The Black Legion (1937): A Warning Against Fascism And Bigotry

by Paul Batters

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Cinema has always been used as a medium to outline social issues and concerns and bring them to the attention of audiences. Of all the major studios, which produced ‘social message’ films, Warner Bros. perhaps did them best during the classic era and certainly produced some interesting social message films during the 1930s. Films such as Mervyn LeRoy’s I Was A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932) were so successful that they became influential in challenging the penal system’s use of chain gangs. Even the gangster genre would step into the realm of the message film, examining the shaping of the mobster and the social ills that created crime in films such as Dead End (1937) and Angels With Dirty Faces (1938).

What made them successful, particularly during the 1930s, was that the stories were often drawn from real events (or at the very least inspired by real events) that had been reported in the media. More often than not, these films as a result, aesthetically used a realist approach to narrative and even at times felt like a newsreel. These films also had great appeal to the working class, who were grappling with the Great Depression and the complexities of navigating their way through the difficulties they faced each day.

To the credit of Warner Bros, they were quite courageous in making these films. True, they were often programmers that were easy to produce and ran at about 70 to 80 minutes in total. Yet they did not exactly lack in production values and indeed had strong casts with very capable and talented directors, using well-written scripts. Most of all, they tackled subjects which were controversial and Warner Bros. were also perhaps the only studio who were not afraid to openly condemn Nazi Germany in the late 1930s and early days of World War Two.

Black Legion (1937) is perhaps one of Warner Bros. best ‘social message’ movies and one that has largely been ‘forgotten’. As a Warner Bros, film, it could be easily dismissed as another programmer but it has pedigree far beyond a typical B-picture. Directed by Archie Mayo (with some of the film directed by an uncredited Michael Curtiz), it was also overseen by the talented Hal B. Wallis and producer Robert Lord. As already mentioned, the story itself, scripted from a Robert Lord story by Abem Finkel and William Wister Haines, was drawn from actual events and a contemporary news story, which had shocked the nation at that time.

It is also a film that gave Bogart his first chance major opportunity to showcase his range of abilities and remove himself from the usual role of gangster/tough guy that he had been playing in numerous roles. Bogart certainly seized on this opportunity, shaping a very human and dimensional portrayal of Taylor, which was praised by critics at the time.

Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart) is a typical American mid-Western factory worker, married to his lovely wife Ruth (Erin O’Brien-Moore). Indeed, the Taylors are what would have been termed at the time, as ‘all-American’ and the un-named town in which they live would have typified the same ideal of America in the mid-west. Hardworking and industrious, the Taylors are also close friends with their neighbours, the Grogans who run a boarding house. Ed Jackson (Dick Foran) who lives there and develops a romantic interest in Betty Grogan (Ann Sheridan) is Frank’s best friend and works with Frank at the same factory. Everything appears idyllic, with the possibility of promotion when the shop floor steward Tommy Smith (John Litel) announces the position.

Frank dreams of better things for himself and his family, so far as to consider purchasing a new car. However, his dreams are shattered when the promotion goes to the hard-working son of a Polish immigrant, Joe Dombrowski (Henry Brandon).

Frank becomes bitter and his disappointment festers into something worse. Ed Jackson tells Frank to let it go and that he can’t begrudge Dombrowski’s success as he’s always working to better himself instead of just drinking beer and listening to the ballgame on the radio. But Frank’s anger and disappointment is seized on and fed by another work colleague, Cliff (Joseph Sawyer) who sells Frank the reason for his losing the promotion – immigrants are taking over America and stealing jobs from good Americans. Frank’s push into the darkness is also assisted by his coming across a radio program, denouncing foreigners and declaring the need to protect American values – ‘America for Americans’ comes the catch-cry.

Before long, Frank accepts Cliff’s invitation to a ‘secret meeting’ and he joins the Black Legion, a Ku Klux Klan type group who wear hooded garments and use violence against anyone not truly ‘American’. Frank pledges his allegiance to the violent organisation, reciting a terrible oath that by all accounts was an actual word for word recital of the initiation. He is then ordered to purchase a gun and a hooded uniform, which is described as a necessary sacrifice for the cause.

 

 

 

 

 

But Frank’s initial apprehension seems to be dispelled in a striking scene, where Frank poses with his newly purchased revolver. It is a chilling and disturbing scene, which foreshadows De Niro as Travis Bickle some 40 years later. Instead of a mirror, the camera focuses on Frank’s shadow, pointing his gun and seeing how it looks. But Bogart is powerful at showing how it feels to hold the gun and it perhaps the most obvious first step into Frank’s collapse and a brilliantly depicted disintegration of someone who was a ‘family man’. In this scene, the sad truth shows a little man trying to be big and the terrible and wholly-mistaken misconception that a gun makes a man, comes to the fore as well as a theme.

Before long, Frank is taking part in the violent and brutal actions that the Black Legion deems protecting American values. They target the Dombrowski farm, burning it to the ground and sending them out of town, satisfying Frank’s violent jealousy. Before long Frank gains the promotion due to Dombrowski’s departure, which initially vindicates Frank’s feelings and actions.

However, Frank’s success is short-term and not only does he lose his promotion but he begins to lose those around him. The great irony in this tragedy is that Frank loses what he has sought to ‘protect’, his family. The desire for the American dream, symbolised by a new car and material objects, results in Frank losing his focus on love for his family. He ignores his son Buddy to listen to a radio program spouting bigotry instead of the usual time spent together listening to serial Speed Foster. He isolates himself from his wife, staying out late with the Legion and even beginning to drink. However, Frank’s demise is far from a clichéd fall from grace – director Archie Mayo is astute enough to establish Frank’s character as already flawed, lacking the work ethic and ambition to better himself yet despising someone that does have those qualities.

Eventually, Frank finds himself so deep in trouble that he will even betray the friend who tries to help him and forgets his earlier family-focused principles, starting a relationship with Pearl Davis (Helen Flint), a woman whose morals would be described as ‘loose’ to use the 1930s euphemism. But Mayo is careful to pin Frank’s downfall on Frank’s own weaknesses and failings – and not on some wicked woman who seduces an innocent man from his loving wife and family. Frank has been seduced and allowed himself to fall to the ugliness of bigotry and racism.

The tragedy of the story reaches its’ zenith when Frank finds himself caught up in murder and a courtroom ending, which mirrors the real-life accounts that the story was drawn from. This reviewer will leave readers to discover the outcomes for themselves.

Black Legion is a very-well crafted film which paces well and never loses its’ audience. There are a good number of reasons why it works.

Directors Archie Mayo (and an uncredited Michael Curtiz) make effective use of the 83 minute time frame of the film. Aside from the sub-plot of Ed and Betty’s romance, the story paces well and few scenes are drawn out or over-cooked. Each scene is tailored together perfectly, adding depth and avoiding clichés as the audience watches Frank’s personal collapse. The tragedy that unfolds is all the more believable because there is conviction in what we see on the screen – and sadly, the audience is fully aware that racial violence and bigotry is not in the imagination of film-makers but a real and terrible reality. As a result, Black Legion is more than a morality tale and indeed aims to make us feel uncomfortable and concerned. Mayo does adopt a documentary style suited to the nature of the thematic approach, allowing for the realism that permeated social message films of the period. Patricia King Hanson and Anthony Slide make the point that whilst there are elements of melodrama, the emphasis remains on that very realism mentioned and the characters on the screen are shaped and portrayed in a way, which audiences would have identified with. The regular use of the radio is also a brilliant touch of realism at punctuating dramatic points, and in particular turning points in the film.

Bogart’s performance is outstanding and critics in 1937 felt it was his breakthrough film. Following from his menacing turn as Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest (1936), Bogart took a role that was neither glamorous or heroic or empathetic to an audience. Indeed, Frank Taylor is far from an admirable man and aside from the earlier scenes showing a typified working-man and his family, the truth shows a weak man, looking for excuses for his own failures and missed opportunities. Wallis had wanted E.G Robinson but Bogart fit the story concept of someone who ‘looked American’, which would not only fit the very demographic that the Klan and Legion in real life were aiming for but also typify the emotional experience of that demographic and tap into the psychology of the very individual drawn to the Klan. Bogart exhibits a powerful emotional range in Taylor’s decline and disintegration, exposing a raw reality that such men are inherently weak and racism and bigotry becomes an easy and seductive excuse.

The lovely Erin O’Brien-Moore (whose career was tragically effected by burns from a freak accident) is strong as Frank’s wife. Ann Sheridan is as solid as always in a secondary role, though she doesn’t have much else to do other than act as a romance interest for Dick Foran. Helen Flint is cast as the cheap tart that is always on the prowl for a man and winds up with Taylor near the end of the film. She works as a plot device to highlight how far Frank has fallen but admittedly her performance is a little overdone. Nonetheless, it takes nothing away from the power of the film. Interesting enough, Dick Foran appears to be more interested in drinking and minding his own business yet when the crisis arises with Frank, it is Foran’s character who tries to save him and shows he has deeper principles than first displayed.

 

 

 

 

 

Despite the critics hailing the film and its’ nomination for a number of awards, including Best Screenplay at the Oscars for 1937, Black Legion would not make Bogart a star. As A.M Sperber and Eric Lax point out, the harsh reality on the Warner Bros. lot was that Bogart was not going to get a look in before their established stars in Cagney, Robinson and Raft. Additionally, The New York Times, whilst hailing the film as powerful and superb, noted that the film was too hard-hitting and close to the bone to have a lasting impact. Bogart would go back to supporting roles and whilst he didn’t know it at the time, stardom was still four or five years away.

What is particularly scary about Black Legion is that it still hits close to the bone, particularly in this era, as strong as it ever did. The rising ugliness of populism openly espousing racism, bigotry and sexism has become more than evident in the world today, dividing people and polarising society. It warns of the dangers of fascism, which is a message not singular to the period but one very relevant in the 21st century. The radio spouting out ‘America for Americans’ and ‘hordes of…foreigners’ is a terrifying harbinger of what is being heard today. Black Legion taps into a number of interesting asides regarding such demagoguery and what drives racist organisations; the exploitation of the very people – ‘real Americans’ – for financial and political gains. New members are forced to buy a hooded uniform and gun, and Legion leaders higher up the chain makes demands on subordinates to gain more members in order to bring in more profits. The interesting comment being made here is that rich business men are the real power behind such organisations, and the undertones of what drives fascism and is also examined in other films such as Meet John Doe, is certainly a controversial issue. It is incredible that the scene showing the businessmen pushing for more members to gain more funds was even allowed yet placed in the film.

Black Legion deserves far more attention than it has previously had and is usually ignored not only as a social message picture but also one which shows one of Bogart’s finest performances in an unsympathetic role of a weak man. As an Australian and thus an outsider to the experience of Trump’s America, it is still impossible not to make the link between what happens in the film and what is happening in America today. However, the spectre of fascism and bigotry is not to be ignored by anyone in any nation. Black Legion makes this more than evident and is a powerful film that stands up strong in its’ truth and delivery – today as much as it did in 1937.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Celebrating Bette Davis in Marked Woman (1937)

By Paul Batters

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‘If this is what you call living, I don’t want any part of it. Always being afraid. Never knowing from one day to the next what’s going to happen to you. I’m fed up with being afraid…’ Mary Dwight Strauber (Bette Davis) Marked Woman (1937)

April 5th is the birthday of one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses – Bette Davis. She was a rebel who refused to buck under and be beaten by the studio system, and proved that acting was an art form that transcended the superficial. Her impact on the screen can be felt today and is potent as it ever was. In celebrating her birthday, and as part of the Third Annual Bette Davis Blogathon, I will be focusing on a film that broke new ground for Bette at a pivotal time in her life and career. It would help lay the foundations for some of her most celebrated roles, which soon followed.

Marked Woman (1937) was an important film in the career of Bette Davis. She had just famously lost a highly publicised and very public battle with Warner Bros. after walking out on the studio and leaving for Great Britain. Bette had tired of the poor and mediocre roles that she was constantly being offered. Her incredible performance in Of Human Bondage (1934), should have won her a Best Actress Oscar but Warner Bros. had worked to squash any chance of her winning, since she had made the film outside the studio. Her being awarded the Oscar for Dangerous (1935) the following year, was seen by some as compensation for losing the previous year but it also galvanised Bette into seeking better working conditions as well as better roles. Jack Warner had not been not so forthcoming but things were going to change.

Film historian Alain Silver points out that audiences of the period wanted to see stories that were real; particularly since at the time of the film, American audiences were emerging from the Depression. Despite all claims in the opening titles of characters and events not resembling any in real life, audiences were fully aware of what they were seeing on the screen. Hollywood biographer Charlotte Chandler also states that Jack Warner saw plenty of material in the newspapers he read daily and was especially interested in gangster news stories.

Perhaps the biggest story in the gangster world during 1936 was the successful prosecution of kingpin Charlie ‘Lucky’ Luciano. Considered one of the creators of the modern Mafia in the U.S, Luciano would be hounded and finally imprisoned by the crime-fighting crusader District Attorney Thomas E Dewey. But Dewey didn’t do it alone. The poetic justice of the case was that the chief witnesses against Luciano were prostitutes who were part of his criminal empire. Warner Bros. saw the story as a natural, as well as a vehicle for Bette on her return to the studio. According to biographer James Spada, Bette jumped at the role and found the script refreshing in comparison to prior projects. However, she was also returning to improved conditions in her contract, which suggests that her protest was not a complete loss and the profits her films were making was also not completely unrecognised by Warner Bros.

Of course, the Code was in full enforcement and the earlier liberties taken by the industry prior to 1934 could not longer be taken. Instead of prostitute, Bette and her co-stars would be called ‘hostesses’ working in a ‘nightclub’ – calling it a ‘clipjoint’ was about as controversial as was allowed by the Code. They ‘entertained’ clients by dancing and drinking with them. Terms like ‘pimp’ and ‘hooker’ were simply never to be uttered. But the audience could not be fooled and they absolutely understood what they were seeing on the screen. Even the opening titles and artwork showing scantily clad women in suggestive poses (which incredibly passed the Breen Office) are give-aways to what the story will be about.

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The film opens with a shot of New York lights and a clock showing 3.30 a.m. As the camera moves into a nightclub called Club Intimate, gangster Johnny Vanning (Eduardo Ciannelli) is taking it over and making changes, informing the girls that work there, that he is now in charge and everyone works for him. The girls know the score but Mary (Bette Davis) speaks openly and unafraid. Vanning warily admires her toughness and they seem to reach an understanding.

Exhausted, Mary walks home with the girls she both works and shares an apartment with. As they discuss Vanning’s takeover and what they are going to do, Mary declares that she ‘knows all the angles’ and intends to ‘beat this racket’ and ‘live on easy street’ for the rest of her life.

But things will get complicated, when the girls spend the evening at the club with a group of out of town clients. Mary’s client reveals that he cannot pay and is trying to pull a fast one. Despite all her claims of playing the angles, she helps the client but Vanning’s boys are not fools and the client ends up dead. The next morning, Mary’s innocent and younger sister Betty (Jane Bryan), who is set up in school and oblivious to what her sister is, pays a surprise visit, only to be hauled in when detectives come to question Mary.

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Frustrated by the thwarted attempts to prosecute Vanning, assistant District Attorney, David Graham (Humphrey Bogart) decides to get tough on Mary and the girls. Mary denies all involvement and stands up to Graham but Vanning’s lawyer instructs her to play along with their plan. Graham ends up humiliated in court and Mary escapes any charges. However, Betty discovers the truth about her sister and the humiliation almost becomes too much. As a form of defiance and anger, Betty ends up going to one of Vanning’s parties but she finds tragedy there instead at the hands of Vanning’s brutality and anger. When Betty doesn’t come home, Mary is distraught and confronts Vanning who denies any wrongdoing. Turning back to Graham, Mary discovers what has happened to Betty.

Graham obviously feels for Mary and tries to convince her friends to testify who refuse. Mary now finds herself alone, as the girls are afraid of what will happen if they ‘talk’. But Vanning is not leaving things to chance and turns up at the apartment with some of his henchmen. What follows is a harrowing and brutal scene, despite the action happening behind a closed door. Mary is badly beaten and awakes in hospital, with terrible injuries including a knife wound to her face. Her beating finally convinces the others to testify and the film ends with a tense courtroom scene.

Marked Woman is classic Warner Bros. fare, utilising familiar faces both in the cast and behind the camera. Directed by Lloyd Bacon and produced by Hal Wallis, it is a film that bristles with sharp story development and tension that the primary characters convey effectively. Bernhard Kaun’s musical score is also effective and provides an undercurrent that serves the production well. There are even moments of humour such as Vanning telling a henchmen to take the dog for a walk and the cameo appearance by Warner Bros. stalwart Allen Jenkins as Louie the door to door salesman. But otherwise, the film is tough and gritty, with Eduardo Ciannelli brutal and nasty as Vanning and the girls hardened and buckled under the weight of their lives. Lola Lane as “Gabby” Marvin is particularly a stand-out as one of the girls, whose sad past and personal tragedy is evident in her own courtroom testimony, as well as her resignation to the life she has left.

In sharp contrast, Jane Bryan (in her second film) as Mary’s younger sister Betty is all sweet innocence and goodness. Bryan’s performance is solid and her fate is a perfect counter to the corruption, degradation and hard reality that her sister is caught up in. Bryan was in awe of Bette and was impressed by her demeanour on the set, despite having to return to the studio. Bryan called her ‘terrific’ with a ‘kind of inner power that came through her skin’. Bette would take her under her wing and Bogart would also act as big brother to her, supporting Bryan when she felt intimidated by others on the set, especially Lane and Methot.

