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USA 1939
Directed by
Raoul Walsh
106 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

The Roaring Twenties

James Cagney spent most of the 1930s playing tough guy gangsters after The Public Enemy (1931) made him a star. His performance here as Eddie Bartlett was his last for a while in this vein, until he made his return to the genre with White Heat (1949).

Scripted by famous New York crime reporter Mark Hellinger, Walsh’s film opens with a montage of newsreel and stock footage intercut with newspaper headlines and a Movietone style voice-over (by John Deering) to give the film a sense of journalistic authenticity (apropos this actor Paul Kelly who plays mobster Nick Brown had served over two years in San Quentin for beating actor Ray Raymond to death over a woman Brown would later marry) as it tells the story of the rise and fall of onetime WWI doughboy-turned-gangster, Eddie who is treated as emblematic of the changing social conditions of the years between the end of WWI and the post-Depression election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933.

As a social document it skims across the surface of the period, looking at the shabby treatment of returned servicemen, the depredations of Prohibition and the hedonistic spirit referred to in the film's title that came crashing down in 1929. As a drama it is less successful with Cagney’s essentially good guy persona (the side of him personified by idealistic lawyer Lloyd Hart) and his rather odd naiveté regarding his love interest, played by Priscilla Lane (an actress who had a short-lived film career in the late 1930s and early 1940s) sitting at odds with the rather brutal pragmatism of his boot-legging years. Even so, Cagney gives a winning performance and his fall is poignantly handled in the traditional manner by having him expire on some snow-covered church steps.

In support Humphrey Bogart as Cagney's partner, George Hally, is a thoroughly reprehensible character and the narrative antithesis to Eddie. It was a role typical of the second-rung parts Bogey was getting at this time such as the double-crossing lawyer Jim Frazier in Angels With Dirty Faces (made the previous year also with Cagney), although he would break through to the A list and his decade with the 1941 gangster film High Sierra, also directed by Walsh. Gladys George does a solid job of the moll-with-heart-of-gold part of Panama Smith, based on the real-life character Texas Duigan, whilst Frank McHugh plays Bartlett's best friend, Danny Green, providing some crowd-pleasing comic relief and Walsh mixes things up even further with a few musical numbers from the Ginger Rogerish Lane (notably 'It Had To Be You' and 'Melancholy Baby' in what is a superior example of the 'social issue' film.




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