Introduction to “The Roaring Twenties”

The second installment of the “Hollywood Hoods” film series sponsored by the Colligan History Project was a screening of “The Roaring Twenties.” Here are the notes from my introduction…

rt2Those of you who were here last week for the screening of “The Public Enemy” may recall that in 1931, when that film was released, many critics were predicting the end of the gangster pictures, suggesting that the public may have had its fill of the formulaic plots and the cheesy shoot-outs and car chases.

As it would turn out, the genre still had a few good years left in it. “The Roaring Twenties”, released in 1939, may have been the swan song of the great era of gangster films. By the time it was released, memories of Prohibition–the great failed social experiment–were disappearing into the past and what romance the public may have seen in the gangster ideal had been ravaged by the hard times of the Depression era.

So with “The Roaring Twenties” we have what some critics have called the eulogy of the Jazz Age. I thought this would be a good film for the series for that very reason: The story follows the rise and fall of a trio of bootleggers that coincides with the rise and fall of Prohibition. The film has the scope of an epic, beginning in the trenches of World War I and ends with the repeal of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.

And like “The Public Enemy,” “The Roaring Twenties” is known for its insider look at the bootlegging trade and the glamor of the speakeasies and flappers that gave the decade its glitter and romance. Director Raoul Walsh tried to make a hard-hitting action film that still had strong realistic elements, thus his use of mock newsreel footage and a semi-documentary style in portions of the film. There were several newspaper articles in the day that discussed how his crew tried to recreate the look and feel of the speakeasies and duplicate the outlandish fashions of the day. One article said that they had to reel that in a little, fearing that people wouldn’t believe it got that weird if they were too realistic.


The story’s foot in the real world comes from the pen of the popular syndicated columnist Mark Hellinger and his screenplay treatment, originally titled “The World Moves On,” based on his experiences as a New York news reporter during the 1920s.

hellingerIn 1923, Hellinger went to work for the New York Daily News, and in 1925 was assigned to do a Sunday column titled “About Town,” which was supposed to be a gossip column about the Broadway theater scene. Instead, he wrote short stories in the style of O. Henry about the people of Broadway, often without even giving their names. It wasn’t what his editors ordered, but his columns became so popular that they allowed him to continue, and Hellinger’s popularity grew. Although his name rings few bells today, at his peak Hellinger was syndicated to nearly 150 newspapers and had an audience of 15 million readers. It’s estimated that he wrote 4,500 stories.

And as part of the Broadway in-crowd, he was also a New York celebrity. He married one of Ziegfield’s most popular show girls, Gladys Glad, and was often seen carousing in the company of his colleague and best friend Walter Winchell. He also counted among his friends the New York mobsters Dutch Schultz and Legs Diamond and frequented some of Gotham’s trendiest speakeasies with names like the Hotsy-Totsy, Club Dizzy, and the Blackbottom.

You will see some of Hellinger’s words in the introduction to the film, which reads in part: “In this film, the characters are composites of people I knew, and the situations are those that actually occurred. Bitter or sweet, most memories become precious as the years move on. This film is a memory–and I am grateful for it.”

“The Roaring Twenties” was not Hellinger’s first involvement with a Hollywood film, but it was his first success, and he later turned producer for several film noir classics, his biggest hit being 1947’s “The Killers,” Burt Lancaster’s debut. It was based on an Ernest Hemingway short story, and it’s said Hellinger bought the rights to it because he couldn’t afford a Hemingway novel. In “The Naked City,” which includes the iconic narration that Hellinger himself provided with the classic line, “There are eight million stories in the Naked City…”

So we were in Chicago for “The Public Enemy,” and now we get to see Prohibition in New York City. Like “The Public Enemy,” we can point to real people who were the inspiration for some of the central figures in “The Roaring Twenties.”

Eddie Bartlett, the role played by James Cagney, is said to be a thinly-disguised and humanized version of the New York racketeer Larry Fay, and the character Panama Smith, played by Gladys George, a fictionalized version of the brassy speakeasy hostess Texas Guinan.

