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The Roaring Twenties (1939)

by on 2012/03/12

“The paper fortunes built up over the last few years crumble into nothing.”

* * *

The economy is a funny thing. I don’t care if you are a geophysicist, gym teacher or a janitor, the one thing you can count on in the wide world of making money is that nothing and no one is indispensable.

People and things change and become obsolete. It is a constant struggle to stay relevant and stay alive.

The futurist Ray Kurzweil wrote that “the 21st century will be equivalent to 20,000 years of progress at today’s rate of (change).”

Watching The Roaring Twenties this past weekend, however, made me think that perhaps things today aren’t that very different from the 20th century. The only thing the poor saps depicted in this James Cagney vehicle could count on was the rug … no, the floor … being yanked out from under them.

Soldiers returning from the horrors of World War I found that jobs were in short supply, positions filled by the military-exempted Class 4-5 men who stayed behind.

Prohibition then hits hard, and men out of work turn to the underworld for jobs. Every day is a struggle to stay out of jail, to make bank, to stay alive.

With every tectonic shift of the economy, it is bubble, boom, bust.

Cagney (Smart Money) plays entirely sympathetic Eddie Bartlett, a World War I vet, and all-around good guy. Well, not all good. To make ends meet, he gets caught up in the rackets, running bathtub gin.

He and his fellow army buddy George Hally played by Humphrey Bogart (The Maltese Falcon) get wound up tightly in the world of back alley deals, rum running and machine guns.

Only trouble is that Eddie’s a little more complicated than his beaten-dog-mean pal George. Eddie wants to be a milk-drinking nice guy but he can’t turn his back on easy, dirty money.

His essential sweetness is represented by his choice of dame. Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane) is a milk-fed beauty with the voice of a dance hall angel. She’s ivory pure and pretty as a lace doily, he’s the gin-soaked leather coaster on the floor of a saloon.

I drowned in James Cagney’s giant saucer-sized eyes watching this film. The guy’s a legend. He’s tough, he’s mean and he’ll break your heart. He’ll also perform a song and dance if it buys him a square meal.

Cagney is the perfect archetype for survival in trying times – scrappy and adaptable. I think we should strive to be just a little bit more Cagney.

We should just remember not to give up. Oh yes, and don’t drink.

* * *

106 minutes

Rated PG for the downing of a lot of wood alcohol, loads of gangland killings and the shiny dresses worn by Panama Smith (Gladys George)

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  1. A Goth’s Month in Review: March 2012 « Geek vs Goth

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