason Cagney stops and stands over the piano, staring at it. After a while, he smiles quietly to himself and strolls out. It was the best bit of acting in the film.

He refuses to help Jane, but after a change of heart he shows up at Bogart’s luxurious townhouse. The men admit him “to give the boss a laugh”. When he finds out why Cagney has come, Bogart stops laughing. If he’s still in love with Jane, Cagney must be killed before he goes to the police. Cagney seizes the gun, however, and kills a petrified, shaking Bogart. As he flees the house Cagney is hit by a bullet, staggers a few yards, and collapses on the steps of a church. Redemption through sacrifice? A policeman watches him die in Panama’s arms and she gets the famous last words. The camera pulls right out to end of the city skyline.

Having written about Once Upon a Time in the West last week, I think that this film might be to gangster movies what Once Upon… is to westerns. It’s a big-picture, summing-up film at the end of a run of ’em. It self-consciously plays up all the elements of its genre for one great big send-off, at the same time highlighting the social reasons why that way of life went into demise.

 Sergio Leone did this in a subtle, intelligent way but Raoul Walsh settles for didactical voiceovers and having Panama remark that “it’s over for all of us, something new is happening. Something neither of us understand”; which by comparison is as lumpen as a Sartre novel. However, for pacing, attention to detail, memorable dialogue and fine performances, this will do very nicely indeed. And, if it’s nostalgic for Al Capone and his kind… with the Holocaust on their doorstep, they might well have had a point.


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August 2009
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