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Release Date: February 27th, 2024 Movie Release Year: 1939

The Roaring Twenties - Criterion Collection 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray

Overview -

A classic gangster flick that's often criminally underrated, The Roaring Twenties makes not only its 4K UHD debut, but also its long, long overdue Blu-ray bow. This rough-and-tumble tale of the Prohibition Era is directed with pugnacious pizzazz by Raoul Walsh and features bruising performances from James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Gladys George. Criterion honors the 85th birthday of this 1939 gem with a glorious 4K UHD transfer with Dolby Vision HDR, remastered audio, and a few choice supplements. No gangster collection is complete without this essential entry. Highly Recommended.

OVERALL:
Highly Recommended
Rating Breakdown
STORY
VIDEO
AUDIO
SPECIAL FEATURES
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
New 4K digital restoration
Video Resolution/Codec:
2160p/HEVC
Length:
106
Aspect Ratio(s):
1.37:1
Audio Formats:
English uncompressed monaural soundtrack
Subtitles/Captions:
English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Special Features:
PLUS: An essay by film critic Mark Asch
Release Date:
February 27th, 2024

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take

Ranking:

James Cagney made several archetypal gangster movies - The Public Enemy, Angels with Dirty Faces, White Heat - but the one that looms above them all is The Roaring Twenties. More than a standard mob yarn, director Raoul Walsh's ambitious, fast-paced, and terrifically entertaining homage to the Prohibition Era embraces a large canvas and paints a vivid portrait of one of American history's most fabled periods. With an absorbing story that’s packed with smart dialogue and colorful characters, The Roaring Twenties stands as a prime example of the rough-and-tumble style that defined Warner Bros filmmaking during Hollywood's Golden Age and remains one of the many highlights of that legendary movie year, 1939.

Although memories of the 1920s were still fresh in the minds of adult moviegoers when the picture was first released, The Roaring Twenties treats its subject as if it were ancient history. The film plays like a newsreel, with an authoritative narrator talking us through the decade as the story unfolds. The gimmick works better today than it probably did in 1939, lending the movie a quaint aura that helps excuse its dated elements.

The saga begins in a World War I foxhole, where three soldiers seek shelter from hostile fire and share their post-war dreams. Law school grad Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn) hopes to someday open his own practice, while George Hally (Humphrey Bogart) vows to return to the lucrative saloon business despite the impending passage of Prohibition. Eddie Bartlett (Cagney) has no visions of grandeur; he just wants his old job back at a New York City garage and to steer clear of trouble.

Trouble, however, finds him. Eddie tries his best to walk the straight and narrow, but like many war vets, society foils his good intentions at every turn and winds up pushing him down the crooked path of bootlegging. In the underworld of speakeasies and smuggling, Eddie becomes an instant magnate and takes an obsessive interest in Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane), an aspiring singer who's grateful for Eddie's attention but doesn't return his affection. He also hires his old pal Lloyd to run legal clearance and later enters into a risky partnership with trigger-happy George. Although the future seems bright, the high times of Prohibition can't last forever, and when the stock market crashes, so does Eddie's world.

The Roaring Twenties tells its epic tale with typical Warner efficiency, yet adds a hint of wistful nostalgia to slightly soften the hard-boiled plot. Although the script, co-written by future producer Jerry Wald (Mildred PiercePeyton Place), future director Robert Rossen (All the King’s Men, The Hustler), and Richard Macaulay, doesn't condone the corruption and excess that defined the decade, it doesn't exactly denounce them either. The '20s may have been violent and immoral, the film seems to say, but they were a heck of a lot more fun than the Depression! And The Roaring Twenties makes that point by marvelously depicting the era's live-wire social history through humor, sentiment, and music. Songs like "Melancholy Baby," "It Had to Be You," and "I'm Just Wild About Harry" (all winningly sung by Lane) underscore the action and supply some glamor to offset the Warner grit.

Eddie Bartlett would be Cagney's last screen gangster until the iconic Cody Jarrett in White Heat 10 years later, yet if he was tired of portraying cocky criminals, it doesn't show here. Cagney attacks the milk-swilling Eddie with his patented pugnacity and does for cigars what he did for grapefruits in The Public Enemy, shoving a stogie into the mug of a bar owner. He also shades his portrayal with enough sensitivity and pathos to become the movies' first sympathetic gangster. For despite his dirty deeds, deep down Eddie is a good guy, and his noble character keeps us squarely in his corner throughout the film. Bogart, who hadn’t yet graduated to Hollywood’s A-list, makes a fine foil and wonderful heavy, and perks up his subordinate role with plenty of charisma.

With two legends vying for attention, it's easy to dismiss the ladies of The Roaring Twenties, but Lane and especially Gladys George also file memorable portrayals. Though largely forgotten today, Lane brightened up several films in the late '30s and early '40s (most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur), using her perky, sincere personality and cute-as-a-button looks to sensitize the screen personas of Cagney and John Garfield. Here, she makes the most of her one-dimensional role and sparkles in her musical numbers. George, however, outshines her as Panama Smith, the brassy, wisecracking nightclub owner who tries to hide her heart of gold and blazing torch for Eddie. George masterfully mixes warmth with toughness and delivers the film's famous last line with heartbreaking resonance.