Larry Fay had the distinction of a police rap sheet with 49 arrests and no convictions. He made his fortune by bringing Canadian whiskey across the border and into New York City. He used the money he made to open a night club, El Fey, on Manhattan’s West 47th Street in 1924 that was famous for its floor show and hostess/emcee, Texas Guinan. He also became a partner in the club Casa Blanca, and it was there he was gunned down during a 1932 New Years Eve party by the club’s doorman, disgruntled because his pay had been cut.

texasMary Louise Guinan picked up the nickname “Texas” when she began her singing career in Chicago, more popular for her Wild West patter between songs than for her singing. She moved to New York City in 1906 and became a chorus girl on vaudeville and in touring productions. In 1917, she made a silent movie “The Wildcat,” which earned her the title of “The Queen of the West” as Hollywood’s first cowgirl.

Cagney, James (Roaring Twenties, The)_02When Prohibition came around Guinan opened her own speakeasy, the 300 Club, on West 54th Street, which became a hangout for the New York elite, a place where George Gerswin could easily be persuaded to sit at the piano for an impromptu set. Guinan greeted her patrons with one of her catch phrases, “Hello, suckers,” which was toned down in a paraphrase for this film, made during the years of the Hays code. See if you can catch it.

Texas Guinan played versions of herself in a couple of films, including “Queen of the Night Clubs” in 1929, was fictionalized by Damon Runyon as “Miss Missouri Martin” in several of his Prohibiton-era short stories, and portrayed in film by Betty Hutton, Phyllis Diller and Diane Lane, among several others. For his 1932 film “Night After Night,” George Raft wanted Texas Guinan to play herself, believing that it would make her a big star. By that time, she was nearly 40 years old, so the studio opted instead for an up and coming vaudeville performer Mae West, whose wise-cracking stage persona had a lot in common with and may have been inspired by Guinan, but she was a decade younger. West was allowed to rewrite some of the dialog, prompting George Raft to remark, “She stole everything but the cameras,” and his prediction about the role creating a star came true, but for the wrong gal.

roaring-1feature“The Roaring Twenties” marks the third and final time James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart would appear in the same film, though most of the reviews of the day lamented that Bogart wasn’t on-screen enough. Their previous works together were the gangster movie “Angels with Dirty Faces” in 1938 and a Western, believe it or not, “The Oklahoma Kid,” released the same year as “The Roaring Twenties.” It didn’t do as well, probably because the urban actors seemed terribly out of place in the Old West.

Bogart and Cagney had somewhat parallel careers. They were the same age, born within six months of each other in 1899 in New York City, but Cagney grew up in the tenements and tough streets of the Lower West Side while Bogart was raised on the Upper West Side and went to posh private schools. His father was a surgeon and his mother an illustrator who made even more money than her husband. Cagney and Bogart both got their start on Broadway before moving to Hollywood.

While they both made their marks playing tough guys, they had distinctive styles. Cagney was the brash extrovert and Bogart the sulking introvert. Cagney bristled with intensity and talked fast. Bogart was more laconic, speaking as if to put great emphasis on his words.

Cagney’s career was already in full bloom by the time they made “The Roaring Twenties,” while Bogart was still a rising star, transitioning from the cheesy upper-crust “Tennis, anyone?” shallow sophisticate roles that he was first being cast in–parts he called “White Pants Willies”– to the tough guy roles that made him famous. He once quipped that critics hated him in his early roles, and they were right. He had some success as the star of “The Petrified Forest” in 1936, reprising his Broadway role in the film version at the insistence of Leslie Howard, but Warner Bros. didn’t seem to want to invest in him as a star–maybe because he refused to change his name even though Jack Warner insisted. Instead they switched his “type” from the fraternity boy to the tough guy, giving him roles refused by Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and Paul Muni. In fact, his first leading man role in “High Sierra”, 1941, also directed by Raoul Walsh, had been turned down by both Robinson and Muni.

Both actors were involved in monumental, highly-publicized clashes with studio executives over both their typecasting, and both received three Academy Award nominations but earned their only Oscars for playing parts against that type: Cagney as the song-and-dance man George M. Cohen in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and Bogart as the lovable lush Charlie Allnut in “The African Queen,” so clearly both had acting chops that went beyond their gangster fame.

Bogart worked hard and made many, many important films before he died of cancer of the esophagus in 1957. Three years after that, Cagney retired from Hollywood and made only one other film, a small role in “Ragtime” in 1981, before his death in 1986.

Annex - Bogart, Humphrey (Roaring Twenties, The)_NRFPT_01