It's hard to believe that a film could be made starring both James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart without it collapsing in on itself from the overabundance of awesomeness, but somehow Raoul Walsh's 'The Roaring Twenties' (1939) manages to pull it all off and then some. The film tells the story of three men -- Lloyd Hart (Jeffery Lynn), George Hally (Humphrey Bogart), and Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) -- who all return home from World War One and take different paths on the road to life: Hart goes back to practice law, former saloonkeeper Hally turns to bootlegging after the passing of Prohibition, while Bartlett becomes a cab driver after failing to get his job back at the garage where he worked before his enlistment.
After falling in with a starlet-hopeful named Panama Smith (Gladys George) Eddie soon after turns to bootlegging, building up a fleet of cabs to deliver his illegal "hooch" before hiring his pal Hart to be his lawyer. After partnering up with Hally following a sting by the police, things start to look pretty nice for Eddy and his profitable bootlegging business -- that is until a woman, Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane), comes between Eddie and his lawyer, Hart. This, coupled with Hally's murderous temper, put Eddie in a rather tough situation that only grows worse as bad business deals, the stock-market crash, and the police threaten the nice racket Eddie has built up for himself.
Few classic Hollywood actors could play the "gangster" as well as Cagney could: His charisma, screen presence, and his seemingly natural fit as a "tough guy" all come together and make him the perfect lead for Walsh's gangster picture. Although Cagney's Bartlett is more sympathetic and human than some of the other gangsters he played, Cagney still manages to give a memorable and complex performance that's equally on par with his turns as Cody Jarrett in 'White Heat' (1949) or Rocky Sullivan in 'Angels with Dirty Faces' (1939).
For some people it can be a tad strange to see Bogart playing a villain instead of the cynical antihero that his name and visage is synonymous with, but nevertheless Bogart does his role justice, playing the part of the murderous and sardonic George Hally with all of the enthusiasm and talent he brings to his other, more well-known roles. Few actors could share the screen with the likes of Cagney and still leave an impression, but Bogart just happens to be one of them, his smooth delivery and ghoulish expressions capturing one's attention immediately and holding it until the man's scene is completed.
As for Jeffery Lynn, it isn't that the man gives a bad performance (he doesn't by any means), it's just Lynn can't ever seem to outshine his co-stars, his character never grabbing our attention or holding our interest as much -- at least, not when compared to Cagney or Bogart -- and thus, the only true fault in his performance is that he was given the rather difficult task of trying to out-act two of Hollywood's most memorable and charismatic actors from the late 30's/early 40's, a task that few, if any other actors could accomplish.
The supporting cast is no less gifted or talented: Gladys George does a terrific job as the sultry and smart-mouthed Panama Smith, an undiscovered starlet who Eddie takes under his wing, and who serves as a romantic rival to the more traditional Jean. Speaking of Jean: Priscilla Lane's performance as Jean Sherman is equally impressive, portraying the "girl-next-door" with ease while also injecting enough personality and pathos into the role so that her character appears more fleshed out and multi-dimensional rather than a mere archetype.
On paper, Raoul Walsh's 'The Roaring Twenties" looks like nothing more than your typical "rise-and-fall gangster" story, but in practice (and on film), Walsh's apt direction and terrific cast manage to transform an otherwise forgettable film into a classic, elevating it from the glut of gangster pictures to inundate Hollywood during the time-period, and ensuring that the film remains watched and remembered as one of Classic Hollywood's most memorable pictures.
Find the nearest Blockbuster (assuming they still exist) near your home so you can rent this film almost immediately. Or, if you prefer that movies came to you instead, set up a Netflix account and start your ordering as soon as possible.