The Roaring Twenties sadly marked the end of the Warner gangster era - not with a whimper, but a bang - and today evokes nostalgia not only for that decade of wild partying, rampant materialism, and underworld violence, but also for the gangster genre itself. Coppola, Scorsese, and DePalma have since tweaked the mold, but Warner Bros created it, and 85 years later The Roaring Twenties proves their product still packs a helluva punch.

Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
The Roaring Twenties arrives on 4K UHD packaged in a standard Criterion case. A 10-page, fold-out booklet featuring an essay by author Mark Asch, a cast and crew listing, and transfer notes is tucked inside the front cover and a standard Blu-ray disc that houses a 1080p transfer of the movie and all the supplements is also included in the set. Video codec for the 4K disc is 2160p/HEVC H.265 with Dolby Vision HDR and audio is LPCM mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.

Video Review

Ranking:

According to the liner notes, the "new digital master was created from the 35 mm nitrate original camera negative, in addition to a safety fine-grain for some sections, with both elements scanned and restored in 4K resolution." The resulting 2160p/HEVC H.265 transfer with Dolby Vision HDR should thrill any fan of The Roaring Twenties. Though some scenes look sharper than others (it's fairly obvious when the safety fine-grain comes into play), the overall presentation is vibrant, often lush, and very film-like. The natural grain structure remains intact, but the texture is nicely resolved, allowing us to fully appreciate the gorgeous cinematography of Ernest Haller, who would win an Oscar the very same year for Gone with the Wind. Excellent contrast and clarity, inky blacks, bright whites, and beautifully modulated grays produce a first-class picture that exhibits a fair amount of depth. The nightclub sets look crisp and glitzy, while scenes shot on a misty boat deck and in a dark, grimy foxhole possess terrific levels of detail. Even the recycled newsreel footage looks good. Superior shadow delineation keeps crush at bay most of the time, background elements are easy to discern, and close-ups showcase fine facial features well. The minor speckling that plagued the 2005 DVD has been erased, leaving a largely pristine image that's only marred by a few very faint vertical lines. This is a top-notch transfer from Criterion that ranks right up there with those produced by Warner Archive.

The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 Blu-ray transfer is also quite pleasing. As should be expected, the image appears slightly duller and less defined, but the drop in quality isn't as substantial as one might guess. Blacks aren't as rich and costume details aren't as pronounced, but if you don't yet have 4K capability, you should be more than satisfied with this presentation, which still beats its 2005 DVD predecessor.

Audio Review

Ranking:

The LPCM mono track, which was "remastered from the 35 mm composite fine-grain by the Criterion Collection," supplies clear, well-modulated sound. Sonic accents like gunfire, exploding shells, fisticuffs, and shattering glass are crisp, while subtleties like the din of nightclub patrons, the tinkling of a piano, and footsteps on concrete nicely shade the action. A wide dynamic scale gives all the orchestrations and Priscilla Lane's vocals plenty of room to breathe, all the dialogue is easy to comprehend, and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle intrude. This is a robust track that handles the gangster shenanigans and musical numbers with equal aplomb. 

Special Features

Ranking:

Criterion imports the audio commentary and trailer from Warner's 2005 DVD over to this 4K UHD release, but leaves behind the Warner Night at the Movies vintage shorts and cartoon, as well as a retrospective featurette. So if those extras are important to you, you'll want to hang onto that disc. To compensate, Criterion adds a couple of its own supplements, but the extras package is still disappointingly slim for a movie of this magnitude.

  • Audio Commentary - Film historian Lincoln Hurst's remarks are engaging enough, but lack the flair of similar efforts on other classic discs. Hurst is certainly qualified to voice his opinions - he claims he's seen The Roaring Twenties 25 times - and although he spends a little too much time recapping and analyzing the plot, he relays some good information. He points out instances where Cagney strays from the written script and discusses how the actor devised a fresh way to slug a couple of on-screen adversaries. He also shares some notable facts about Walsh and recounts how producer Hal Wallis found himself consistently at odds with the director (and Cagney) throughout filming.

  • Featurette: "The Underworld Moves On: Gary Giddins on The Roaring Twenties(HD, 22 minutes) - Film historian Gary Giddins discusses the gangster genre and how The Roaring Twenties fits into it in this insightful and interesting interview. Giddins also addresses the film's treatment of history, the roots of the story, the importance of the musical numbers, and the evolution of Cagney's character. In addition, he praises Cagney's performance, points out the sadism of Bogart's character, and rues how The Roaring Twenties has become somewhat of a forgotten film over the years and often doesn't get the respect it deserves.

  • Vintage Interview with Raoul Walsh (SD, 5 minutes) - In this all-too-brief 1973 interview excerpt from the documentary series The Men Who Made the Movies, Walsh reminisces about the magnetism of Cagney and Bogart.

  • Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 minutes) - Columnist Mark Hellinger, who came up with the movie's story, introduces and narrates the film's original preview.

Final Thoughts

One of the all-time great gangster films, The Roaring Twenties captures the reckless flavor of a colorful era and features memorable portrayals by Cagney, Bogart, George, and Lane. Director Raoul Walsh maintains a breakneck pace and Criterion's top-quality 4K UHD presentation with Dolby Vision HDR will surely impress fans who have been waiting for years (and years!) for this classic's high-def debut. Robust audio and a few interesting supplements complete this very welcome release. Highly Recommended.