The Roaring Twenties

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Synopsis

Ripped from the headlines of the turbulent era between the Great War and the Great Depression, this dynamic, nostalgia-tinged crime drama balances tommy-gun action with epic historical sweep. Legends James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart star as army buddies whose fortunes rise and fall as their fates intersect, first in a foxhole on the front lines of World War I, then in Manhattan’s Prohibition-era underworld. Directed by Hollywood master Raoul Walsh, and based on a story by prolific journalist turned screenwriter and producer Mark Hellinger, The Roaring Twenties brought to a close the celebrated Warner Bros. gangster cycle of the 1930s, and it remains one of the greatest and most influential crime films of all time.

Picture 9/10

The Criterion Collection presents Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition encode has been sourced from a new 4K restoration scanned from the original negative with a safety fine-grain filling in where needed. I am working from the disc included with Criterion’s 4K UHD edition, but outside of missing the 4K disc, the releases are the same.

The base 4K restoration is impressive, cleaning up the film significantly compared to Warner’s previous DVD presentation, with only a few stray bits of dirt and such here and there. The jump between the negative film elements and fine grain can be a bit obvious as the image becomes a bit fuzzier compared to most of the presentation, with contrast being a little more limited and leading to a slightly darker image.

Outside of those moments, the image is otherwise spotless and sharp, with surprising detail. Even the finer patterns and textures are rendered cleanly. The encode is rather good, rendering the grain very well without it ever looking like noise. Grayscale is also very wide (at least where the original negative elements are used), and they blend cleanly, leading to a nice photographic appearance. Black levels are rich and deep, and shadow detail is still great.

Though I would still steer everyone to the 4K edition, the Blu-ray delivers a beautiful presentation.

Audio 7/10

The film’s monaural soundtrack is presented in lossless single-channel PCM. It shows its age in a few respects, but the audio is otherwise clean and free of distortion and damage. Dialogue sounds sharp and clear with solid fidelity and depth, while music shows a modest amount of range without coming off screechy in the higher ranges.

Extras 7/10

Criterion includes a few supplements, starting with an audio commentary by film historian Lincoln Hurst, recorded originally for Warner’s 2005 edition. Though he admits early on that the material can be a little hammy, he feels the film has been overlooked compared to Warner’s other gangster films of the period, like The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, and so on. On top of discussing it in the context of that period in the studio's history and as a gangster film, he approaches it as a period piece as well, commenting on how the film, released in 1939, captures the twenties with a sense of nostalgia and how it portrays the effects of prohibition. He even brings up the numerous films influenced by it, including the gangster spoof Johnny Dangerously (“My father hung me on a hook once. Once!”). This also segues into discussions about the cast (like the then up-and-coming Humphrey Bogart) and the improvisations that came into play for some of the film’s more memorable moments. Hurst also talks a little about the film’s impressive effects shots done by future director Byron Haskin, including a relatively cool one where it appears Wall Street melts during a montage about Black Tuesday. It’s a comprehensive track covering the film’s background, stars, director, and legacy. It’s worth listening to if one hasn’t done so yet.

Disappointingly, none of the shorts or cartoons get ported over from the DVD (not surprising), though the film’s original trailer does show up. Criterion at least includes a 4-minute excerpt from a 1973 episode of The Men Who Made the Movies, featuring director Raoul Walsh talking about the film and its two stars. There’s also a new 22-minute interview with critic Gary Giddins, who also pushes the need for a reexamination. Ultimately, Giddins expands on Hurst’s track, talking more about the film’s ad-libbing, suggesting the improvisations were far more extensive than what Hurst suggested before getting a bit more into the film’s editing, pacing, and other technical attributes.

It's an excellent academic addition, though I’m disappointed that this is the only new feature to be added. I would have expected more around Warner’s gangster films of the period or maybe even something that got a bit more into the film’s editing and effects work (something from Craig Barron would have been great). An essay by Mark Asch, found in the included insert, at least looks at the film in the context of closing out that period in Warner’s history on top of how Walsh captures the period depicted in the movie.

In the end, the material is all well and good; I’m just a bit surprised the opportunity wasn’t taken to explore Warner’s wave of gangster films during the period.

Closing

I would have expected more from the supplements but the high-def presentation delivers a considerable improvement over Warner's previous DVD edition.

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Directed by: Raoul Walsh
Year: 1939
Time: 106 min.
 
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 1208
Licensor: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Release Date: February 27 2024
MSRP: $39.95
 
Blu-ray
1 Disc | BD-50
1.37:1 ratio
English 1.0 PCM Mono
Subtitles: English
Region A
 
 Audio commentary with film historian Lincoln Hurst   New interview with critic Gary Giddins   Excerpt from a 1973 interview with director Raoul Walsh   Trailer   An essay by film critic Mark Asch