Movie Reviews - 1940s posts
Wednesday July 08, 2020
Movie Review: The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)
James Cagney and Bette Davis were the stars that made the most trouble for Warner Bros. during the studio era. Cagney wanted more money, Davis wanted better roles, and both felt Jack Warner didn’t know jack. In his book “Warner Bros.: The Making of an American Movie Studio,” film historian David Thomson attempts to thread the contretemps:
Bette was looking for a battle, whether she could know that, or admit it. At any other studio, she would have become a problem, because her angry eyes needed to feel she was embattled and scorned. There are artistic spirits that can be crushed by kindness and understanding.
As for Cagney, his own track record wasn't stellar. After the classic Warner Bros. film “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (best picture, best actor), he was finally free of his contract, and he and his brother William promptly produced two war movies at the end of the war (when everyone was tired of the war), and “The Time of Your Life,” based on the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play by William Saroyan. Prestige! Importance! Cagney plays “Joseph T. (who observes people).” Yes, that’s his character name. The movie bombed so badly that Cagney was forced to return to Warners, which promptly put him into another classic, “White Heat,” and the gangster role he was always running from.
So maybe Warners knew a little something.
Was “The Bride Came C.O.D.” a kind of punishment for both of its unruly stars? Cagney was afraid of flying yet Warners kept casting him as a pilot. This is his third of four goes in the cockpit between 1935 and 1942. Meanwhile, Davis spends half the picture landing ass-first on cacti. “We both reached bottom with this one,” Davis writes, probably punnily, in her autobiography.
But it’s not that bad. Davis in particular is good, and surprisingly sexy, as the frivolous, combative daughter of a wealthy oil man who runs off to marry a bandleader/singer after knowing him only four days. The supporting cast—led by Jack Carson as Allen Brice, and Harry Davenport as Pop Tolliver—is about perfect.
Cagney’s the problem. He’s not as trim as he used to be and he lands too hard on jokes that need a soft touch. Was he not made for comedy? Or love stories? Here’s Thomson again on Cagney’s appeal:
He was Irish—he was a gentle, quiet guy in life and a family man—but he photographed like a featherweight devil, full of violent urges and sniping back talk. He was dangerous on screen; it was what he had instead of sex. He might kill anyone, devour an actress, or turn into a dancing machine. No one had ever moved like Cagney, or seemed such a feral, animated figure.
What do you call a feral figure in a screwball comedy? Misplaced, maybe.
Back and forthy
The movie opens with a nationally known gossip columnist, Tommy Keenan (Stuart Erwin), literally ambulance-chasing for a story for his upcoming broadcast. Even the scoop by blithely vain bandleader Allen Brice (Carson, brilliant) that he plans to marry oil heiress Joan Winfield (Davis) won’t help. That’s three days away, and Brice has been married before, so who cares? But wait! If they elope to Vegas? Now that’s entertainment.
But Winfield’s dad, the recent oil millionaire Lucius K. (Eugene Pallette), strenuously objects, which is probably one reason why it’s so appealing to Joan. It’s classic Bette: I’m going to do what you don’t want me to. The plan is to charter a plane to Vegas, Keenan will be aboard, he’ll get his scoop. Except the plane belongs to Steve Collins (Cagney), he owes $1,000, so he makes a deal with the dad to deliver his daughter without the fiancé. $10 per pound, cash on delivery.
Yeah, it’s a little “It Happened One Night”: engaged heiress battles her rich father, who’s against the wedding, but on the road she falls in love with rascally working man.
I love Davis’ reaction when he tells her she’s been kidnapped. Kidnapped, she says, intrigued. One can see her imagining the headlines and just the scandal of it all. We get the following Q&A:
- “Have you got a mob?” “No, they call me The Solo Kid.”
- “I suppose you’re taking me to your hideout.” [Almost Bogart-esque]: “You said it, babe.”
- “Have you always been a criminal?” “Oh no, ma’am. I used to be a boy scout.”
- “How much are you asking for me?” “I’m just a beginner. I’m only asking for carrying charges.”
