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.