An interesting aside is the performance of Humphrey Bogart as prosecutor David Graham, the Dewey inspired crime crusader. It was a complete removal from the roles he had been associated with, with Bogart this time on the right side of the law. It was a step-up in terms of supporting roles and there is certainly fire in his courtroom performance. At a personal level, it would also be the film where romance would develop with his future wife Mayo Methot, who as the aging hostess plays a role closer to reality than we are comfortable with. It is almost painful to see the obviously aging Methot being told she’s too old by Vanning, and her ruminating as she paws at her pudgy and aging face back at the apartment the girls share. There were also hints of the problems that Bogart and Methot would face in their marriage, which would see tragedy for her later in life.

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Without any doubt, the film belongs to Bette Davis. Tough and unrelenting, she takes the opportunity of a meatier role and gives a strong performance. There are moments that are just as powerful a testimony to her ability as any of her more celebrated roles. One particular moment is outlined by Ed Sikov in his biography, where Mary fools Graham into thinking she will testify truthfully and instead plays along with Vanning’s plan in the courtroom. Her hysterical crying in Graham’s office and apparent acquiescence to Graham’s demands, almost fool us until we see her masquerade when Graham looks away. The triumph in her having fooled Graham shows her to be a calculating woman, who is always acting as part of her job as a prostitute. As Sikov suggests, Bette in this scene ‘is performing a performance of hysteria, a redoubled acting job and one of the best scenes in her career’.

Bette’s interpretation of a fairly clichéd scene lifts it out of formula, leaving it both powerful and effective. After Betty goes missing, Mary confronts Vanning demanding to know where she is. Her anger seems pointless when she blurts out to Vanning:

And get this straight. If I find out that you or anybody else has laid a finger on her…”

Vanning cuts her off and snarls:

You’ll what?”

Our expectation is for Mary to fold and slink away. But there is a slight pause that Bette weights perfectly before responding with sharpened eyes that cut like glass before responding:

“I’ll get you. Even if I have to crawl back from my grave to do it.”

Her desire for realism and an escape from superficial glamour would find realisation in Marked Woman as well. For the hospital scene after receiving the terrible beating, the make-up department did their job but Bette would later claim that she ‘never looked so attractive’. According to Ed Sikov, Bette left the set for lunch but went to her doctor who created a more realistic result on her face. When Hal Wallis saw the results of gauze and bandages, he burst out laughing at her tenacity and let Bette have her way. As a result, the audience is shocked at the sight of her beaten face, emphasizing the brutality of the earlier violence in the apartment.

 

Bette never lets up in Marked Woman. Her incredible range of emotion and pathos from hard and cynical prostitute to being beaten and broken but courageous in her final courtroom appearance reveals what an amazing talent Bette Davis was. There is nothing particularly remarkable about the story but the fact that the chief characters are prostitutes is remarkable enough. Bette keeps the story fresh through the strength of her performance and whatever she may be in the film; the sympathy of the audience is clearly aligned with her journey.

Within a short time and having to endure a couple of further frustrating roles, Bette would finally wield greater power in her choice of films. Marked Woman would begin that process, with the film proving a solid success as well as positive reviews at the time. Warner Bros. realised that they needed Bette in their stable of stars and were willing not only to pay her more but give her better conditions and – more importantly better roles. She would always battle with Warner Bros. and was a trailblazer in doing so. Films such as Jezebel (1938), The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex (1939), All This And Heaven Too (1940), The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941) and Now Yoyager (1942) should all be rightfully celebrated as masterpieces in the canon of Better Davis films. However, to miss Marked Woman (1937) would be to miss a solid film and an important one in the great lady’s career.

This article is art of the Third Annual Bette Davis Blogathon and hosted by ‘In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood’. The link for the blogathon and further articles is: https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2018/02/08/announcing-the-third-annual-bette-davis-blogathon/

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Casablanca: 75 Years Old And Still Going Strong – Flaws And All

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by Paul Batters

Annina: Oh, monsieur, you are a man. If someone loved you very much, so that your happiness was the only thing that she wanted in the world, but she did a bad thing to make certain of it, could you forgive her?
Rick: Nobody ever loved me that much.

One of the most enduring films in the Hollywood pantheon of classic films turns 75 this year on November 26th. It is usually on most people’s list of favourite classic films, not least of all because of one Humphrey Bogart and the beautiful Ingrid Bergman star in it. Not to mention a wonderful supporting cast (Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Dooley Wilson) and a delightful soundtrack (who doesn’t swoon a little at ‘As Time Goes By’).

It also endures because it’s a love story – one that does not have a fairy tale ending but speaks of the torture and pain of love far more than if it did. Bogie is all style but emanates even greater substance. It is impossible not to look at Bergman’s face and become lost in her gaze. Set during World War Two, the love story is intertwined with political intrigue, Nazis, ‘causes’ and desperate people during desperate times.

Obviously I’m talking the irrepressible Warner Bros. classic, Casablanca.

Initially released on Nov 26th, 1942 at the Hollywood Theatre, Casablanca proved a massive hit, making Bogart a bona fide star after years of secondary roles. It was the middle Of World War Two and the background to the film would have been very familiar to audiences. War was tearing the world apart with no clear end in sight. If the famous “Le Marseillaise” scene still puts a lump in your throat, can you imagine its’ impact back then? And the chemistry between Bogart and Bergman stands tall above the countless on-screen couples who have declared love for each other.

Yet it has also been called the ‘best worst film ever made’. Pauline Kael called it ‘schlocky’ and Umberto Eco called it ‘mediocre’ by cinematic standards. Vincent Sherman stated the story ‘was crap but what a great piece of crap!’.

And if you really look at Casablanca carefully – you will discover a few strange mistakes and holes in the plot. We’re going to look at some of those things that you may or may not have noticed before. Hopefully, it won’t change your love affair with one of Hollywood’s most enduring films!

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  1. The ‘Letters Of Transit’

The letters of transit seem to be what everybody is after in the film. People want them to get out of Casablanca (the town, not the film) and people want them to stop people getting out of Casablanca. It is the plot device that drives the story forward and is indeed one of the most ludicrous devices every employed – and here’s why.

At that particular point in history, Morocco was indirectly under Nazi control, via the proxy of Vichy France (the turncoat puppet government in the south of France). How would any letters signed by De Gaulle hold any weight? De Gaulle was a Free French leader in exile in London. Anything signed by De Gaulle wouldn’t be worth a free trip!

It’s one of the most ridiculous McGuffins ever used in film. And yet somehow they got away with it. And poor old Ugarte (Peter Lorre) pays a heck of price for them.

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  1. Victor Laszlo

The believed dead and now returned husband of Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) is a leader of the Resistance. Not only that, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried) has escaped from a concentration camp. And of all places to go, he goes to Casablanca – where there are Nazis! They let him walk around, while impeccably dressed, and he even frequents Rick’s Café. Yes they are hoping to catch Laszlo in the act of getting the letters of transit and thus have grounds to arrest him. But what other grounds do these Nazis need? He’s an ‘enemy of the Third Reich’, a leader of the Resistance AND an escapee from the custody of the Gestapo. Grounds for his arrest? As if they need them!

Laszlo’s very open presence is enough of an act of open defiance towards the Nazis. Yet he taunts them openly as well! He openly admits to Colonel Strasser that he knows who the Resistance leaders are across German-occupied territory. And who can forget the famous scene where he encourages the band in Rick’s Café to play “La Marseillaise” over German officers as they sing. Laszlo certainly takes his chances to enrage the Nazis.

It’s also absurd that the Nazis are reluctant to arrest Laszlo to maintain appearances. What appearances? The world is in the thick of the war and the Nazis are not holding back from doing some pretty despicable things. As critic Roger Ebert pointed out, Laszlo would have been arrested on sight.

  1. The Airport

Have a good look at the airport scene. Go on – take a good look.

Did you notice the following?

It’s very foggy, with a rain-slicked tarmac and Bogart is wearing a heavy trench coat and hat. In Morocco? Even in winter it’s pretty warm in North Africa.

  1. Rick’s Café Americain

Rick’s Café is one of the swankiest places, resplendent with lovely décor and quite the casino. And the place is packed! With Rick reaching Morocco a short while after being abandoned by Ilsa in Paris (when the Germans arrive en force), how has he managed to acquire enough capital to set up such a place in such a short time?

  1. Refugees

Casablanca appears packed with a vast array of European refugees – all dressed to the nines, despite losing everything in their home countries and more than happy to drink and gamble at Rick’s, as well as being stereotyped to the hilt. True – many are gambling to make enough money to escape and the sense of desperation is evoked in groups of refugees staring hopefully into the skies as the plane they need to be on leaves. Yet there is still an absurdity to that notion. However, whilst Morocco was a stop over for refugees escaping from Europe, by the time period of the film (December 1941), this was not the case and there were far better methods of getting out of Europe. In fact, by the time depicted in the film, there were very few refugees left in Morocco. Still, it is easy to feel for the young Bulgarian couple which Captain Renault aims to capitalise on and whom Rick ultimately saves.

