Based on the life and career of bootlegger Larry Fay. Unlike James Cagney's Eddie Bartlett, however, Fay stood 6'3" and was long-jawed and gangly. Also, Larry Fay died on New Year's Day of 1932. Dwindling finances had forced him to cut costs at his New York nightclub, the El Fay; after telling the doorman at the club that his pay was going to be reduced, the doorman pulled a revolver and shot Fay four times. He collapsed backward onto a sofa and died. The character of Panama Smith was partially based on actress and nightclub hostess Texas Guinan, who was Larry Fay's partner and hostess in the El-Fay.
This film started a nostalgia craze. Disk jockeys began to run Roaring Twenties music. Producer Mark Hellinger was an important guest on singer Bing Crosby's Kraft Music Hall radio show and singer Kate Smith promoted the film on all of her radio programs. Both Life and Look magazines published "Roaring Twenties" layouts.
On the night of the premiere, producer Mark Hellinger received a telegram to help calm his nerves. The telegram read: "From all the wonderful things I hear of 'The Roaring Twenties', I don't need to wish you good luck. Hope you don't suffer too much. Joan Crawford.
James Cagney's character is introduced while the soundtrack is playing the song "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" - the same song that is playing at the end of his star-making film, The Public Enemy (1931) (made eight years earlier and also set in the 1920s), when his corpse is delivered to his family's home.
In an earlier crime film, Lights of New York (1928), the term "Roaring Forties" is used to describe the "fast lane" Times Square area of New York City. At the end of that film, a police officer says to the lead character, "Leave the roaring forties to roar without you". In Tin Pan Alley (1940), set at the turn of the 20th century, the term "The Roaring Forties" is then used to describe the area of the famous songwriting capital, in New York City, known as "Tin Pan Alley". "The Roaring Twenties" became a common term to describe an entire decade, with the popularity of this 1939 James Cagney / Humphrey Bogart classic.
A montage features a shot of gangsters bombing a storefront. This shot is actually an alternate angle of the bombing of a store in The Public Enemy (1931), and the same shot is notably also used in a similar montage for Angels with Dirty Faces (1938).
Critics unanimously praised this film. James Francis Crow of the Hollywood Citizen-News opened his review with "This is not just another Warner Brothers gang war drama ..." Sidney Skolsky wrote: "A great hunk of entertainment ..." The Hollywood Reporter said: "The pace is furious ..." Boxoffice wrote: "It will roar its way across showmen's ledgers leaving a trail of black figures and satisfied customers."
The New York Times' cast list includes Max Wagner playing "Lefty," but the only Lefty in the cast was played by Abner Biberman, although he is credited onscreen only as "Henchman." Wagner may not have been in the film. There were two characters referred to as "Lefty", one was George's henchman and the other was seen and called by name in the Panama Club when Eddie returned from the killing of Nick Brown.
During a late Saturday-night airing of this film in New York city on Channel 4, during July 1957, the story began with Eddie (James Cagney) taking Jean (Priscilla Lane) for an audition at the nightclub. Over half of the film had been cut. It turned out that cuts made previously to facilitate the showing of the film for a daytime telecast of 75 minutes, less commercials, were unable to be restored in time for this late-night showing. The film was not shown again on New York City TV in its entirety until 1960, and then on another channel.
Mark Hellinger was relatively new on staff at Warner Brothers and had been given various "B"-picture writing and producing assignments. According to "The Mark Hellinger Story" by Jim Bishop, after initially reading Hellinger's story for this film, studio boss Jack L. Warner and production chief Hal B. Wallis became so excited that they considered the project too good for Hellinger to produce. Wallis became Executive Producer and told Hellinger he would give him the title of Associate Producer. It wasn't until after the film was released that Hellinger saw that screen credit for Associate Producer had gone to Samuel Bischoff. It didn't matter to Hellinger, however, as the film was unanimously praised by critics and was a financial success.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
At the end of the film, as Eddie (James Cagney) is lying dead on the stairs of a church after having been shot, his head cradled in the arms of Panama Smith (Gladys George), a police officer asks her, "What was his business?". She answers, "He used to be a big shot", the last line in the film. This his been ranked by the American Film Institute (AFI) and others as the #1 last line of a gangster movie.
While Eddie Bartlett's life is based on gangster Larry Fay, his death scene in the film was inspired by the death of Earl "Hymie" Weiss, who was shot and killed on the steps of Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral.