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There was steam on the screen when Warner Bros. released Torrid Zonein 1940, but the source wasn't the film's South American jungle setting, even though technicians had put a lot of work into turning five acres of the studio's back lot into a tropicalbanana republic complete with 950 real banana trees. Nor could you giveall the credit to cinematographer James Wong Howe, whose creamy black-and-white photography did as much as the banana trees to create a sizzling newworld on screen. It wasn't even the tried-and-true teaming of James Cagneyand Pat O'Brien, fellow Irishmen cast as friendly rivals for the eighthtime. The heat came from the birth of a new star as Ann Sheridan not onlystole the picture from her co-stars but also established herself asWarner's resident sex goddess or, as the publicity department labeled her,"The Oomph Girl!"
Sheridan was hardly an overnight sensation. She had arrived in Hollywoodas a teenager after winning a "Search for Beauty" contest, but had spentalmost a decade in thankless roles, first at Paramount, then at WarnerBros. It wasn't until 1940 that the studio caught on to her uniquecombination of down-home warmth and sultry beauty. With TorridZone, she had the perfect vehicle to put herself over with the publicin a big way. She stars as a singing con artist bilking her way throughLatin America. When plantation overseer O'Brien tries to ship her back tothe states, she follows his second-in-command (Cagney) to a remoteplantation where she steals him from a seductive divorcee and helps himfight off a bandit attack.
Of course, she didn't do it all herself. She was helped by a strong scriptcombining nonstop action with crackling comic dialogue. When Sheridan'srival drops a lit cigarette, Sheridan picks it and warns her, "This is howthe Chicago fire got started." The woman counters, "The Chicago fire wasstarted by a cow," to which Sheridan quips, "History repeats itself."Aware that Sheridan was stealing the film, writers Richard Macaulay andJerry Wald re-wrote the final line to capitalize on her public image. AsCagney takes her in his arms, he says, "You and your 24-karatoomph!"
Cagney had no problem with giving Sheridan the focus. He was a fan of hershimself, having taken a liking to her when they had first appearedtogether in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). His only problem was with thescript, which he thought just a rehash of most of the other buddy filmshe'd made with O'Brien. Initially, he turned the project down, claimingthat he wanted to do more important pictures. He even suggested the rolemight be more suitable for George Raft. Eventually, he came around, butjust to make the film a little different, he showed up for shooting with afake mustache. When producer Mark Hellinger told him the front-officeexecutives didn't like the mustache because it took away from histoughness, Cagney shot back, "They know all about that, don't they,Mark?" He then argued that he was tired of selling the public "the samepiece of yard-goods all the time....Let's have some variety." (From JamesCagney, Cagney by Cagney.)
Torrid Zone created the expected box-office magic, but ultimatelymarked the end of the Cagney-O'Brien buddy films. Although the tworemained close friends for decades, they wouldn't work together for almost40 years, finally reuniting when Cagney came out of retirement to star inthe film version of Ragtime (1981). In between, Cagney did indeed move onto more important pictures, starting with his next film, City forConquest (1940), which re-teamed him with Sheridan.
Producer: Mark Hellinger
Director: William Keighley
Screenplay: Richard Macaulay and Jerry Wald
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Art Direction: Ted Smith, Edward Thorne
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Principal Cast: James Cagney (Nick Butler), Pat O'Brien (Steve Case), AnnSheridan (Lee Donley), Andy Devine (Wally Davis), Helen Vinson (GloriaAnderson), George Tobias (Rosario), Jerome Cowan (Bob Anderson), GeorgeReeves (Sancho), Victor Kilian (Carlos), Frank Puglia (Frank Rodriguez),Grady Sutton (Sam the Secretary).BW-89m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller