Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Guy Who Knew All The Angles- James Cagney’s The Roaring Twenties

DVD Review

From The Pen Of Frank Jackman

The Roaring Twenties, starring James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart

Yeah, Eddie Barrett bought the ticket, took the ride, and in the end wound up dead, very dead, on some forsaken dark bloodied New York stoop, unmourns or unloved. Well, that last part is not exactly true, since over the hill flame Panama, Panama of the easy street times, easy dough and booze flowing times when their ships were rising, and easy virtue shed when a few street tricks kept them from the depths of skid row, shed a few tears when he punched his ticket. See Eddie knew all the angles just like a lot of guys who grew up hard, grew up with those never-ending “from hunger” wanting habits that the swells laughed off while eating their caviar and bonded liquor, grew up on the mean streets, had “street smarts.”  While not every guy who grew up hard on the mean Five Point streets (or name your hard streets) had to use all the angles at their disposal Eddie did, Eddie just couldn’t temperamentally lay off testing the fate sisters and hence a few wrong turns toward the end sealed his fate, brought him face to face with that stony death and those few Panama tears. Eddie is played in the film under review, The Roaring Twenties, by James Cagney who build his early career on this fare but the role could have been played by half a dozen hard-nosed guys, hard-nosed actors, then and now, like Bogie, George Raft, Robert Ryan, Robert Mitchum, hell, a few of my growing up in Carver corner boys like Billy Bradley and Red Riley could have given a  good account of themselves, because what Eddie had, how Eddie survived for a while in the world is something a lot of guys, and not just actors, would know how to do, know without the script.   

Here’s the lay of the land and you judge whether Eddie did right, or maybe got himself too tied up in the angles bit. Maybe though you cerebral types, social workers or arm-chair philosophers, will think that our boy just got waylaid by circumstances, you know, a combination of things that just proved too much to overcome. Eddie like a lot of street guys started out straight enough, had small New York, Bronx, Queens, or Flatbush dreams around the early part of the 20th century when dreams were plentiful and prospects to do okay were not outlandish. See Eddie, well, Eddie was a grease monkey, a guy pretty handy around cars, worked for a guy for a while and then figured if everything went okay would open his own shop since even back then America was in love with the automobile, loved the idea of the open road, of breezing across the land in something fast and sleek, and guys who could fix cars were aces all around.

But here is where those of you who want to discuss that “victim of circumstances” stuff could have a field day. Just as Eddie was coming to serious manhood, to be able to breathe a little on his own, the troubles in Europe, you know, World War I spilled over into America and Eddie would up in the American Expeditionary Force in Europe. Don’t get me wrong Eddie  joined up for the fight with both hands, did his fair share of fighting on the trench-filled fronts, made a couple of buddies, and came home safe and sound. But that is when it all started to come undone. He came back, came back late after his division drew extra time in Europe make sure things were cooled off, came back like in a lot of wars of late not to a hero’s welcome, but to no job, no prospects, and no liquor, no liquor because of the Volstead Act which prohibited the sale of legal liquor all through those Roaring Twenties. The free-wielding Jazz Age that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about but which not everybody got a chance to dive into.

So no job, no dough, no prospects Eddie Barrett faced a turning point after a hack (cab-driver) friend let him go in on his cab business and while doing that work got into trouble for delivering some illegal booze to sweet hustler Panama’s speakeasy. He took the bust like a man keeping her out of it but also got wise to the ways of the world that if he was going to take a tumble he wanted to go big. Being a street smart guy Eddies figured to ride the wave, the free and easy booze wave (here he was smart too unlike some guys then who drank up the profits and some guys later who snorted the cocaine profits, he didn’t drink, not at first anyway). So our boy moved up the food chain, the dog eat dog crime food chain which showed no mercy for the weak or the dumb, and looked to be a guy who would survive the cut in the survival of the fittest struggle.

Two things got in his way though, well, two things but really one thing, a dame, a frail, a frill or whatever they called a woman in their neighborhoods in those days, a torch singer too, who was looking to make it in the bright lights of the city.  This young woman though, Jean (played by virginal good-girl Priscilla Lane) was all wrong for rough and tumble street smart Eddie, Eddie from the wrong side of the tracks, since she was a clean-cut girl next door-type whatever her singing aspirations, a woman made for satin sheets and easy rolls. Panama, old standby through thick and thin Panama, was more Eddie’s speed, could have “curled his toes” and done him some good. But when a guy gets gone on a woman, well, you know almost anything can happen, street smart guy or not. So Eddie took the tumble, figured to keep Jean in clover so that he had to move more quickly up the food chain. And that is where problem number two came in. There were already guys ahead of him in line in that food chain, and so Eddie had to get rough, get pushy with the next guy up. In the process his ran into an old war buddy, George (played by a young Humphrey Bogart), who was also street smart and who was working for the next guy up the chain. They decided, uneasily, to join forces, and for a while they were making money hand over fist, were living on easy streets.

Here is where fate, the furious fate sisters, played Eddie wrong. First off despite the dough that virginal Jean did not go for Eddie but had eyes for, what did they call it, one of her own kind, another Eddie war buddy, a lawyer and so Eddie was out in the cold on that front. I will say he took that defeat like a man and let her go. Here though is where you never know what is going to happen. The Great Depression came along and wise investment stock-heavy Eddie went under, had to sell out to George, cheaply, for dimes and doughnuts, which stuck in his craw. Then that old war buddy lawyer, Jean’s honey man, working for the District Attorney got involved in trying to smash the crime rackets and while Eddie was down on cheap street our friend George had moved up the chain. Naturally a guy who has moved up the chain even if he has stalled out will take umbrage if the coppers try to squeeze his action and so, for Jean’s sake, yeah, Eddie was still carrying the torch for her despite everything, had that final confrontation with George and his boys and wound up on those tear-stained bloody steps for his efforts.  Eddie knew all the angles, was a smart guy, but you know when a dame is involved all bets are off. Yeah, buy the ticket, take the ride.                 

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