  1. Nazis – in Casablanca?

Another inaccuracy – though a minor one. There were no uniformed German troops stationed in Morocco during World War Two. But then Casablanca has a good share of historical inaccuracies; Captain Renault (Claude Rains) talks of the Americans ‘blundering into Berlin in 1918’ but of course that never happened.

  1. The Script

If at times the players on screen look confused and bemused, it’s because they were. The original script was changed, re-edited and re-written daily for a variety of reasons – partly to please the Breen Office and even the decision on who would get the girl was made late in the piece.

The Epstein brothers, legendary for their nonchalance, wisecracks and irreverence, incredibly even towards their boss Jack Warner, would make some wonderful additions to the script, peppering it with their famous wit. But many writers worked on the film, usually writing material only needed for that day or the next, which was very typical in the industry. In A.M Sperber and Eric Lax’s Bogart, the story is recounted just how the Epsteins worked:

‘They said “we need another scene” and we sat down and wrote it. And we’d take the pages to the set ourselves.

They were asked ‘You mean you brought it, said “Here” and went back to your office?’

Epstein shrugged: ‘It worked”.

He also added that they got no help from anyone and did all their own work.

Despite the confusion, Bogart made the touches that remain immortal, especially the two famous lines, which he improvised from the original:

 

But all the additions and ad-libs ‘trickled in’ as Sperber and Lax point out, during the weeks of re-writes and constantly changing dialogue. There was an almost daily routine of learning new dialogue and discarding old, leaving tempers tested and often inflamed. Bergman recalled on a number of occasions seeing Bogart and Wallis returning from lunch arguing and Bogart and Curtiz also clashed.

It was also Bogart who won two major points against the director, Michael Curtiz (a feat in itself!) – one, that Rick would not kiss Ilsa one last time before they part and two, that Rick would not shoot Strasser in the back. Such instances certainly helped to make Casablanca a better film than it would have been otherwise.

There are quite a few near-clichés in terms of character and theme as well. The script doesn’t truly allow for character complexity or depth of development. Indeed, the script is filled with characters with familiar tropes– the drunken hero, the enigmatic woman, the loyal friend, the bad guy who comes good in the end and a variety of stereotyped European characteristics. This is true for themes as well – the love triangle, sacrifice, the impact of war and the plight of the desperate.

  1. A Few Other Minor Issues

There are quite a few problems with continuity. See if you can keep track of the times Bogart’s cigarette changes length in a number of scenes. Not to mention the changes in the detail of uniforms that both Strasser and Renault are wearing. And the much-loved piano player Sam (Dooley Wilson) is no piano player. Wilson was actually a drummer and whilst his voice is wonderful, his miming of playing the piano is less so.

Casablanca was not intended to be a masterpiece but was one of many films being made during the days of the studio system. It certainly was an A-film but one of many being made during the period. The fingerprints of some of Warner Bros. best can be found to have touched this film with their indelible mark – the production values of Hal Wallis, music of Max Steiner, the aforementioned gems in the script by the Epstein Brothers, Curtiz’s direction and the nice little touches of humour. I always chuckle when Captain Renault closes Rick’s Cafe because he is shocked to find gambling going on, only to be given his own winnings a second later. And of course it was an attempt at Hollywood escapism during the war with a film set during the war.

For all their expertise and experience, none of them could possibly have guessed that their collaborative effort would result in one of cinema’s most loved films. Yet from all reports, the Warner Bros. creative team knew they ‘had something’ and upon its’ release the film went beyond all initial expectations, breaking gross-taking records and capturing the imagination of audiences – particularly in the face of World War Two.

Both Casablanca’s initial and enduring success is also testimony to the film making process, and that even if a formula is in place, the elements and compounds added to the formula is what counts. The initial roles were never designed specifically for Bogart and Bergman, the now timeless song ‘As Time Goes By’ was going to be edited out and decisions regarding who would sing it was also never assured. As we have seen, despite the countless edits and changes, the magic that makes the movies conjured up a true classic.

What has made it endure is the magic between Bogart and Bergman on screen, the beautiful musical score (with one of cinema’s most famous and heart-reaching songs), the touches (small and large) that added that something special that defines classic film, some fantastic dialogue which gave us some of cinema’s greatest lines, the brilliant and illustrious supporting cast and the very essence of the story that everyone can associate with; the tragedy of love unfounded. Is there anyone that does not hold in his or her heart a tale of having it broken? Or had to let go off a true love? And of course, it is a tale of ultimate love, where sacrifice is made out of true love for someone. Whatever flaws exist in Casablanca, there is something more going on that forever holds us to it.

Like a diamond far overcoming any flaws it may have, perhaps one of cinema’s finest scenes (below) pulls all the magic together. Dooley Wilson’s singing pulls at our heart strings as Bergman’s face conveys all the haunting pain of past love, followed by their seeing each other again. How can one not weep while watching Casablanca?

After 75 years since it first opened, Casablanca has never let go of its’ audience. 

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history

A Pre-Code Tale: Review Of ‘Dark Hazard’ (1934)

by Paul Batters

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“If you marry that gambler, you’ll marry into a life of trouble and disaster.”

The Pre-code Hollywood period is a fascinating time for film and still fascinates audiences today, perhaps more than ever. The time period for Pre-code is relatively brief, from 1929 through to June 1934 when the Code took hold. But what a period it was for film! Pre-Code Hollywood challenged old norms and values and saw the emerging of new stars and even new genres. Whilst Dark Hazard would not be one of the period’s ‘classics’, it is still an interesting film for fans of Pre-Code and particularly for fans of one of Hollywood’s greats, Edward G. Robinson.

Released by Warner Brothers in February 1934 and directed by Alfred E. Green, Dark Hazard has all the appearance of a morality tale but twists and turns into anything but. Indeed, a very different ending can be imagined if Dark Hazard had been made a year or two later!

Jim Turner (Edward G. Robinson) is a professional gambler, outlined in the opening scene when he wins $20,000 at the racetrack. Alongside him is Val (Glenda Farrell), who seems very at ease and in her natural environment of fast action and excitement. As Jim collects, a fellow behind him looks on begrudgingly, just before he collects his winnings of $6. But Turner’s success is short-lived, as in the next scene he is cleaned out at a casino, left to borrow $5 from the doorman for a cab ride. Jim slides from successful gambler to working as a cashier at the same racetrack where he won his fortune, seeking lodgings at a boarding house run by Mrs. Mayhew (Emma Dunn), a dour fuddy-duddy who asks for references and demands ‘good character’ of her boarders. Jim is especially taken, by Mayhew’s beautiful daughter Marge (Genevieve Tobin), who doesn’t seem bothered by his working at a racetrack.

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The pacing of the film moves fast, perhaps a little too fast. By the next scene, Marge intends to marry Jim, sternly warned by her mother that the marriage is doomed because of Jim’s past as a gambler. Marge claims Jim is all done with gambling but the warning will proves ominous. It’s only ten minutes into the film and Jim and Marge are married and living in Chicago where, working as a hotel clerk, he comes across John Bright (Sidney Toler), who constantly provokes Jim. Wanting to keep his job, Jim ignores the constant ribbing, remembering the advice of his dour and hard-hearted boss that he needs to ‘look out for number one’ and that ‘jobs are scarce’. The financial troubles of Marge’s family add to Jim’s pressures. Although he stays true to his promise to not gamble, Jim can’t help but look at the form guide, giving tips to other hotel guests who show their appreciation by sharing in their winnings.

During Christmas, Jim sneaks away from the front desk to see Marge in their room. However, Jim makes it clear why he’s there to see her and whilst there is nothing salacious about sexual desire between husband and wife, it’s certainly a reflection of the Pre-Code era that such desire is shown! As Marge shoos him back to work, Jim even begs ‘just five minutes, Marge’, as he paws and kisses her. The intimacy shown on screen, even between a married couple, would become too much for the Code after 1934.

The turn of events for Jim will come after an altercation with Bright sees him fired, with Bright daring Jim to meet him at a nearby restaurant the next morning. Jim does just that and starts a scuffle, which ends with Bright and his off-sider, calming the situation down and explaining that the whole thing was ‘a joke’ and producing one of the best lines in the film as he tells Jim ‘Don’t be an Airedale and sit down’. The scene also shows Robinson at his toughest in the film, showing no fear when he’s threatened with a gun and even daring the holder to use it.

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This impresses Bright and it turns out that he was testing Jim all along, wanting him to run a racetrack in California. Jim is ecstatic as not only is the money good but he returns to the game that he knows best, with people he can deal with. Marge is unhappy at his newfound job but goes along with him to California to a new life in a nice home with a garden.