Could his lines have been better here? The screenwriters are the Epstein brothers, Jules and Philip, who would pen “Casablanca” a year later, so it’s not like they suck at this. The director is William Keighley, who directed his share of so-so Cagneys: from “Picture Snatcher” to “The Fighting 69th.” This is his last with Jimmy. He made a few more before supervising the First Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Air Force during the war.
Once Joan realizes it’s not a scandalous kidnapping but her father’s powerful arm trying to rein her in, she grabs a parachute to jump from the plane. Except Steve knows it’s not a parachute so he keeps tilting the plane to keep her in. One too many times and the plane sputters and crash-lands in the desert. Luckily it’s near the former gold mining town of Bonanza. Unluckily, it’s deserted. Luckily, there’s one man remaining, Pop Tolliver (Davenport, charming), who lives in the deserted hotel.
The movie’s basically this kind of back-and-forth, and it might get a little too back-and-forthy. Steve claims they’re a honeymooning couple and Pop won’t believe Joan’s pleadings that she’s been kidnapped until the news comes over his radio. (The media frenzy montage is great.) Now Pop won’t believe Steve’s declaration that he was simply returning daughter to father. Instead, Pop nearly shoots his head off and locks him in the local jail. Joan attempts to signal search planes with a mirror (“They’re looking for me! Isn’t it wonderful? I feel so terribly important!”), and Steve’s attempts to foil her by shooting a pebble via a rubber band from the jail cell. It's that kind of silly. But they’re spied, and it’s a race between fiancé and father to get to Bonanza first. In the meantime, on the radio, the truth of Steve’s declarations are revealed, so Steve is sprung and Joan is jailed. She gets out, he chases her into a mine, which she collapses. Etc.
The first to arrive is neither father nor fiancé but LA’s Sheriff McGee (William Frawley, in his second Cagney feature). By this point, Pop is part of Steve’s scheme to delay the wedding so he can collect the money, and Pop puts off the sheriff with Maine-like stoicism:
McGee: How’s business?
Tolliver: About the same.
McGee: Same as what?
Tolliver: About the same as usual.
The mine scene isn’t bad. She suspects they’ll die; he finds a way out via Pop’s food-laden storage cellar, eats his fill, returns but doesn’t tell her. By this point, they’re canoodling and eventually they kiss. Five seconds in, her eyes widen, she leaps to her feet and shouts “Mustard!” Great moment.
We get more screwball antics for the wedding. Is Bonanza in California or Nevada? (Pronounced Ne-VAY-de by Pops.) Which minister will work? Steve challenges the groom to a fight and gets clobbered by the good-natured Brice. (It’s fun seeing Cagney lose a fight for a change.) Steve’s schemes are all about getting the C.O.D. money but all the while Joan is falling for him. The final scene is their honeymoon, back in Bonanza. Hold the mustard.
Again, a lot of the elements are there for a classic. The miscast, sadly, is Cagney. Put Gable in the role and you see things maybe falling into place.
Tuesday June 16, 2020
Movie Review: The Letter (1940)
“So what do you think happens?” I asked my wife as both of us were watching “The Letter” for the first time. “Does she get away with it?” I assumed I knew the answer: 1940, Production Code, murder. Nope.
Confession: Bette Davis movies are one of the big gaps in my film studies. If she’s with Cagney or Bogart, sure, and I own “All About Eve,” but the women-centered pictures she made in the late ’30s and early ’40s, and which Carol Burnett parodied so often and seemingly so well on her variety show, I’ve never gotten around to. Trying to rectify that.
Another confession: I can’t even look at the title of this movie without think of Carol saying “Give me the lettah!” I couldn’t find that skit online but the search did make me realize the bit didn’t originate with Carol. “Petah, give me the lettah” was such a common Davis impersonation that Davis herself sent it up with Jack Paar in 1962. Like many of the classic imitations—“You dirty rat,” “Play it again, Sam,” “Judy Judy Judy”—it's a line the actor never said.
