The Roaring Twenties (1939)

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Released 9-Aug-2005

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Main Menu Audio
Audio Commentary-Lincol Hurst (Film Historian)
Featurette-Warner Night At The Movies, With Intro By Leonard Maltin
Featurette-The Roaring Twenties: The World Moves On
Theatrical Trailer-Each Dawn I Die
Short Film-Newsreel Footage
Short Film-All Girl Revue
Short Film-The Great Library Misery
Short Film-Thugs With Dirty Mugs
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1939
Running Time 102:28 (Case: 101)
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4,5 Directed By Raoul Walsh

Warner Home Video
Starring James Cagney
Priscilla Lane
Humphrey Bogart
Gladys George
Jeffrey Lynn
Frank McHugh
Paul Kelly
Elisabeth Risdon
Edward Keane
Joe Sawyer
Joseph Crehan
George Meeker
John Hamilton
Case ?
RPI $19.95 Music Jack Little
John Siras
Joe Young

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English Dolby Digital 1.0 (192Kb/s)
Italian Dolby Digital 1.0 (192Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 1.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.37:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English
English for the Hearing Impaired
Italian for the Hearing Impaired
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    The gangster genre was firmly established by the mid-1930s with films such as The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, and the original Scarface. The rise and fall narrative structure of the anti-hero, the iconography of guns, cars, nightclubs, and pin-stripe suits, and the chiaroscuro of the black and white photography are the intrinsic ingredients of cinema's most rigid genre.

    Raoul Walsh's epic gangster film The Roaring Twenties, which came at the end of the 1930s and well after the classic period of the gangster genre in the early 1930s, is as much about the genre as it is a part of it. It is also offers a sociological and historical commentary of the period it depicts - the 1920s. Made at a time when the world was moving inexorably into World War II, the film's narrator reminds the audience of an earlier period when a World War should have been the war to end all wars. The calendar winds backwards, past the depression of 1929 and past the prohibition of the 1920s, back to 1918 and a trench on the battlefields of France. This is where Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney), George Hally (Humphrey Bogart), and Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn) meet during World War I.

    When Eddie returns from the war things are not quite as he left them. Prices and rent have gone up, his old job is long gone, and America's economy is not coping with the sudden return of the war veterans. And America soon has a new problem when the Prohibition Act takes effect in 1920. Eddie's hard luck continues until he takes matters into his own hands and joins the bootlegging racket. Soon he is climbing the ladder to success as a gangster, stealing and making alcohol and running a 'speakeasy' (hidden nightclubs where patrons flaunted the law by drinking illegal alcohol) behind the front of a taxicab company which is used to distribute the booze.

    Eddie's life becomes more and more complicated as he begins to ascend the upward arc of the typical gangster's narrative trajectory. His war buddies George and Lloyd help him expand his business: sociopath George is his right-hand man in his criminal exploits and lawyer Lloyd becomes his advisor and front man for the legitimate side of his business. Unfortunately, his love life does not run as smoothly. Young and vestal Jean (Priscilla Lane), a would-be singer and actress, is the object of his affections, but nightclub hostess Panama Smith (Gladys George) is the type of woman for a guy like him. Eddie shows the smarts when it comes to succeeding as a gangster, but his judgement of character and people is not so sharp.

    The Roaring Twenties is full of information and history as the narrator takes the audience on a guided tour of economic conditions for the population, the enactment of the Prohibition act, the details of illegal alcohol manufacture and the bootlegging industry. Never didactic, the narration always helps to progress Eddie's story, from soldier to the unemployment lines, and all the way up to 'big shot', as Panama calls him. The black and white photography by Ernest Haller is always stunning, and Max Parker's art direction effectively details the highs and lows of the world that Eddie traverses from the trenches of World War I to the streets and nightclubs of New York.

    Warner Home Video have recently released a whole series of classic gangster films on DVD such as The Public Enemy (which starred Cagney in one of his earliest breakthrough roles), Little Caesar and Angels with Dirty Faces, all from the early 1930s. Unfortunately, the original Scarface, a classic gangster masterpiece, is not a Warner film and has not been released on DVD anywhere. If you are a fan of the gangster genre but are unfamiliar with some of the classics, then now is the time to catch up with films such as The Roaring Twenties. You will not be disappointed.