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At this point in the film, what becomes evident is the inversed world depicted. Something, which could only happen in the world of the Pre-Code era. Jim and the people he integrates with, all operate and socialize in the world of gambling, which by all other standards is occupied by shady characters, gangsters, loose women and ne’er-do-wells. Yet in Dark Hazard, they are all honest, straightforward and stand by each other. There’s no backstabbing or exploitation and a win is happily paid and a loss stoically accepted. Val doesn’t try to juice him for his winnings at the track. When Jim loses his money, the doorman happily lends him money for a cab. John Bright, at first, exudes nastiness and appears to be a bully. Yet he’s testing Jim, seeing greater worth in him and treating him square once the joke is over. Later in California when Jim is checking the books, he finds everything is square and those involved in the day to day running of the track have also been square.

However, most of the people outside Jim’s world are quite the opposite. Despite the façade of respectability, principle and honesty, the people in this larger world are mean, double-faced and pretentious. Marge’s family is not exactly one filled with happiness nor one with principle. Mrs. Mayhew looks down her nose at Jim for his gambling, with her snooty, judgmental and disparaging remarks when he first appears at the boarding house. Hypocrisy could be added to her list of failings, as later she seems to have no qualms about sending letters to her daughter for money. Marge’s brother is a no-account and weak individual, leaning on anyone for money and apparently indulging in his own vices. Pres Barrow (George Meeker), an early boyfriend of Marge’s, looks sneaky enough and we learn that he ‘owns most of the town’, a hint at small-town corruption and entitlement. Jim’s boss at the hotel is not only mean and cantankerous but also cruel, ordering Jim to throw out a guest who is behind on the rent at Christmas. Chicago is pretty cold that time of the year!

But it is Marge particularly who disappoints. When they first meet, she apparently has no problems with Jim’s being a professional gambler. But she never accepts him for who he is and what he does, pushing him to change and because Jim loves her, that’s what he tries to do. Marge also complains about lack of money and worries for her family back home in Ohio instead of her own home and marriage. As the story progresses, Marge will disappoint even further.

The turning points in the film arrive while Jim is at the track.

The first is a reunion with Val, which obviously indicates some feelings still exist. They reminisce over some stories, which allude to intimacy beyond what the Hays Code would come to accept. Val isn’t bitter that Jim is married nor does it stop her from having other designs on him. She smiles and throws a line without any bile: ‘Another good man on the straight and narrow’, which also indicates her view of marriage and what it does to people.

The second turning point in the story is Jim’s discovery of Dark Hazard, the greyhound and it will be this meeting that will be fortuitous. Marge’s frustrations with Jim’s gambling and lifestyle will deepen with his obsession of the racing dog and it will come to represent the rift that continues to grow between them. Jim, on the other hand, cannot see what lies ahead and as with any addiction, tries to wave away Marge’s concerns without listening to her. In fairness to Marge, who finds herself pregnant, her concerns exacerbate when bills aren’t paid and the gambling increases. She is also unimpressed with Jim’s friends, particularly one evening when Val arrives with two other friends, one of which is more than inebriated. Val makes it clear to Marge that she and Jim had shared more than just friendship, which adds further fuel to the fight between Marge and Jim.

It will prove the breaking point and Marge wants Jim to leave. Jim still refuses to see the damage being caused. Indeed, Jim succumbs to a night out gambling with Val till all hours and it’s when they get back to her hotel that Val tests Jim in a very sensual way. Lying back on a divan, Val offers herself up to him, accentuating her assets and letting her body do the talking. Jim is obviously tempted but stays true to Marge and is shooed off my Val. Jim delivers a line heavy with suggestion and one which must have bothered the censors:

‘It’s the first time I ever let you down, Val’.

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Jim returns to his home at the crack of dawn, with $20,000 in winnings in his pocket. He thinks that this will pacify Marge and he even lies that he has just woken up to water the bamboo. Marge delivers her best line, with a brilliant wisecrack:

‘Looks like you’ve been watering the bamboo all night’.

The moment is taken for granted but Marge then pulls a fast one on Jim, leaving with his money and returning home to Ohio. She also leaves a note that if he truly wants to make a change and leave behind his gambling, that he can go to her and they can start again. After all, there is also a child on the way.

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As affable and likeable as Jim is – and as much as the audience is not thrilled with Marge – one cannot help but be disappointed in Jim’s decision not to follow. Marge does care for him and instead of thinking of her and his unborn child, Jim chooses gambling.

Time passes and the last couple of years have not been kind to Jim. Shabby and broke, he train hops to Ohio and ends up on Marge’s doorstep. His former mother-in-law is shocked to see him but Marge welcomes him in. He discovers that Marge is seeing her old flame Pres Barrow and that she is seeking a divorce.

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Yet despite this, Jim agrees to reform and reaches out to Marge, and they re-connect. But it will not last long – as Dark Hazard comes back into his life. Saving the dog from being put down, Jim purchases the dog and brings it home, to which Marge responds with exasperation and resignation that their marriage cannot survive. Yet for Jim, Dark Hazard is symbolic of his own situation. Like Jim, Dark Hazard is broken and given up as a failure and a has-been. Jim sees his bringing Dark Hazard back to health and success as a form of his own personal revival and phoenix-like rising from the ashes of defeat. But this desire will be the death knell for his chances with Marge. The marriage collapses into Jim starting to drink and Marge seeing Pres Barrow again and the audience cannot help suspect that Pres Barrow has been agitating behind the scene. A confrontation where Jim slugs Barrow becomes the final realization for Jim that his marriage is doomed, as Marge comforts Pres.

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If this were a morality tale, which is how it appears up to this point, the final scene would be Jim standing on a dusty road with Dark Hazard. Pathetically sharing a sandwich with the dog, Jim seems deluded as he claims that he’ll make it big again. This is where the story should end – with Jim defeated by his gambling addiction. Not only has Jim lost his winnings over time but more importantly he has lost his wife and child and any possibility of a secure and happy future. Jim’s future appears doomed.

Yet that is not the way of the Pre-Code world.

The audience discovers that Dark Hazard has recovered and Jim has been travelling around the world, making his fortune and becoming a great success. Dark Hazard has proved the winning ticket for Jim and not only is he living the good life but the audience discovers that Jim is with Val.

Jim has the final word, delivering a line which links back to an earlier attempt by Val to get Jim into bed:

“This time, honey, I won’t disappoint you!”

Oh my!

Dark Hazard is by no means a classic and to be fair is in many ways a forgotten film. (Incidentally, I first saw it on the old TNT channel and it has been released as part of Warner Archive’s ‘8th Forbidden Hollywood’ collection on DVD). Yet it perfectly illustrates the values of the time and reflects the zeitgeist of the Depression Era. Jim Turner is very much a man on his own against the world, bucking against a system that demands subservience to a failed economy. He makes his own luck and owns the losses, as much as he owns the big wins. Jim is not a violent man but he stands up for himself, when it all becomes too much. Even in this day and age, Jim’s story is one that encourages us to be true to ourselves and not lose our identity to please others.

Audiences would have admired these characteristics at a time when most people felt powerless. They would have cheered when the hotel boss got his just desserts, as he represents the type of employer that many of them would have had. But he also represents the economy, which brought so many to their knees and the lack of empathy from those in power for those who were struggling. The same could be said for Pres Barrow, the kind of small town baron who had control and power over peoples’ lives. As far as Jim is concerned, Pres interferes in his marriage to Marge and he decides to do something about it. There is futility in Jim’s punching Pres Barrow and perhaps many in the audience would have empathized with the futility of hitting out against monster that the Depression was.

On another level, Dark Hazard is the story of the rise and fall, and incredible rise again of Jim Turner – a man whose transparent independence also reveals something deeper. He is a man who prides himself on his ability to pick a winner and whose sense of self-worth is very much shaped by winning and winning big. ‘People used to pay plenty’ for his tips, he says, reflecting how he measures his self-worth. When meeting again with Val at the racetrack, she reminisces how a casino shut down its’ tables when they saw Jim approaching. Jim gets all puffed up, enjoying the story and affirming his identity as a top gambler,

In spite of the seeming moralizing of the dangers of gambling, Jim finds redemption and even greater success – through gambling!

Thus, Dark Hazard IS a morality tale but not the one you thought you were watching!

When all is said and done, the film belongs to one man alone and that is Edward G Robinson. And let’s be honest, the film only gets any viewing today because he’s in it. With the pacing and storyline slightly awry, E.G holds it together with an enthusiastic performance, with flashes of the tough guy thrown in for good measure where necessary to the plot.

