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.
This film started a nostalgia craze. Disc 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.
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).
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.
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".
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.
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, 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 Fay told the doorman at the club that his pay was going to be reduced, the doorman pulled a revolver and shot him 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.
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."
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.
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.
Cagney's character was also partially based on Moe Snyder, who used his muscle and influence to promote singer Ruth Etting. Cagney would portray the real Snyder in the 1955 film Love Me or Leave Me opposite Doris Day.
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 judge in this film is played by character actor John Hamilton. Mr Hamilton found fame towards the end of his life on television as newspaper editor 'Perry White' in "The Adventures of Superman", co-starring with George Reeves. Racked by problems associated with alcoholism, Mr Hamilton passed away on October 15, 1958, aged 71. The late Jack Larson, who played cub reporter ' Jimmy Olsen', found Hamilton a fascinating character, full of stories relating to his past career both on stage and in films. Larson always referred to him as 'Mr. hamilton', and had enormous respect for him. He died shortly after filming the final episode of 'Superman's sixth season. Plans were afoot for a seventh season, but his death threw the plans into disarray. The final episode marked not only Mr Hamilton's final appearance on celluloid, but also the star of the show, George Reeves, who died of a gunshot wound to the head on June 16, 1959.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
While Eddie Bartlett's life is based on gangster Larry Fay, his death scene in the film was inspired by the death of Hymie Weiss, a Chicago gangster who was shot and killed on the steps of that city's Holy Name Cathedral.