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Transfer Quality


    Considering how old this film is, this is a fantastic transfer. I have only seen this on old worn VHS, so this the best I've ever seen it.

    The Roaring Twenties is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, as you would expect in a film of this era, originally framed at 1.37:1, and the transfer is not 16x9 enhanced. It is also entirely black and white.

    Sharpness is not a problem for 99% of the film, with only occasional cases of blurriness which are most likely a problem with the source print. The shadow detail is exceptional, and especially notable in night scenes and smoky nightclubs. The blacks are very black, which is a highlight for a film which uses a lot of high key lighting and deep shadows. There is a slight problem with background detail in a few scenes, which has left the background out of focus, such as 91:22. However, instead of looking out of focus the background occasionally comes across as a little fuzzy.

    MPEG artefacts are not a problem here, nor are there film-to-video artefacts to worry about. However, film artefacts are everywhere to be seen. Mainly in the form of scratches, most are very minor. They are present throughout the entire film, but their level of distraction really depends on whether you are used to watching very old films or not. I watch a lot of old black and white films and so don't often find film artefacts too distracting - prints of old films are always damaged (some less than others), and it is often lucky if a film has survived neglect over the decades. Of note in The Roaring Twenties is a peculiar camera wobble at 25:26, however it happens just as Cagney sits down and was probably caused by shaky floorboards on the set. There is also a white scratch in the centre of the frame at 60:40 during a musical number. It is during a medium close-up of Priscilla Lane singing for only a couple of frames, however it is right on her chin, and therefore quite noticeable.

    A number of sequences rely on stock footage for historical context and montages, and the quality tends to vary quite considerably. However this is the result of the footage chosen for the original sources, and should not reflect badly on this transfer.

   Throughout the film I switched the subtitles on and they were always very accurate with the spoken dialogue.

    This is a dual layer disc, however the film file is small enough (just over 3 gigabytes) to fit onto one layer; this seems to be the case, as I could not detect a layer change.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    The audio in The Roaring Twenties is just as pleasing as the video, with no major problems detected at all. There are three soundtracks: English, Italian, and the audio commentary. I listened to both the English and the commentary tracks. Each is Dolby Digital 1.0 encoded at 192kb/s, and both are very clear. In fact, I turned up the volume on the English track and was very pleased not to hear any distortion or hissing.

    The dialogue is always easy to understand, even with the gangster vernacular so particular to the time and place. Listening to tough guys like Cagney and Bogart deliver rapid-fire dialogue is always a pleasure, and this audio track doesn't disappoint. Much of the dialogue would have been done by ADR, however there were rarely any audio sync problems. One notable example was at 45:14, where the final word of a threat by Cagney to a nightclub owner doesn't quite match; the dialogue was most likely changed during the ADR process.

    The music in The Roaring Twenties is a mixture of orchestral score and musical numbers from the period. Numbers such as "I'm just wild about Harry" and "My Melancholy Baby" were actually sung by Priscilla Lane in her role as the headline act in Eddie and Panama's speakeasy, and these numbers are always used effectively to dramatise the emotional undercurrents between the main characters.

    This is a mono soundtrack, so there is no surround or subwoofer activity to be heard.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


    All of these classic gangster DVDs from Warner Home Video are presented with the same 'Warner Night at the Movies' theme. Mimicking the way films were experienced so many decades ago, this separate menu setup allows the viewer to enjoy an introduction, a newsreel and a small collection of shorts before the main feature begins. The quality varies, but most are in very good condition despite their age. With the exception of the menus, all the extras are 1.33:1 with two channel sound.


    The main menu has a picture of James Cagney and Priscilla Lane, is 16x9 enhanced, and is accompanied by music from the film.

Warner Night at the Movies

    This brings up another menu, which includes an introduction, plus access to a number of the DVD extras, but not all of them, as well as the film itself. (The film can also be accessed from the main menu of course, and there is a separate Special Features menu.)

