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Criterion hits the bull’s eye with Raoul Walsh’s ‘The Roaring Twenties’


In one of his finest performances, James Cagney, left, plays Eddie Bartlett, a Prohibition underworld boss who roughs up his lawyer friend Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn) after discovering that Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane), the young singer with whom he’s infatuated, is in love with Hart.

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4K Ultra HD & Blu-ray, 1939, unrated

Best extra: An insightful and engaging new interview with critic Gary Giddins

MOST MOVIE BUFFS worth their Raisinets can tell you why 1939 is regarded as Hollywood’s pinnacle: “Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Stagecoach,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” … Dig a little deeper into those Top 10 lists, though, and “The Roaring Twenties” is likely to be on them, too.

Who knew? But cueing up this Criterion title – and by all means do – makes it crystal-clear why it finishes among the greatest movies of that golden year. 

Directed by Raoul Walsh (“White Heat”) from an original story by New York theater critic-turned-producer Mark Hellinger (“The Naked City”) and shot by Ernest Haller, an Oscar winner that same year for “GWTW,” it capped Warner Bros.’ celebrated 1930s gangster cycle. Oh yeah, it stars James Cagney in one of his finest performances and a cold, sinister Humphrey Bogart before he joined the roster of leading men.

(1) “The Roaring Twenties” premiered Oct. 28, 1939. (2) Bartlett, Hart and the psychopathic George Hally (Humphrey Bogart) take cover in a foxhole in France.  (3&4) Returning to New York City, Eddie reconnects with his buddy Danny Green (Frank McHugh). He gets a job as a cabbie and unwittingly delivers a package of hootch to speakeasy hostess Panama Smith (Gladys George). They’re represented by Hart when they face the judge.

But calling “The Roaring Twenties” a “gangster film” only scratches the surface. As the title implies, Walsh’s scope is wide: He not only captures the charged energy of the time, he lays bare the disgraceful “homecoming” that awaited the men who fought in the Great War. The original title, taken from Hellinger’s story, was “The World Moves On.”

Cagney plays Eddie Bartlett, who only wants his old job in a garage. Bogart is George Hally, who wants to bring back the rifle he used to kill a teenage German soldier after the armistice was signed. They meet after taking cover in a foxhole in Argonne, and are soon joined by recent law school graduate Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn, “Underground”).

Back in the States, Eddie reconnects with his buddy Danny Green (Frank McHugh, “All Through the Night”), a New York cabbie. When Eddie’s told that there’s no work at the garage, he starts driving, too. Eventually, he starts running booze, and after starting his own operation, climbs the ranks of the Prohibition underworld. He crosses paths with Hally while hijacking a shipment from rival Nick Brown (Paul Kelly, “Crossfire”) and the two form a shaky partnership that Hally undermines from the start.

Cagney’s performance is so stellar because through it all, Eddie never loses his innocence, even when he’s crushed after learning that Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane, “Arsenic and Old Lane”), the young singer with whom he’s infatuated, is in love with Hart, or hits rock bottom with the repeal of Prohibition. Gladys George (“The Maltese Falcon”) is also outstanding as Panama Smith, the speakeasy hostess who is Eddie’s true kindred spirit.

Back to Cagney. In his 2023 interview “The Underworld Moves On,” critic Gary Giddens says he’s so “astonishing because everything registers – he doesn’t just deliver a line.” Give some of the credit to Haller, whose close-ups Giddins nails as “infallible.” Having made his mark with “The Public Enemy,” “Smart Money” and “Lady Killer,” Cagney said he was parting ways with gangster films after “The Roaring Twenties,” until Walsh lured him back a decade later to play Cody Jarrett in the masterful “White Heat.”

(1&2) Eddie tries to muscle in on rival Nick Brown (Paul Kelly). (3) As the Prohibition cash piles up, Eddie pays Hart for purchasing the taxis he uses as a front. (4-7) Sherman, Bartlett’s wartime pen pal, is performing in a chorus line when he runs into her. She sings for him as he escorts her home on a late-night train; later, he helps her get her first job.


The other reason that “The Roaring Twenties” (1.37:1 aspect ratio) is a must for your collection is because the reference-quality 4K UHD master is one of Criterion’s best. Created mostly from a 35mm nitrate original camera negative and a safety fine-grain from Warner Bros., and presented in Dolby Vision HDR and HDR10, it checks all the boxes: razor-sharp contrast; deep, solid shadows; a consistent grain that’s never obtrusive. Even the stock footage looks good. I had to remind myself more than once that the film is 85 years old.

Remastered by Criterion from the 35mm composite fine-grain, the original monaural soundtrack is exceptional, too, with a surprising depth that you don’t get from films of this vintage. Everything was encoded onto a 100 GB disc, and the video averages over 80 Megabits per second, while the Blu-ray stays in the 30 Mbps range.

Dialogue is crisp and clear, the WWI combat and tommy gun blasts resonate, and the evocative soundtrack that prominently features “My Melancholy Baby,” “I’m Just Wild About Harry” and “It Had to Be You” soars – thanks in no small part to Lane, the youngest of the Lane Sisters.

(1&2) While hijacking a shipload of Brown’s liquor, Bartlett discovers that Hally is the ship’s captain. (3) The two form a tenuous partnership and climb to the top.


If there’s a gripe with this release, it’s the dearth of extras. Criterion usually loads up its titles. Giddins’ interview is very good. He talks about how gangster films changed in the wake of “The Roaring Twenties” – the villains were almost comical for three decades before returning as psychotics in the 1950s, and didn’t change until the arrival of “The Godfather.” He also theorizes why the film is mostly forgotten, even though “it’s every bit as gripping as ‘Casablanca.’”

Other than that, the only new extra is “Into the Past,” an essay by author Mark Asch that’s included in the accompanying booklet. It’s definitely worth a read.

You also get an archival commentary by film historian Lincoln Hurst and an excerpt from a 1973 interview with Walsh that makes you want more. And that’s it.

But when a movie is as sweeping as “The Roaring Twenties,” and looks and sounds so good to boot, griping about anything plays like small potatoes. Do yourself a favor:  Get a copy.

Craig Shapiro

(1-3) When Green is gunned down by Brown’s thugs, Bartlett confronts him at a spaghetti restaurant. (4) With the repeal of Prohibition, Bartlett finds himself back behind the wheel of a cab – and taking the happily married Sherman home. (5) In the movie’s final scene, Smith cradles Bartlett after a shootout with Hally.


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