Third confession? I was a bit disappointed in “The Letter.” It’s directed by a great, William Wyler, from a play by a great, W. Somerset Maugham, and garnered seven Oscar nominations—including picture, director, actress, supporting actor, editing, cinematography. It’s got a good opening scene, too. The rest is a slog. It’s pure melodrama. Not to mention tinged with the racism of the day.
Apparently it’s based on a true story, the 1911 Ethel Proudlock case, which caused a scandal in British-run Malaysia, and which Maugham turned into a short story and then a play in the 1920s. The highlighted portion of this Wikipedia description of the crime is almost the beginning of “The Letter” exactly:
On the evening of 23 April 1911, she was alone in the VI headmaster's bungalow while her husband dined with a fellow teacher. In the course of that evening, she shot dead William Steward, a mine manager. Steward had visited her by rickshaw and had told the rickshaw boy to wait outside. Shortly afterwards, the boy heard two shots and saw Steward stumble out of the house across the veranda followed by Proudlock carrying a revolver, who then emptied the remaining four bullets into him.
In the movie, it’s Leslie Crosbie (Davis), who empties the gun into Geoff Hammond (David Newell), in the middle of a hot, steamy night, while Chinese and Malay servants silently gather. Leslie stares with a kind of dread at the moon, and a servant stares with a kind of dread at her lacemaking; and then her husband, Robert (Herbert Marshall), a police inspector (Bruce Lester) and a lawyer, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson), all arrive to hear her story.
We know she did it so there’s no tension there. After she tells her side of it—admirably without flashbacks—we seemingly know why she did it: Hammond got drunk and tried to take advantage. Joyce, her lawyer, thinks she’ll be acquitted soon enough.
Ah, but then the lettah.
It’s brought to the attention of Joyce by his assistant, Ong (Victor Sen Yung, Hop Sing on “Bonanza”), who, throughout, is both ingratiating and vaguely threatening. The letter Joyce sees is a copy—meaning hand-copied—and it’s from Leslie to Geoff on the night of the murder asking him to come by the estate. When Joyce asks Leslie about it, she says, yes, in the horror she forgot about that, but she only wanted to ask him about birthday-present ideas for her husband. Joyce says the letter implies more. It does. It implies they were lovers. Ong tells Joyce the original is in the hands of Hammond’s Chinese widow (Gale Sondergaard, playing ethnic again), a Dragon Lady type who lives in the Chinese district, and can be had for a price: $10,000. Joyce balks. It’s unethical! It could get him disbarred! But Ong keeps insinuating himself, the letter, and the money, into the conversation.
I never really bought Joyce’s turnaround on the ethics of it all: from “No way!” to jumping through all those hoops to make it happen. Once they agree to the $10k, Mrs. Hammond makes an extra demand: Leslie has to deliver the money herself. She does, with Joyce, riding a big car through narrow Chinatown streets. The two wind up in the Opium Den of the perpetually smiling and vaguely threatening Chung Hi (Willie Fung), where Leslie examines an ornate knife before Mrs. Hammond makes her arrival through beaded curtains. I assumed Leslie would try to use the knife. Otherwise why show it? Right, because of the Chekhovian adage; it shows up in the third act.
I think I would’ve liked this face-to-face more if Warners had cast a Chinese woman in the role. Here, it’s pretty one-note: the widow stares down imperiously from a top step, bristling with anger, while Ong translates slowly and Chung Hi laughs inappropriately. The widow keeps upping her demands. Mrs. Crosbie has to remove her veil. Mrs. Crosbie has to walk over. Mrs. Crosbie has to pick up the letter off the floor when the widow drops it on the ground. It’s a long elaborate ritual that delivers not much.
The widow and the servant
So the letter is bought, the trial occurs, Joyce is conflicted but performs his duties, and the jury exonerates Leslie after less than an hour. But she can’t exonerate herself. (Plus Production Code.) On another moonlit night, she confesses to her husband that she loved Hammond and still loves him; that she killed him because he was leaving her. Afterwards, led by sounds, and by the appearance/disappearance of the ornate knife, she wanders outside the gates, where Mrs. Hammond is standing, bristling with anger. Wait, it’s not just Mrs. Hammond but Leslie’s own servant? Who muffles her screams while the widow takes the dagger and stabs her? Why did he get involved? Was it the lacemaking. Is it part of the movie’s overt/covert racism? You can’t trust any of them.