Introduction (4:42)

    As with all the other Warner Home Video classics, there is an introduction by Leonard Maltin, filmed on the famous Warner backlots. He gives a brief summary of the film and the features that are also on this second menu. His tone is light and enthusiastic, and it provides a nice segue into a night at the movies.

Theatrical Trailer: Each Dawn I Die (1:42)

    This is a trailer for another Cagney film, Each Dawn I Die, also a crime film, only this time Cagney plays a news reporter who finds himself in jail with a gangster played by George Raft.

Newsreel (2:04)

    This newsreel footage from 1939 reports the transatlantic travels of Britain's royal couple to Canada and then to America. Their return home is greeted with news of the looming World War II.

All Girl Revue (8:09)

    This is a cute musical number about women being left in charge of a city for a whole day. As you would expect if women were left in charge for a day, there is a lot of singing and dancing. The new mayor's assistants come up with a number of ways to improve the city, which include women getting curls in their hair and wearing better pantyhose. But nothing compares to this rhyming suggestion: "to clean up the slums, put high hats on the bums." That's radical reform.

The Great Library Misery (11:29)

    This is a funny short film where new-in-town Mr Smith (Arthur Q. Bryan) is constantly confounded by the elaborate bureaucracy of the city library when he attempts to borrow a book. Bryan later became famous as the voice of Elmer Fudd.

Thugs with Dirty Mugs (7:57)

    A Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies cartoon from 1939 directed by Tex Avery, this is a very funny and clever send up of gangster films. In a reference to Edward G. Robinson's portrayal of Little Caesar, the main hood is called "Killer Diller" and played by Ed. G. Robemsome. As a big fan of both Caesar and Robinson, I found this cartoon to be a hoot, but any fan of Warner's cartoons should enjoy this very much.

Theatrical Trailer: The Roaring Twenties (3:20)

    This is the trailer for the feature film and starts with a boring historical introduction to the times, including much of the newsreel footage that is later found in the feature film. At the halfway point the trailer proper begins, and it is a decent introduction or enticement for the film.

Featurette - The Roaring Twenties: The World Moves On (17:22)

    As with the other Warner classics, a number of cinema historians, academics and writers have been assembled to provide a lot of detail and context for each film. A welcome treat is director Martin Scorsese, famous for his own additions to the gangster genre with Goodfellas and Casino. Scorsese is much more animated than the other talking heads, however they are all edited together well to give an interesting insight into the film.

Commentary - Lincoln Hurst (Professor of Film)

    Lincoln Hurst provides a commentary which relies a little too much on a script, particularly at the start of the film, and therefore comes across as a little boring. He has a lot of historical information about the film, particularly about the casting of Cagney and Bogart, as well as the other actors. The commentary is definitely scene specific, and as the film progresses Hurst seems to loosen up and the anecdotes come a little more freely than at the start. He occasionally falls into the common commentary trap of describing the onscreen action, and he also repeats himself a bit. However, if you're interested in historical information about the film this is worth a listen.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The Region 4 disc seems to be identical to the Region 1 (which was released in January 2005), with the only exception being the languages and subtitles included. Even the menus are identical.

    The Region 4 version of this disc misses out on;

    The Region 1 version of this disc misses out on;     Since the Region 4 disc only misses out on the Spanish subtitles, and everything else seems to be identical, our disc is the one to go for.


    The Roaring Twenties is a classic gangster film from the late 1930s, and is justly famous as a masterpiece of the genre. This DVD is the treatment a great film like this deserves.

    The video quality is outstanding, and it is unlikely this film has been seen in such good condition for many decades.

    The audio quality is also outstanding - perfectly crisp and clear from start to finish.

    The extras are very enjoyable and well suited to the feature presentation. The "Warner Night at the Movies" format is a particularly nice way to enjoy the film.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Michael Cohen (read my bio)
Monday, September 26, 2005
Review Equipment
DVDPhilips 860, using RGB output
DisplaySony 76cm FD Trinitron WEGA KV-HX32 M31. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio Decoderbuilt in.

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