The Roaring Twenties: Into the Past

<em>The Roaring Twenties:</em> Into the Past

The New York City of Raoul Walsh’s childhood was a place where giants walked the earth—and came to dinner. In his riotously unreliable 1974 autobiography, Each Man in His Time, the director recalls his father, Thomas Walsh, as an Irish subversive who shot his way out of Dublin, escaping on a ship bound for Spain and ending up in New York as a cutter for Brooks Brothers, where he dressed Edwin Booth for Hamlet and Teddy Roosevelt for San Juan Hill. Through his father, young Raoul allegedly brushed up against the greats—Mark Twain, Enrico Caruso, Buffalo Bill, Gentleman Jim, John L. Sullivan—some of whom would later populate his films. After his father died in 1937, Walsh writes, his hometown “was just another city without Big Tom.” But soon enough he would recreate the city of his memories on the “New York Street” of the Warner Bros. backlot.

That film—his first for the studio—was The Roaring Twenties, an epoch-spanning tall tale filled with the kind of composite characters and legendary incidents found in Walsh’s recollections. The director, who had spent some of his early years as a merchant seaman and a cowboy, had been making movies since the silent era, and this project would rejuvenate his career, earning him a reputation as one of the signature action filmmakers of midcentury Hollywood. Vital in its telling and foreordained in its unfolding, it is an elegy for a time and place, and for the genre most heavily associated with its milieu—with the mingling of sensational alarmism, shocked conscience, and sexualized fascination that the crime and energy of cities like New York provoke. Released in 1939, a year often considered the high-water mark of classic Hollywood, The Roaring Twenties shares with several films of its moment a sense of recapitulating one of the studio system’s key genres. Like Stagecoach and Gunga Din, it takes an action template and elevates it to the status of myth. Following a hood whose fortunes rise and fall over the course of the Prohibition era, Walsh’s film traces a familiar genre arc that in 1939 already seemed like a marker of a very specific bygone moment in American cinema—the period between the verbal freedom of the early years of talking pictures and the behavioral restrictions ushered in by the Production Code.

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