I don’t know about the play, but in the 1929 movie version, made before the Production Code had teeth, Leslie doesn't die; her husband simply keeps her on the plantation “as punishment”—I guess because he’s broke so there are no servants. By 1940 this wasn’t enough. The widow and servant can’t get away with it, either, so after they do the deed they turn and, whoops, there’s a cop. A little too neatly tied up, Warners. I like the camerawork anyway: panning from Leslie’s body outside the gate to the party still happening in the house. But then we have to have the moon again. “The Letter” is too much that: moon and melodrama.
I’m curious if Mrs. Hammond got a trial? Or if Joyce was ever disbarred? So many loose ends. I’m mostly interested in the marginal figures. Did Ong buy a bigger car? (His teeny car is a sight gag in the movie.) Did he fight the Japanese, who occupied Malaysia for three years during the war? Did he fight the British afterwards? Independence was finally declared on August 31, 1957. I know so little of it all.
Tuesday June 09, 2020
Movie Review: They Drive By Night (1940)
This is an historic movie. Most people don’t know that.
No, it wasn’t acclaimed at the time, garnering no film awards or even nominations. I doubt it did any kind of boffo box office. And the storyline is muddled. The first half is about two brothers, Joe and Paul Fabrini (George Raft and Humphrey Bogart), wildcat truckers struggling to survive in a tough, bottom-line world. The second half is about the screwy dame (Ida Lupino) who has such a thing for Joe that she kills her husband (Alan Hale) to give him an opening. Which Joe doesn’t take. So she pins the murder on him.
So why should we consider it historic? Because Bogart's next movie was “High Sierra,” and one after that he did “The Maltese Falcon,” and three after that he was cast in “Casablanca.” He’s fourth-billed here but afterwards he’ll always be the lead. He'll become the biggest Hollywood star of the 1940s and at the end of the century the American Film Institute will vote him the greatest male movie star of all time.
And he owes it all to his co-star on this one.
That’s well-known, right? That George Raft kept turning down the roles that made Bogie Bogie? Raft was offered “High Sierra” but didn’t want to die in the end. He turned down “Maltese Falcon” because he didn’t think it was an important picture. He even turned down “Casablanca.” By the end of that one, Raft was no longer the star; he was the asterisk.
In this one, he’s the star. The Fabrini brothers begin this thing on the road, exhausted, in hock, and one step ahead of the creditors. After a mishap, Joe winds up at a roadside café where one guy, Irish (Roscoe Karns), is stuck at a pinball machine because he keeps winning, and where the rest of the guys are making eyes at the waitress, Cassie (Ann Sheridan, the “oomph” girl), who takes no crap.
Paul, perpetually sleepy, wouldn’t mind getting off the road for good. It’s not just the long hours; he’s got a wife who wants kids, who wants a family, and who wants him home. But Joe’s got a dream of turning this haul into that profit, and that haul into another, until they own a whole fleet of trucks, see? So he keeps pushing. And suddenly they’re doing kinda OK. They buy a load of lemons and sell them for several times their value. They pay off the truck and are on their way. But at gas station, the same gas station they always seem to wind up at, the attendant wonders why Joe is always driving while Paul is always asleep. That doesn’t seem right to him. Joe suddenly cares what somebody else thinks—this gas station attendant, of all people—so he and Paul switch places. Ah, but Paul, sad Paul, forever sleepy Paul, falls asleep at the wheel and goes into a ravine. Joe is thrown clear. The brothers lose the rig and Paul loses his right arm.
That sets up our second half. Without Paul, Joe finally agrees to get off the road and take a job with his friend Ed Carlsen (Hale), a former trucker who now owns the proverbial fleet. He also has a slim, perpetually scowling wife, Lana (Lupino), whose every cutting remark Ed laughs off. He doesn’t see that she has eyes for Joe, nor how uncomfortable it makes Joe—who is with Cassie now. Ed doesn’t see the danger.
