The Roaring Twenties, released 23 October 1939, is based on Mark Hellinger’s autobiographical short story “The World Moves On.” It ties with White Heat as my favourite Cagney film. Every single second is made of awesomeness.
During WWI, Eddie Bartlett (Cagney), George Hally (Bogart), and Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn) meet in a foxhole, become friends, and dream about what they’ll do with their lives if the war ever ends.
In 1919, the three of them finally come home. Lloyd starts a law practice, George becomes a bootlegger, and Eddie embarks on a long, painful search for work after finding his old garage mechanic job taken.
Eddie’s roommate Danny Green (Frank McHugh) suggests he become a cabbie, an offer Eddie is compelled into taking out of desperation. Before he starts working, however, Danny drives Eddie to meet his pretty penpal Jean Sherman in Mineola, Long Island. They go in Danny’s own cab.
Eddie is shocked to discover Jean (Priscilla Lane) is just a high school girl, and that the photo she gave him was herself in costume for a school play. He smartly takes his leave, much to Jean’s disappointment.
That June, the 19th Amendment is ratified, leading to the ban of alcohol. Eddie soon finds himself in trouble for unknowingly delivering liquor to Panama Smith (Gladys George) in his cab. He hasn’t $100 to pay the fine, so he chooses to serve sixty days in jail.
After Eddie’s release from jail, Panama invites him to go into business with her. Bootlegging soon earns Eddie a very comfortable living. Lloyd becomes his lawyer, despite moral qualms.
Eddie encounters Jean performing at a speakeasy in 1922, and the tables are turned when Jean rebuffs him this time. Eventually she agrees to travel home to Mineola on the late night train with Eddie.
Eddie walks her to her house and discovers she lives there alone since the death of her mother. To save Jean from homelessness and destitution, and to help her to realise her dream of becoming a musical comedy star, Eddie finagles her into a singing job at Panama’s speakeasy, for $100 a week.
Panama is stunned when Eddie shows her an engagement ring he bought for Jean. She points out Eddie’s more suited to dames like herself than innocent girls next door like Jean, and doesn’t understand what Eddie sees in her.
Jean is just as floored when Eddie presents her with the ring. She likes him, but not the racket he’s involved in. Eddie responds by asking her to hold onto the ring till he saves enough dough to quit bootlegging.
Eddie crosses paths with his old pal George again while hijacking rival bootlegger Nick Brown’s liquor ship. George agrees to leave Nick and come to work for Eddie.
In 1924, Eddie and George conduct a heist of one of Nick’s warehouses. On their way out, George recognises a watchman as their former sergeant who made their lives miserable. Without taking much time to reflect, George kills him.
Lloyd’s conscience can bear no more of this dirty business when he discovers what happened. George says he’ll kill Lloyd too if he squeals on them.
Then everyone begins double-crossing one another, and the body count climbs. In the midst of all this, Lloyd also steals Jean from Eddie.
Eddie’s misfortunes increase when the Stock Market crashes, and he begins drinking for the first time.
Will Eddie be able to break free of crime and alcoholism in time to redeem himself?