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I'll Drink to That! Prohibition in California and The Roaring Twenties

December 5, 2014

When Miller said earlier that The Roaring Twenties focuses on liquor, he sure was right! The subject of alcohol pervades the whole picture, starting right when George proclaims that he will return to his job at a saloon after the war, even though Prohibition is looming; they won’t be able to enforce the law, George believes, and plus, people will always want to drink.


While George was wrong about Prohibition being enforced, he got the drinking part right! The film employs several montage sequences to effectively show how the public and bootleggers consumed alcohol throughout the Prohibition era, particularly liquor. The first of these scenes occurs right after Eddie takes a job as a cabbie; Prohibition has been signed into law, but it hasn’t been enforced yet. Flashes of men stocking up on liquor and stumbling about begin the sequence, but they are replaced just as quickly with images of peep holes and back alley liquor deals. The film’s narrator explains to the audience that Prohibition saw the emergence of a criminal underworld that knew how to best take advantage of this new way to make boat loads of money. 

Stock up on that booze now!

Eddie, always the buffer between the hardened, violent George and the mild mannered Lloyd, naïvely becomes a pawn in the bootlegging business and is taken to jail for it. It’s fun to watch Jimmy Cagney play naïve for once, even if it’s only for a few sequences early on. Scene in point: Panama takes him to a speakeasy behind a paint store after she bails him out of jail. Eddie orders milk, and the bartender shoots him a look – are you kidding me?! When Panama asks if he usually orders milk at a speakeasy, he replies that he’s never been in one!

After Eddie orders milk in his first ever speakeasy, an officer of the law walks in and approaches a customer. Uh oh! 

Never mind. He's cool.

Well, that naïveté dissolves in record time when Panama offers to partner with Eddie in the bootlegging business, because she says liquor is about to explode and he looks like an honest guy. Contradiction, much? Just like that, Eddie’s journey into the underworld begins, and it’s a slippery slope. As the narrator of the next montage proclaims, Eddie’s joined the “criminal army,” a “marriage born of unpopular law and an unwilling public.” “Liquor is the password in this army,” and Prohibition has painted the bootlegger as a “modern hero and crusader who deals in bottles rather than battles.”


In this underworld, Eddie quickly ascends to the top of the ladder, and the second montage sequence highlights this. Eddie and other men are shown transporting and selling booze in clever ways, just as Miller exhibited to the audience earlier; in one quick scene, Eddie loads a secret compartment in the backseat of his taxi with bottles, and a doorman swoops in just as fast to discreetly unload them. 

The law vs the lawless...

Part of Miller’s presentation touched upon distilleries, and without fail, The Roaring Twenties covers this subject too when one of Eddie's suppliers hikes his prices. Between the economics and the insane demand – another montage showcases the apparent obsession with flasks in a rather racy bit that highlights the use of alcohol by those in high school and universities (usually connected to sex somehow) - he and Danny start producing bathtub gin. From there, they eventually come to run a pretty large assembly line where various spirits and even champagne are manufactured to sell at a premium. Of course, their booze is nowhere near the real thing, but the customers can’t seem to tell the difference! 

Bathtub gin. Literally.

Illegal liquor now available in mass quantities!

How to impress girls, the bootlegger edition: wow them with your illegal alcohol-making skills.

Though Eddie still shows his soft side with Jean and Panama - the former he’s in love with and the latter is in love with him - once he has his massive business both producing and selling booze, he takes a turn for the dictatorial. The next montage parallels this: as Prohibition wears on, it seems that a larger amount of people are turning to violence and murder. Now that George and Eddie are partners, Eddie comes across as more violent, perhaps prompted by George, though George is still the one who pulls the trigger when it comes to that. It’s that innate violence in George that ultimately breaks up the partnership with Lloyd too, who becomes uncomfortable after George kills a watchman. George is also the character who ultimately double crosses Eddie and threatens Lloyd, which brings about Eddie’s downfall.

Business partners with guns drawn? Not going to end well. 