Genevieve Tobin is as beautiful and angelic as always, yet I find it hard to warm to Marge. She loves Jim yet wants him to change. She pressures him with her family’s financial problems and he’s more than willing to help – yet complains about the way he obtains the answer. In some ways, Marge represents straight society with all its’ claims to propriety and decency, yet reeking with hypocrisy and condemnation. Additionally, despite her claim to love Jim, she rarely accepts his true nature despite knowing exactly who he is and what he does.

Perhaps the most under-used player in the performance is the always-electric Glenda Farrell, who lights up the screen and is quicker than what the director’s pacing allows. For my money, Farrell is the perfect partner for E.G and she plays her part to the hilt. As Val, she is certainly fun to be around and you can see Jim is perhaps still taken with her, even though he is married. The hot seduction scene is shaped as much by the sultry Farrell laying back and showing her goods, as much as it is countered by Jim’s hesitation and final refusal. Val isn’t exactly angry but certainly disappointed and her shooing him away illustrates this. I get the sense that inside Val is saying to herself ‘what happened to you, Jim? Did you lose your manhood when you got married, as well as yourself?’. This is certainly obvious when in deliberate ear-shot of Jim, she picks up the phone and asks the porter for a wheelchair, adding before the screen fades ‘No, I didn’t do anything to him’.

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But what I feel is most admirable about Val is that she doesn’t want Jim to change and encourages him to be himself – honest and true to who he is. Val is no gold-digger either nor does she waste his money. Indeed, at the end of the film we see that Jim’s spend-happy demeanor has been tempered. It’s Val who exercises some fiscal responsibility. Moreso, Val never quits on Jim and obviously loves and wants him even when he is married. Yes, there is an attempt at seduction but not because Val is a seductress in the classic sense. She wants Jim but she won’t wreck a marriage per se and sends him off home. In fact, she just might be enticing Jim to be himself and be true to his own instincts and thus be truly happy. Marge on the other hand is rarely happy with Jim and eventually gives up on him, even taking his winnings and running back to Ohio. 

In his autobiography, ‘All My Yesterdays: An Autobiography’ (1973), Robinson claimed that he ‘loathed it’ and appeared glad that it was a forgotten film. Being the consummate professional that he was, it’s hard to find that sense of loathing in his performance. 

Fans of Edward G Robinson will still enjoy this odd little Pre-Code film and indeed fans of Pre-Code will also be surprised by how entertaining Dark Hazard is. So if you have 70 minutes to kill one fine evening or on a Sunday afternoon, try Dark Hazard and enjoy the strange little ride it takes you on.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The Roaring Twenties (1939) – Last Of The Classic Gangster Films

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“Cheating yes, cheating if you get caught. But you don’t get caught if you take care of the right people, and this is big business. Very big business.” James Cagney The Roaring Twenties (1939)

by Paul Batters

Previously on Silver Screen Classics, I focused on William Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931); one of the trio of films that would institute the hallmarks of the classic gangster film. What would make the canonical three interesting was that they were made and released during the Prohibition Era with gangsters such as Al Capone very much in the news. It was also the time of the Great Depression where questions about democracy and capitalism were being asked. And of course, in Hollywood it was the Pre-Code era, where film was reaching into areas that would soon be shut down and not make an explicit appearance for many years later.

I wanted to look at two films, which act as bookends to the classic gangster cycle and incidentally star the same actor – James Cagney. Whilst sharing some similarities, they are both different films for different reasons. It is tempting to make this a comparison between the two but that is not my objective here. Instead, any comparisons will be incidental whilst focusing on the last great film of the original gangster cycle – The Roaring Twenties.

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 Directed by Raoul Walsh, The Roaring Twenties would be released in 1939 on the eve of World War Two and like The Public Enemy, will unfurl the story of the rise and fall of a gangster. It certainly is not an original tale and even by 1939, it had become an almost clichéd one. Indeed, there are criticisms that the storyline is one that belongs in a Poverty Row B-feature and not in the pantheon of Warner Bros. films. Cagney was not overtly thrilled about the film and felt it would impact on his attempts to break from the gangster mould that had shaped his career since The Public Enemy. Yet Cagney was brilliant as Eddie Bartlett.

 Despite the trademarks of the genre present and a modicum of truth behind the charge that the film may have had a B-grade script, The Roaring Twenties stands alone as a classic Warner Bros. film. There is hardly a ‘gangster film list’ or film historian that does not claim the film as a classic. So what makes it work? With a superb cast, a brilliant director and the studio style that takes it beyond its’ origins, the film deserves to be considered as one of the great gangster films, as it would prove to be the swan song of the classic cycle.

Walsh cinematically employs a style not dissimilar to that of The Public Enemy, in that there is back-story to be told and as an audience we are treated to a social history. The approach of telling this back-story in the style of a newsreel, with John Deering as dramatic narrator, is one that audiences would have been more than familiar with. Walsh not only utilises a news-reel approach at the start of the film but it becomes a tool used at pivotal points in the story, acting as a reminder to audiences that the events of history impact on the individual and can change the direction of one’s life journey.

The ‘realism’ of the news-reel worked in partnership with the real experiences of famous crime reporter Mark Hellinger. His rubbing shoulders with underworld and Broadway figures provided material for the script. It was quite common for actual events to be used as fodder for the film factory. Yet the film betrays a sentimental tone that does not meet the toughness of the pre-Code gangster films. Indeed, Hellinger’s voice-over during the opening prologue reveals this:

Bitter or sweet, most memories become precious as the years move on. This film is a memory – and I am grateful for it.

And so the film’s tone is set– with a sense of nostalgia that will underlie the story.

The audience is taken back just over twenty years from the ‘present’ (at least for 1939 audiences) to the battlefields of World War One. As a battle rages, Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) dives straight into George (Humphrey Bogart), both seeking refuge from the madness in a shell-hole. They don’t exactly hit it off and as they trade jibes, a young soldier Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn) stumbles into the shell-hole as well. The lives of all three will henceforth be fatally intertwined.

Despite Eddie and George being ‘pals’ fighting side by side, Walsh establishes their very different personas early on in the story. Eddie is an everyman with whom our sympathies lie. He speaks of wanting an honest job when the war is over. In contrast, George shows signs of the ‘bad guy’ he is going to become. When Lloyd is reluctant to shoot a young German soldier because ‘he looks like a kid about 15 years old’, George takes careful aim and shoots the boy dead exclaiming ‘he won’t be 16’. George enjoys killing and it doesn’t bother him at all that he has just a killed a boy. Moments later, the declaration comes that the war is over yet the senselessness of the boy’s murder is vacant from their minds, as they celebrate and congratulate each other. Indeed, George says he wants to keep his rifle as it may come in handy. Perhaps a harbinger of things to come.

The audience is again treated to a newsreel with voice-over outlining the many changes that have occurred from changing fashions to sport to the ratifying of Prohibition – the last of which will dramatically change the life of our hero. The camera fluidly moves along the street as Eddie returns home to a different world from the one he left. He goes back to the ‘cheesy’, poorly furnished apartment (whose rent has gone up) that he had shared with his buddy Danny Green (Frank McHugh) in a scene that is a perfect example of Walsh’s sense of direction and humour. According to John McCabe in his biography of Cagney, both he and McHugh (in real life close friends) felt that the script was stale and weak. Given full reign by Walsh, the two re-worked the scene into a memorable and certainly humorous one. Danny, exhausted from another long shift driving a cab sits asleep at a small table. Eddie enters and plays upon Danny’s exhaustion, pouring a coffee and sitting down at the table as if he has been there all along. Danny’s reaction is priceless and lifts the homecoming scene to one of humour, warmth and simple celebration. Cagney’s and McHugh’s sense of movement, snappy dialogue and comic timing are allowed to come to the fore due to Walsh’s sense of what actors could give of their own accord, as well his understanding that the script had its’ deficiencies.

Upon his return, Eddie quickly discovers that things have changed and it is here that Walsh introduces the theme of the ‘forgotten man’. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody identifies clearly that the film ‘evokes the flailings of unformed men whom a heedless society tossed in harm’s way and then cast aside ‘. As Eddie soon finds, his old job – the idea of heaven that he described as ‘a grease bucket, a wrench, and a cracked cylinder’ – is no longer there despite the promises of his foreman before he left for war. Eddie’s rejection is further offended by two workers who throw open insults at him, testing his patience. Once again, Cagney improvises on a scene, which he felt was clichéd. Tired of ‘fight scenes’, Cagney decided to inject a quicker and funnier solution to his problem – a ‘two for one punch’. Once again, Walsh thought it worked, moving the story along with a humorous act.

Eddie’s problems are exacerbated by the events of Prohibition, again outlined by the newsreel narrator. Tired of ‘having doors slammed in my face’, Eddie accepts Danny’s invitation to drive the cab along with him. It’s better than being ‘pushed around’.