We do. At a party, Ed gets drunk, a disgusted Lana drives him home, and in the garage, staring at him asleep in the passenger seat, she gets an idea: a wonderful, horrible, awful idea. With the motor still running, she slowly eases herself out of the car and onto the driveway and past the censor that automatically closes the garage door—new tech which Ed proudly showed off earlier in the movie. And as the music wells, those doors close onto Ed like a tomb. Next scene, she’s tearfully explaining to the police how Ed must’ve driven himself home and… Sob!
I assumed the censor would be the clue that nails her—since how could the garage doors close unless someone walked past it—and it is, but not that way. It’s the blood stain for her Lady Macbeth. Anytime she sees a censor, she panics, and relives her crime. At Joe’s murder trial, she breaks down on the stand. There’s not even any suspense to it. She’s a state’s witness but she cracks without effort.
Stuff dreams are made of
After all that, Joe wants to leave Ed’s company but none of the rest of the guys are having it. So he stays on as president, with Paul by his side. They finally have their fleet of trucks, and good women at their sides. Yay.
None of it really works. Sometimes that happens no matter the talent involve. So you regroup and try again. Director Raoul Walsh regrouped and made “High Sierra” with Bogart. Then he regrouped again and made “Manpower” with George Raft and Edward G. Robinson as friends on an LA power-company road crew who compete for Marlene Dietrich. You get why Raft went that route. Him and Robinson and Dietrich? Seems like a winner. Makes way more sense than working with that rookie director who’s trying yet another version—the third version in 10 years!—of Dashiell Hammett’s silly novel about a black bird.
Tuesday May 12, 2020
Movie Review: Captains of the Clouds (1942)
Here’s some things James Cagney’s character, Brian MacLean, a hot-shot Canadian bush pilot, does in this movie:
- He steals clients from fellow pilots
- He steals the fiancée of a fellow pilot
- He causes serious injury to a young Royal Canadian Air Force pilot
- His suggestion to buzz the RCAF graduation ceremony causes his friend to die
That’s our hero.
I normally like Cagney but there’s very little to like about Brian MacLean. I like Cagney’s gangsters—the guys who kill people with a sneer—better than I like this guy. Is that true for most of Cagney's roles? His gangsters may break the law, but they have a code. Tom Powers, for example, who exploded onto the gangster movie scene in “The Public Enemy,” refused to sleep with his friend Paddy’s wife when she makes a pass. MacLean? He’d be all over that. Same with a lot of his other legit characters. Maybe there's a correlation there. If you break the law, you‘re still looking for some kind of boundaries; that’s your code. If you don't break the law, well, those are your boundaries. Do what you will within those. Codeless.
‘She’s not worth the following’
“Captains of the Clouds” is two movies. 1) Pilots struggle against each other in the Canadian bush; then 2) they struggle to join the RCAF after September 1, 1939. Both stories have problems. The second half is understandably heavy on patriotism: men in formation, planes in formation, etc. It can get a little dull. The first half, meanwhile, disses the girl to save the lead.
It begins well. One pilot after another lands in another beautiful, pristine Canadian location to bring goods and pick up deliveries, only to be told, nope, Brian MacLean beat you to it. And he’s doing it cheaper than you, too! After bitching and commiserating in a stopover diner, three of the pilots—handsome Johnny Dutton (Dennis Morgan), comic relief Blimp Lebec (George Tobias, playing French Canadian), and comic relief “Tiny” Murphy (Alan Hale, playing Alan Hale)—decide to go after him.
I always liked these kinds of opens: Where you keep hearing about the lead character before seeing the lead character. It was particularly effective in “Casablanca” with Bogie. Less so here. Cagney’s getting a paunch and for the first time he’s filmed in Technicolor. Was any actor better made for black and white? Plus, per above, he’s a bit of an asshole.
You know who was made for Technicolor? Brenda Marshall (nee Ardis Ankerson). We first see her at Lac Vert rushing up to the camera, all red hair and flaming red lips, breathless and excited on the dock. You watch her and wonder, “Wow. How did she not become a bigger star?”
