I recently finished teaching the gangster movie genre as part of my “World of Cinema” class at Harold Washington College. This included screening one of my all time favorite American films, the 1939 Warner Brothers production of The Roaring Twenties starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart (an acting match made in tough-guy heaven if there ever was one). The way director Raoul Walsh continually opens up the narrative of this gangster epic to situate its events within a wider social context (from the first World War to the stock market crash of ’29 to the end of Prohibition and beyond) gives it a dazzling breadth and scope. There are also many iconic moments, especially Cagney’s death on the outdoor steps of a church, which prompts his flame (a sad-eyed bootlegger played by Gladys George) to remark: “He used to be a big shot.”
Watching it again with a class reminded me that my personal favorite moment in the film is also one of its quietest and most subtle: after Prohibition has been repealed and Cagney’s Eddie Bartlett has lost his bootlegging empire, we see him in a dive bar, a slave to the booze that he never touched when he was on top. Bartlett exits the bar to go visit his nemesis George (Bogart), knowing full well that it may be his last night on earth. On his way out the door, Bartlett pauses in front of a piano, on top of which someone has set down a mug of beer. Bartlett looks down at the mostly-empty glass and smiles a sad, wistful smile. I’ve always wondered if this moment was indicated in the script or if it was something that Walsh and Cagney worked out together on the set. Whatever the case, this, my friends, is movie magic:
October 18th, 2013 at 10:38 am
Loved that scene as well! Cagney’s ability to play a tough character, yet show such warmth and vulnerability was amazing. Great film!
October 18th, 2013 at 10:41 am
Love this movie! I haven’t watched it a very long while. That scene with the mug and the piano is so surreal and significant. Great post!
October 18th, 2013 at 3:47 pm
Reblogged this on Qualialogica.
October 18th, 2013 at 3:56 pm
Thanks for the kind words, everybody. I threw this up almost as a lark but now I’m considering making “My Favorite Moment in . . .” a regular feature on this site.
October 18th, 2013 at 6:58 pm
Thank you for mentioning “The Roaring Twenties” which is a film I will mention when I get to the list of “My Favorite Raoul Walsh Films” That favorite scene of yours is also quite poignant considering that Cagney’s Eddie Bartlett now sees himself as a nobody when prohibition is repealed.
October 18th, 2013 at 8:51 pm
Gangster movies have always been my favorite, and Cagney played the tough guy well. Great choice Mike.
October 19th, 2013 at 8:40 am
Thanks for stopping by, Rory!