A moment of humour and what initially appears to be an unimportant aside to Eddie’s story is his opportune meeting with Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane) – the girl who had been writing to him whilst he was in France during the war. His expectations of a woman with whom he can pursue a romance are quickly sunk, when he discovers that Jean is a schoolgirl. Eddie brushes her off and quickly departs, promising to meet her when she grows up and ‘gets to be a great big girl’. When she does grow-up, Jean will be the tragic target of Eddie’s unrequited love and indirectly lead to his demise.

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We are also introduced to the other woman that will change the direction of Eddie’s life and be important to him – Panama Smith (Gladys George – who was also a favourite of Walsh). Based on nightclub owner Texas Guinan, George would also employ some of the real life airs of Guinan. Although she was not the first choice for the role, which was supposed to be Ann Sheridan, George made the role hers and again we see the studio touch, with their usual strong supporting players. Again, the theme of unrequited love and the pain of ‘love from afar’ will permeate the film till its’ tragic ending, from two different angles. The two whose loves remain unanswered, will remain loyal to each other, with Panama’s loyalty all the greater – her own personal tragedy being Eddie’s blindness to the love she has for him.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, Eddie’s first encounter with Panama will be fortuitous, despite the bad luck that first transpires. Eddie is arrested while inadvertently delivering bootleg liquor to Panama. Despite Panama’s claims that ‘he’s no bootlegger. He’s on the up and up’, Eddie is arrested. In court, his war pal Lloyd defends him but he goes to prison, as he cannot pay the fine.

There is some difficulty in believing that Eddie could be so gullible and so green that he would unwittingly be caught up in such a situation. This is certainly another deficiency in Hellinger’s script, regarding the character of the protagonist. Eddie is no mug and knows the streets – he has grown up on them. Additionally, Eddie hasn’t been living in a vacuum, knowing full-well the reality of Prohibition and it can be safely assumed he would have come across plenty of shady characters driving a cab around the streets of New York. But Cagney’s brilliance makes it work; he takes it on the chin with a cynical gesture and makes the situation believable through his portrayal.

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Panama bails Eddie out, seeing an honesty and toughness in him that could not only benefit her business but also give him the chance to get out from under. Refusing a drink and asking for milk as they speak, Panama further warms to him and wants to repay Eddie for taking a ‘rap that I couldn’t afford to take’. Panama schools Eddie on the finer points of buying off the cops, a key issue regarding organised crime, which was ignored in previous gangster films, even during the Pre-Code era. ‘Tired of being pushed around’, Eddie takes it on and the thematic concern of good guy going ‘bad’ because of circumstance becomes realised. Unlike Tom Powers in The Public Enemy who is a victim of environment, poverty and in some part choice, becoming a criminal from childhood, Eddie Bartlett is a victim of circumstance. The events around him have fatally brought him to what appears to be ‘no choice’; starve or make money. Later when his lawyer Lloyd reprimands Eddie for the line of work they are in, Eddie tells him not to be ‘a sap’ and reminds him:

‘What do ya wanna do? Runnin’ around chasin’ ambulances for the next ten years? Look, take what you can get while you can get it ’cause nobody’s gonna walk up to ya and drop it in your lap. Do ya hear that? Don’t think that everything’s all wrong because you’re not starvin’ to death, ya hear?’

 Here we see the gangster code come to the surface. Whilst Eddie Bartlett is not a gangster in the mold of Tom Powers, Enrico Bandello or even a Rocky Sullivan, the economic drive is all- commanding. As the narrator again outlines the events of Prohibition, another issue previously ignored even during the Pre-Code era is the concept of an unpopular law driving more people to drink. As Eddie points out, they cannot keep up with the demand and are making more money than they could imagine. Eddie knows that it cannot last forever but makes clear to Lloyd, ‘when the gravy’s flowin’, I’m gonna be right there with my kisser under the faucet’.

Fate steers Eddie towards the very thing that will lead to his downfall; love. Whilst collecting a debt at a theatre, he notices a very pretty girl in the chorus-line and then realises that it is Jean. She is not overtly excited to see him but after some sweet-talking from Eddie, she agrees to let him accompany her on the late train home. Eddie becomes enamored with Jean and pushes Henderson, the owner of a big nightclub to take her on. Reluctantly, he does so and Eddie also quietly pays her salary. On her opening night, she sings the old standard Melancholy Baby, which will become a wistful reminder throughout the film of Eddie’s rejected love, as well as his eventual downfall.

Eddie is thrilled for Jean’s success and Panama sees how Eddie feels. She wants Eddie and tough as she is, Panama does not intend to sabotage Eddie’s feelings for Jean. As Jean’s star rises in the club, Eddie sees her gratitude as love, blind to the realities of the relationship (as well as Panama’s love for him) and plans to marry her. Panama tries to warn Eddie but he will hear none of it and for all his street smarts and ability to read and deal with the people in the racket, Eddie fails to see who does and does not love him.

Walsh moves the film’s direction back into the rhythm of the rackets and we first meet one of the major players in the form of Nick Brown (Paul Kelly), whose front is an Italian restaurant. The casting of Paul Kelly is also indicative of the Warner Brothers studio touch. Kelly had been a silent star during the 1910s and 1920s but he was caught in scandal when convicted for killing his lover’s husband in a drunken brawl. Kelly served time and incredibly rehabilitated his career, marrying his lover, Dorothy Mackaye. Mackaye also served time for her husband’s death, and used her prison experiences to her advantage, writing a book, which became the 1933 film ‘Ladies They Talk About’. Kelly’s vast stage and film experience, combined with his prison experience brought a tough realism to the role that is never over-played.

Looking down his nose at Eddie, Brown makes it clear that he sees Eddie as ‘penny-ante’. Eddie will not be held back and strikes out at a boat bringing in Nick’s illicit cargo, whilst posing as Coast Guards. Incredibly, Eddie’s old war pal George, who has long-turned gangster, is captaining the boat. Despite how incredulous the meeting appears, both Bogart and Cagney make the scene work, with a naturalness that makes the scene believable. Here they discuss a partnership and it doesn’t take much to turn George around to Eddie’s way of thinking. Eddie makes a mistake here, pooling his resources in with someone who could very well turn on him, as easily as he had turned on Nick Brown. This fatal mistake will cost Eddie dearly. Bogart brings a nastiness and coldness to his portrayal of George that will become even crueler as the story progresses.

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As the narrator informs us, the time period is now the mid-1920s, with Prohibition firmly entrenched and the crime gangs using violence and corruption to grab on to and hold on to their wealth and power. It is during a warehouse robbery that a turning point in Eddie’s personal and criminal life will occur. As Eddie, George and their gang rob the warehouse controlled by Nick Brown, George notices that one of the guards is the nasty and bullying sergeant Pete Jones (Joseph Sawyer) from their time during the war. George’s cruel and murderous streak comes to the fore as he shoots Jones in cold blood. Eddie abhors the moment but will pass it off as just one of those things. Again, he fails to recognize that he has partnered up with a cruel and vicious man. Later when George warns Eddie that the lawyer ‘kid’s gonna move in on your gal’, Eddie again ignores it even when Panama agrees with George. Dramatic irony is employed with fatal accuracy when Eddie declares that he trusts his friends. George correctly reads this as weakness, saying to Panama as Eddie walks away, ‘you know, he’s a sucker. I don’t trust mine’. It is also a foreshadowing of what will come for Eddie and whilst the audience hates to admit it, Eddie is a ‘sucker’; blind to George and his intentions, blind to Panama’s love for him and unable to see that Jean does not love him.

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For Lloyd, the murder of Pete Jones during the warehouse robbery is the last straw. He finally confronts Jean and demands that she reveal to Eddie what her true feelings are. Jean’s reluctance becomes a wedge, driving both Lloyd and Eddie to distraction. She claims she does not want to hurt Eddie but as Lloyd rightfully points out, she is hurting others as well, including herself.

Eddie’s world will begin to be shaken, ironically as Jean sings Melancholy Baby during the show at the nightclub. As she sings, Nick Brown and his boys enter and gunfight breaks out. The customers clear out in panic and as Eddie offers to buy the club from a distraught Henderson, Lloyd says he has had enough and that he’s out. As cruel as George is, he is actually correct in his assessment of Lloyd, declaring that he knows too much, through gritted teeth as he points a gun at him – in the classic way that only Bogart can:

‘You came into this racket with your eyes open. You learned alot and you know alot. If any of it gets out, you go out with your eyes open, only this time, they’ll have pennies on them’.

 Eddie manages to talk George out of killing Lloyd but again Eddie’s kindness to Lloyd will come back to haunt him, as well as be a test to his own humanity.