Maybe because the characters she plays are so uneven? At first, Emily seems feisty. She’s expecting Johnny Dutton, her fiancé, and gets MacLean, who tosses heavy bags at her while flirting with a sneer. Then she warms to him—way too fast. He’s basically a lout but she finds him charming. That idiocy. If the MacLean role had gone to Clark Gable or Errol Flynn, I could see it. But Cagney? I mean, I love ya, kid, but c’mon.
Our three bushers eventually find MacLean, who engages in a high-flying game of chicken and leaves them in the dust. Later, at Lac Vert, unloading again, engaging in more feisty back-and-forth with Emily, MacLean is hit by his plane’s propeller and goes in the lac. Emily rescues him, nurses him back to health, and Johnny risks his neck to get a doctor from a nearby village. Is MacLean grateful? Not initially. He still steals Emily. One night, he kisses her, she kisses back, he says, “You see, either a fellow has it or he hasn’t.”
Initially he steals her because that’s his nature: Lout 101. He basically says the 1942 version of: “Who wouldn’t tap that?” But as he becomes partners and then friends with Johnny, Tiny and Blimp, he steals Emily, and marries her, for noble reasons. To save Johnny from her. It’s 180-degree turn for both him and the movie that is only vaguely explained. She’s bad news, she’d spend all his dough, she’d put him behind the eight ball. At one point I began to wonder: Is she a prostitute? “Everybody knows about it but you,” MacLean tells Johnny. “She’s nothing but a—” which, of course, is when Johnny decks him. Hays code. Later, Johnny shows up at Lac Vert and Emily’s dad tells him, “She’s not worth the following.” Yes, her dad. That's some cold shit. What happened to that lovely, feisty girl on the dock? Why give her that great intro only to toss her into the trash? Because you needed to make the lead look good? Because there’s a war on?
Once the Emily thing is in the rearview—MacLean dumps her on their wedding night, as he’d planned, albeit with a $4k alimony payment—suddenly everyone’s aware there’s a war on. We see recruitment posters for the Tank Corps, the Blackwatch, the RCAF. Heartbroken Johnny is the first to join. After Churchill’s Dunkirk speech (recreated by Miles Mander, as there was no audio recording of the original), our other pilots do the same. They show up thinking they’re hot shit but no one cares. Get your planes off the tarmac. 6,000 flight hours? Sorry, gramps, fighter pilots have to be 26 or younger. But you can train them if you like. MacLean tries, but he chafes under the regimentation—preferring flying by the seat of your pants. He insists on taking a young pilot out on a bombing run, keeps getting too close to the target, and the plane is caught in the explosion. The kid nearly dies.
Has he learned his lesson? Nah. Drummed out and drunk, along with Tiny, the two decide to divebomb the graduation ceremony—presided over by real-life World War I Canadian flying ace Billy Bishop, playing himself. Apparently this was a real graduation ceremony, too; Warners just filmed it. It’s a nice scene. Kids are joining the fight from all over, including the U.S., which had not entered the war yet:
Bishop: Where are you from, Grove?
Grove: Texas, sir.
Bishop: One of our most loyal provinces.
Grove: We think so, sir.
Bishop: Well, I think so, too.
Grove: Thank you.
Bishop: And we thank you for coming up here and helping us.
Then MacLean and Tiny show up. Tiny blacks out after a dive and crashes and dies. MacLean, whose idea it was, drops his head.
Again, that’s our hero.
‘Believe me, I would have’
I began to wonder if we’d see the source of conflict from the first half of the movie in the second. We do. The night before they ship out, Johnny, Blimp and Scrounger (Reginald Gardiner, playing dry, British comic relief, forever asking after tea), resplendent in their uniforms, show up at the super-fancy Club Penguin in Ottawa, and find Emily there. She’s resplendent, too, in evening gown, and she and Johnny talk. She comes clean.
Remember the bad things MacLean and her own father said about her? Well, now it’s her turn:
Brian married me for only one reason: to keep me from marrying you. To keep me from making a mess of your life. And I would have. Believe me, I would have.