The last montage of the movie focuses on the end of Prohibition. According to the voiceover, FDR was elected President partly because he wanted to abolish Prohibition. When the end comes, of course, that puts the criminal underworld in a tough position: now that alcohol is legal, there’s no need for the subversive element, and therefore bootleggers can’t make as much money as they did when beer and liquor were harder to come by. Thus, people who built their fortunes and livelihood off the trade, like Panama and Eddie, find themselves out of work: it’s over for them, Panama tells him; even the owner of the bar she now works in hits it home for Eddie when he tells the owner he used to run this town. “Yeah, well not anymore!” the man exclaims.


The fall of Prohibition affects George and Eddie very differently. We’re never really told what exactly George is up to now, but we can assume that he simply transitioned into another form of (probably) illegal activity. As for Eddie, he wasn’t able to move on so easily, and after he’s forced to sell off his cabs, he slips into the very vice that he so deftly hawked on the masses mere months before: booze. As Panama tells him frankly, there’s no place in this ‘new’ world for someone like him…or her. 

Though Prohibition is over, George seems to have settled comfortably into some new, unknown illegal activity, the apparent success of which he throws in Eddie's poor, out of work face when he asks George for a favor with his cab company. 

As we've seen, the film steadied its focus on how the criminal angle operated during Prohibition and how the financial allure of fake booze sold on the down low could seduce and destroy even a nice, honest chap like Eddie. Of course, inherently evil crooks like George, downright vicious characters who would have fallen into a life of crime in any time period, also share the spotlight. As George, Bogart locks his cold-blooded portrayal down within minutes of the film starting; when all three main characters are shooting from the trenches during the Great War and Lloyd can’t bring himself to kill his target because he couldn’t be more than 15 years old, Bogie doesn’t miss a beat: he calmly, almost joyously, levels his gun, aims, and shoots, nonchalantly adding with a smirk: “Well, he won’t be 16.” 


The New York Times review of The Roaring Twenties, penned by Frank S. Nugent, spent a good deal of time focusing on the film’s depiction of its subject. From a much shorter historical lens, the critique doesn't come across as kind:


As though it were not already the most thoroughly cinematized decade of our history, the Warners are presenting "The Roaring Twenties" (at the Strand) with the self-conscious air of an antiquarian preparing to translate a cuneiform record of a lost civilization. With a grandiloquent and egregiously sentimental foreword by Mark Hellinger, with employment of newsreel shots to lend documentary flavor, with a commentator's voice interpolating ultra-dramatic commonplaces as the film unreels, their melodrama has taken on an annoying pretentiousness...The dirty decade has served too many quickie quatrains to rate an epic handling now.


The rather haughty and harsh way in which the above review was composed sounds like it was written recently, not 75 years ago, but perhaps I'm more used to less grandiose prose by reviewers of the day. For example, the snippet of the Variety review I found merely praised the story, dialogue, directing, and acting, while tying the locales and characterizations to some real-life spots and people, such as the El Fay, Del Fey, and Texas Guinan. 

Wonder what this poster would have looked like just a year or two later after Bogart's popularity started soaring...

In Variety's analysis of the film, the gangster theme and presence of Cagney reminded the reviewer of The Public Enemy (1931). Besides major plot differences, the films differ in another big way pertaining to the subject of the evening: The Public Enemy was produced during Prohibition, while The Roaring Twenties came out six years after Prohibition's repeal. With its first hand depiction of the age and its frank (and very dramatic) representation of the era's implications for bootleggers and the criminal kind, The Roaring Twenties has certainly earned its reputation as one of the greatest Prohibition flicks.   



How to celebrate Repeal Day with Cagney and Bogie:

Grab an Old Fashioned at your local watering hole or whip one up at home and pop in The Roaring Twenties on DVD.  If you don't happen to own the DVD, fear not: the movie is available on Amazon Instant, which means there's no excuse for missing out on all the illegal 1920s antics of Eddie and George today!     

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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