With the new club updated, Eddie attempts to bring some peace to the warring groups. The peace will be short-lived and Eddie will soon discover the treachery that lurks in George’s heart. Angered by how he believes he’s being treated and wanting power himself, George begins his scheming against Eddie. Here, the film’s pace begins to quicken, beginning with George’s murder of Danny and the predictable gunfight that follows at Nick Brown’s, which sees innocent people killed as well as Nick Brown and two of his hoods. As George hears the news on the radio, believing that Eddie has been killed, he is confronted by Eddie. Yet Eddie does not enact revenge or any payback and does not break their partnership in the traditional way – with a gun. Instead, he tells George: ‘The only thing that’s savin’ your neck is I can’t prove you dealt me a second. But if I ever find out, I got one in here with your name on it’. In some ways, this shows that Eddie is not a complete gangster and has too much honor in him to kill someone on a hunch. A vast contrast to Tom Powers, who would not have hesitated to gun down George. Again, Eddie’s sense of conscience will assist in his final undoing.

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However, the rug will be pulled from under Eddie’s feet when he goes back to the club to discover that Jean has quit. Panama tries to tell him that Jean loves Lloyd but Eddie will not accept the truth until he steps outside and sees them together. He knocks down Lloyd with a punch but when Jean shows concern for Lloyd, Eddie finally realises the truth and apologetically leaves them. As he returns inside the club, Eddie does something he has never done and asks for a drink. Here, Walsh revisits a theme common in a number of his films – the dangers of alcoholism and the downfall of the hero due to alcohol. But from Eddie’s individual slide into drinking emerges a greater image – of a nation that when trying to save itself from alcohol descended further into it deeper than it could have imagined. And created even greater problems than it could have foreshadowed. Indeed, this is one of the key themes that Walsh discusses throughout the film, both through the journey of the chief characters and that of a nation through the newsreels and narrator’s voice.

Eddie’s complete downward spiral will commence with the Wall Street Crash and the start of the Great Depression. Again, Walsh uses the newsreel as a reminder of its’ impact and we discover that Eddie is as much a victim as millions of others. Eddie’s ruin is consolidated by George’s business-like ruthlessness when he exploits Eddie’s position and buys his whole fleet of cabs when Eddie goes begging for money. Here, George represents the new gangster that is going to emerge – one who does not need to brawl and fight in the streets but can manipulate and flex power from an office, probably the worst result of Prohibition. So business-like is Eddie that he even plays golf in his office and he and his lackeys are dressed impeccably. George cruelly taunts Eddie and leaves him one cab to earn a living.

Despite Prohibition’s repeal and the celebrations that follow, there is no bright future for Eddie. Or Panama, whose loyalty and love is all the more touching and tragic, shining past her tough exterior and more apparent to the audience than it is to Eddie. Both are reduced to living in flop-houses and barely getting by. Eddie’s demise could not be worse, further fuelled by his descent into alcohol – again the powerful and bitter irony is more than apparent where the very thing which once brought him riches has now also caused his downfall.

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The fateful day arrives when Jean, now married to Lloyd (a successful lawyer in the D.A’s office) happens to get into Eddie’s cab. Thrilled to see him, Eddie plays it cool and distant, still hurt by the past with little hope for the future. He sees how well she is doing and meets her four year old son. Lloyd also returns home just as Eddie is leaving. Looking shabby, Eddie claims he’ll make it back to the top some day. Lloyd warns Eddie that the days of the rackets are over but in this instance Eddie is wiser and ominously tells Lloyd: ‘Don’t you kid yourself about that. They’ll always be guys tryin’ to get up there quick…’. He also makes clear to Lloyd that he should forget about chasing George, acknowledging the big case that Lloyd is preparing against George.. When Lloyd mentions that he remembers George’s warning, Eddie grimly replies: ‘So does he’.

Eddie returns to the dives and bottom-rate saloons, drinking himself into oblivion, trying to blunt the sharp pain of unrequited loved. Meanwhile, Jean is threatened at home by George’s heavies and in a natural panic, goes looking for Eddie for help. She is shocked when she finds him in a saloon ‘oiled to the gills’ as Panama sings in the background. Like Rocky Sullivan in Angels With Dirty Faces, Eddie is asked to do something that goes against his principles to save someone else. And like Rocky, Eddie refuses – hurt and bitter that Jean is only using him. Panama says it wouldn’t hurt to talk to George. But Eddie knows better:

‘Talk? There’s only one language George understands. And do you think I’m gonna walk into an ambush just because that big, dumb, good-lookin’ husband of hers doesn’t know enough to keep his trap shut? You’re crazy. No dice, Jean, no dice’.

 His refusal clear, Jean leaves upset but Panama continues trying to wise Eddie up. As they leave the saloon, the piano player plays ‘My Melancholy Baby’ and our heart breaks along with Eddie’s, as he stops for a moment and listens. Here, we see Cagney’s magic, lifting the scene to another level. There is no other way to play that moment, other than the way Cagney does; a wistful smile, which speaks more than anything else to the pain that Eddie feels – and a moment that reaches out to all of us who have felt that very pain. It’s a private moment for Eddie that Cagney shares with everyone.

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Perhaps the song being played, along with Panama’s urging sends him to talk to George. Looking pathetic with hat in hand, Eddie begs George to lay off Lloyd but confident and determined in his cruelty, George refuses. A defeated Eddie hangs his head and begins to leave before being George orders his henchman Lefty to give Eddie a ride. Eddie realises what’s happening and reacts quickly, hitting Lefty and grabbing his gun. As George cowers and begs for his life, Eddie does what he should have done years earlier and shoots George dead.

What follows is one of the most famous scenes in the pantheon of gangster films. Eddie shoots it out with George’s gang and manages to make it onto the street but he receives a fatal shot, just as the police arrive. Eddie’s fatalistic story is now at its tragic completion – the sacrificial figure who dies to save the husband of the woman he loves, yet never loved him. He stumbles as he is dying, onto the steps of a church, lurching before finally falling down to the bottom of the steps – dead. As Panama holds him, Scorsese’s description of the scene as Michelangelo’s Pieta could not be more fitting – the gangster turned Christ-like figure, sacrificing himself for the love of others. Eddie has redeemed himself.

It is impossible not to feel our eyes well with tears, as we hear the strains of ‘My Melancholy Baby’ and see the also tragic Panama holding the man she loves. As the camera pulls away, the final words act as an epitaph: ‘He used to be a big shot’.

In many ways, The Roaring Twenties was an epitaph for the classic gangster film and the type of gangster that was portrayed during the original classic gangster cycle of the 1930s. In real terms, everything was changing and even Eddie tries to tell George just that before the finish. In the film, the rise and fall of the gangster is not based on the ruthlessness, greed and cruelty that was evident in the canonical trio of the Pre-code era. Instead, Eddie’s rise is due to forces outside his control and his fall is a result of his principles and the most beautiful and tragic emotion of all – love. So the gangster portrayed by Cagney is a tragic figure of almost Shakespearean proportions.

The Roaring Twenties has its’ weak points. As mentioned earlier, Hellinger’s script has its’ critics – Dennis Schwartz calls it a ‘hackneyed script’ and Cagney was not a fan of the script either. Yet Walsh overcomes this through his genius as a director, sense of comedy, applying touches through music and scenery that evoke the nostalgic tone of the story and his ability to bring together a period of time and personify its’ tragic tale into the life of Eddie Bartlett. Fernando Croce in CinePassion stated ‘if Raoul Walsh didn’t invent the Warner’s style, then he certainly brought it to its electric apex’. Absolutely.

Despite the generally strong supporting cast (which was one of the great strengths of Warner Bros.), it’s difficult to see that Priscilla Lane as anything but a cute kid and as a singer, she’s merely average. Yet perhaps it is clever casting – as an audience, we may ask ‘what does he see in her?’ Despite his later musings that he prefers a hotel to a nice home, to Eddie she represents and is everything that the rackets aren’t – clean, wholesome and good. And of course, no-one can help whom they fall in love with. Additionally, Jean provides an ‘out’ for Eddie and when proposing to Jean, he adds when seeing her reluctance (thinking it’s his lifestyle), ‘I’ll get out. A few more years in this business, I’ll have enough dough…so we can settle down and forget all this. How does that sound to ya?’ As George will later correctly judge, Eddie loves Jean and there isn’t anything he wouldn’t do for her. As we sadly discover.

Jeffrey Lynn as Lloyd never manages to stand even close to any of the other cast members, for my money. But, as Michael Grost points out in Classic Film And Television, his casting fits a character-type familiar in Walsh’s films. Eddie describes Lloyd as ‘big, dumb and good looking’ and even George tries to makes Eddie see that he is exactly the type of guy that Jean would go for. Lloyd is the romantic rival to Eddie and will provide Jean with respectability, certainty and stability.

However, the greatest performance of all is that of James Cagney and it is his delivery of Eddie Bartlett that truly lifts The Roaring Twenties into the realm of masterpiece. Eddie Bartlett as the gangster is a myth – but it is one the audience is desperate to believe. The subtleties of Cagney’s execution of the role, as well as the power of the performance, could not have been matched by any other actor. If The Roaring Twenties is a masterpiece, it is because Cagney’s performance is one as well.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.