That's so absurd it made me laugh out loud.
The movie has four screenwriters. Two of them—Roland Gillett, a Brit, and longtime B-movie writer Arthur T. Horman—never wrote another Cagney picture. They’re credited with the story, and Horman with dialogue. The others, Richard Macaulay (“The Roaring Twenties”) and Norman Reilly Raine (“Emile Zola,” “Each Dawn I Die”), were probably brought in to help fix it. Michael Curtiz directed. His next two movies would be “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Casablanca.”
The mission at the end is to get planes from Newfoundland to England, and for that they need civilian pilots, too. Which is when MacLean shows up, pretending to be “Tiny.” (Everyone thinks another pilot died in that plane crash.) We get a nice bit when they’re reading out names:
Soldier: Francis Patrick Murphy.
Almost to England, the unarmed planes run into a Messerschmidt, piloted by a steely-eyed, high-cheekboned German, and they’re all sitting ducks. Then MacLean breaks formation and flies by the seat of his pants. He basically kamikazes the Messerschmidt, and both fall into the ocean, but the rest of the men are saved. Johnny, leading the team, lets them know, “The landfall bearing 020 degrees straight ahead of you, gentlemen, is England,” and we hear a reprise of the faux Churchill speech, ending with “We shall never surrender.” And that’s our end.
There are a couple of firsts associated with “Captains of the Clouds.” It was the first Hollywood movie filmed entirely on location in Canada, and it's Cagney's first movie in Technicolor. Probably any kind of color. It was filmed during the summer and fall of ’41, but it wasn’t released until February ’42, so it was probably one of the first “war” movies released after Pearl Harbor. I’m sure it hit home. It was also Cagney’s fourth movie in which he played a pilot. Fun fact: He was actually afraid of flying.
Saturday December 14, 2019
Movie Review: Torrid Zone (1940)
In his 1974 autobiography, “Cagney By Cagney,” James Cagney dismisses “Torrid Zone” as “the same piece of yard-goods” and “really just a reworking of the Hecht-MacArthur play The Front Page.” He always thought of it as “Hildy Johnson Among the Bananas.”
He wasn’t wrong. It reteams the cast of “Angels with Dirty Faces,” stick them in (I guess) Central America, and divvies up the Hecht roles thus: Pat O’Brien, making his eighth and final movie with Cagney, and who played Hildy in the 1931 version of “Front Page,” has the Walter Burns role as hard-driving banana plantation owner Steve Case; Cagney’s Hildy is Nick Butler, the best manager of the plantation, who doesn’t want anything to do with it anymore, but keeps getting coaxed back; and Ann Sheridan, the Oomph Girl, making her second of three movies with Cagney, is Lee Donley, the cabaret-singing card shark. The man who escapes execution isn’t a railroaded innocent but a Latin American revolutionary, Rosario (George Tobias), while there’s fast-talking and double-dealing throughout. In the end, Case gets his man (Nick), Nick gets the girl (Lee), and Rosario gets away.
So he was right. He was also wrong:
I thought that just to effect some kind of change, I’d grow a mustache. It was really rather a silly-looking thing, but at least it was inoffensive.
Nah. It’s the worst thing in the movie.
We don’t see the star for the first 20 minutes or so—we just keep hearing about him. He’s left the banana plantation, is about to return to the states, and keeps sending taunting radiograms to Burns. Collect. Not a bad bit.
The first part of the movie is actually Sheridan’s. She shows up in Puerto Aguilar, where she sings Spanish-y songs in a sequin gown to comic, ogling Hispanics (played by Caucasian actors). “Fire her,” Case, the president of the Baldwin Fruit Co., tells the nightclub owner. He thinks American girls in the country cause trouble, and he’s probably not wrong, but he’s a petty tyrant. When Lee wins/cheats in cards, he has her arrested. He pressures the police chief into shooting the revolutionary, Rosario, a day early, but Rosario escapes. So does Lee, and she winds up with Nick Butler, cheats him at cards, and escapes once more. She winds up stowing away on the train to the banana plantation, unbeknownst to Nick, who’s back working for Case, and is riding on the train with his right-hand man, Wally Davis, played with the usual sing-songy distracted charm of Andy Devine.
