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The Roaring Twenties (Blu-Ray Review)

3 min read
The Roaring Twenties film header

As we venture into the middle period of the 2020s, an era defined by multiple cost of living crises, the unchecked rise of extremist political factions, and a pervasive tendency among politicians and media outlets toward burying one's head in the sand, the swingin' excesses of the prior century's equivalent decade can't help but seem hopelessly naïve—a period of dazzling economic brightness that contained its own inevitable demise. And so it is in 's The Roaring Twenties (1939), a retrospective look at America's halcyon days from a more embittered viewpoint, and a swansong for the popular gangster films of the 1930s.

Fittingly for a film about the glitz and glam, the opening credits see everyone's names lit up across the New York skyline in man-made starlight, rendered even more beautiful by the contrast between black and white. Each constellation of bright bulbs—, , —immediately draws a parallel between the self-satisfied economic explosion of metropolitan America in the 1920s and the too-big-to-fail successes of contemporary Hollywood. Ever the hard-nosed workhorse, Walsh paints a vapid picture of Western excess, one whose varnished gleams only distract from the hollowness of the entire endeavour. That the next sequence is an extended written note from screenwriter Mark Hellinger only underlines this scepticism further:

“It may come to pass that, at some distant date, we will be confronted with another period similar to the one depicted in this photo play. If that happens, I pray that events as dramatized here, will be remembered.”

With a story that spans all of the most famous events of the ‘20s—the ratification of prohibition, the rise of freedom-flaunting speakeasies, and, of course, the 1929 Wall Street crash —The Roaring Twenties follows the lives of three soldiers who cross paths in a particularly dicey foxhole during World War I. There's the fatalistic and amoral George Hally (Bogart), the straight-shooting wannabe lawyer Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn), and the somewhat jaded but well-meaning Eddie Bartlett (Cagney), the character whose varying fortunes the film is mapped to.

Told in the rapid fire overlays of old school newsreels—the film's most striking aesthetic break in what is otherwise a fairly straightforward bridge between the morally murky but formalist gangster films of the ‘30s and the dizzying contrasts found in the noirs of the ‘40s—Walsh underlines how quickly the warm reception America's returning troops received curdled into something more tepid and hostile. Spurned from the garage where he worked before the war, and struggling to make ends meet, Eddie's turn to bootlegging comes as no surprise, and, this being a rise-and-fall epic, his ascension to the upper echelons of the criminal mob isn't either. For anyone guessing what comes next, well, pride always cometh before the fall, and while The Roaring Twenties remains compelling all these decades on, it can't help but feel reminiscent of other, stronger pictures.

Criterion's presentation is, perhaps equally predictably, crisp with good detail throughout, making this easily one of the finer looking restorations from its era available on home video. As for extras, in keeping with a trend in recent Criterion releases, they're quite light, even as film scholar Lincoln Hurst's feature-length audio commentary is likely worth the price of entry alone. For those looking to expand their knowledge of pre-World War II Hollywood, or make a dent in Raoul Walsh's astonishingly extensive filmography, this is a worthy addition to your collection. Just don't expect much more than what it says on the tin.

Special Features

  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
  • One 4K UHD disc of the film presented in Dolby Vision HDR and one Blu-ray with the film and special features
  • Audio commentary with film historian Lincoln Hurst
  • New interview with critic Gary Giddins
  • Excerpt from a 1973 interview with director Raoul Walsh
  • Trailer
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • PLUS: An essay by film critic Mark Asch

The Roaring Twenties releases in the UK on March 11th courtesy of Criterion