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June 01, 2009

King of the Roaring 20s

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Joseph M. Newman - 1961
Warner Archives DVD

David Janssen hardly looked like the real Arnold Rothstein. One isn't going to view King of the Roaring 20s: The Story of Arnold Rothstein for much in the way of historical accuracy. This is a film to watch primarily for the cast generously stuffed with memorable character actors. Veracity matters less when Jack Carson, Mickey Rooney, William Demarest, Diana Dors show up for their few minutes of screen time. Maybe a truer film about Arnold Rothstein will be made. In the meantime, this film will do, as the entertaining story of the rise and fall of a gangster with the same name.

I haven't read the book by Leo Katcher that provided the basis for the film. The film marked screenwriter Jo Swerling's second whack at Rothstein, the first via Damon Runyon with the character of Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls. The other telling compromise is that this is the story of a Jewish gangster that dares not speak its name. In her book, The Jew in American Cinema, Patricia Erens would note the existence of Jewish groups that pressured Hollywood to essentially censor this aspect of Jewish-American history. The clues are with the casting of Joseph Schildkraut as father Abraham Rothstein, and a couple of discussion about "our faith", without being specific. The biggest error may be in glossing over why Rothstein was important in the history of organized crime, and the extent of his power and ties with other mobsters. In King of the Roaring 20s, the impression is that Arnold Rothstein was simply a gambler who for a time was extremely lucky.

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The film story seems to have been borrowed from the Warner Brothers template, even less surprising considering that one of the producers, Samuel Bischoff was one of the staff producers at Warners. One of Bischoff's credits was as Associate Producer for Raoul Walsh's The Roaring Twenties which stands as one of the classics of the genre. There was a resurgence in interest in the era in the early Sixties so that not only was there a television show that shared the title of Walsh's film (though nothing else), as well as a slew of moderately budgeted films.

The film begins with teenage Arnold Rothstein and his pal, Johnny Burke, busted by the neighborhood cop for organizing gambling out in the streets of New York City. Rothstein promises Burke that they'll be friends and partners forever. Anyone who can't guess where this is heading probably has never seen a movie, or at least not one with James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart (or both). The street cop, complete with Irish brogue, played by Dan O'Herlihy, rises in the ranks, while his take from the underworld increases. Rothstein and Burke grow up to be Janssen and Mickey Rooney. The friendship is forgotten when Rothstein starts working for Tim O'Brien, a politically connected operator with friends in Tammany Hall. O'Brien is played by Jack Carson in his last big screen performance. Carson's performance might be said to be a variation on the snake oil salesman some of us have loved in the past, albeit one with higher financial stakes and deadly consequences for those who cross him.

Joseph Newman primarily employs any visual flourish in conjunction with Rooney. Early on, dismissed by Janssen, Rooney's shortness is emphasized as he finds himself bumping into people and being summarily disregarded by the crowds. In a later scene, Rooney emerges from the shadows to for a near fatal meeting with O'Herlihy. Rooney is restrained, downbeat. As if to recall the live wire kid who was a star at MGM twenty years earlier, is the final glimpse of Rooney defiantly yelling at the gangsters he knows will shoot him down.

In it's initial New York City run, King of the Roaring 20s played second bill to Angel Baby. What cult interest has since developed could primarily be credited to Andrew Sarris who cited the film for the performances by janssen, Rooney and Carson. The film is not quite as good as I remember. The King of the Roaring 20s might best be described not as a classic gangster film but a filmed memory of classic gangster films.

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Posted by peter at June 1, 2009 12:54 AM