The stowing away doesn’t make much sense. She’s on the lam from the law, and from Nick, so she ... follows Nick? Deeper into the jungle? With no baggage, just the clothes she’s wearing? It’s a white tropical suit—skirt, jacket, polka-dot blouse and white pumps—and doesn’t exactly scream ‘stowaway.“ Not smart. At Plantation No. 7, there she is, on the tracks, smirk on her face, but she’s got nothing to bargain with. Nick immediately asks for the card-money back, she feigns innocence, and he threatens to turn her upside-down and shake it out of her. Then he does just that.
Sheridan mostly pulls it off, though. She’s got a tough brassiness that works wells with Cagney’s. And she’s immediately at odds with Mrs. Anderson (Helen Vinson), who’s cuckolding her husband with Nick. That husband, by the way, the ineffectual manager in Nick’s absence, is played by Jerome Cowan, who, a year later, as Miles Archer in “The Maltese Falcon,” will be cuckolded by Bogart. One wonders how often Cowan got cuckolded in the movies. It’s a living, I guess.
Though Mrs. A is sleeping with two men, she’s kind of held in contempt by both—and us. “He was always begging me to marry him,” she says of Anderson. “Finally, he landed this job. So I did.” Now she’s clinging to Nick to take her back to Chicago. But it’s Lee who tells her off. At one point, she plants one on Nick, he drops his smoldering cigarette on the mat floor, where Lee picks it up and warns them about starting another Chicago fire.
Mrs. A: The Chicago fire was started by a cow.
Lee: History repeats itself.
Nick’s job, besides avoiding Mrs. A—or being caught in flagrante by Mr. A (the Hays Code seems surprisingly cool with all this)—is to get the bananas to port on time, but he’s continually sabotaged by Rosario, so he has to go into the mountains after him.
Here’s the thing: Though Rosario is an ostensible villain, and he’s played by a Caucasian actor—the longtime character actor, George Tobias, who would eventually play Agnes Kravitz’s put-upon husband on “Bewitched”—he’s probably the most likeable character on screen. He looks a bit like a spaghetti-western Eli Wallach, except not pinched by greed. He’s got a large, c’est-la-vie spirit. The second time in jail, he makes a play for Lee, learns she likes Nick, shrugs. “ There is an old native proverb: ‘Beautiful horses always love mules.’”
In the mountains, with his men, he lays out his plans:
This is what we do. We make things so bad, they can’t move a banana off the plantation. Then maybe perhaps they get tired. And they move away. Then we get our land back again, huh?
He’s not wrong.
”Torrid Zone" was directed by William Keighley (his fourth movie with Cagney), written by Richard Macauley (“The Roaring Twenties,” “Across the Pacific”) and Jerry Wald (who became a big-time producer, and may have been part inspiration for Sammy Glick, Budd Schulberg’s ruthless, backstabbing go-getter in the novel “What Makes Sammy Run?”), but its best-known filmmaker is probably the cinematographer, James Wong Howe. You can see his hand in some of the beautiful deep-focus shots in the nightclub at the beginning.
George Reeves, the future Superman, too, has a small role as a Rosario spy who winds up getting decked by Cagney with one punch. The politics in it are mostly distant. The idea that the U.S. banana company is there, and exploiting the country and its people, is mostly passed off as a fait accompli, or a joke at the expense of the inept locals in charge. But Rosario has his say.
Do we get a couple of anti-FDR references? That would be odd, given Warners and Cagney’s support at the time. Nevertheless, early on, Andy Devine’s character says “Nick’s silly, going back to the States. I hear it’s so tough, you gotta support yourself and the government on one income.” And when Case tells the local police chief, Rodriguez (Frank Puglia), that the people will throw him out in the next election, Rodriguez pronounces grandly, “Mr. Case, I do not believe in a third term.”
Yard-goods or not, “Torrid Zone” isn’t bad. The worst thing about it is the thing Cagney brought—that mustache.