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James Cagney
Remind Me
Torrid Zone

Torrid Zone

There was steam on the screen when Warner Bros. released Torrid Zone in 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 tropical banana republic complete with 950 real banana trees. Nor could you give all the credit to cinematographer James Wong Howe, whose creamy black-and-white photography did as much as the banana trees to create a sizzling new world on screen. It wasn't even the tried-and-true teaming of James Cagney and Pat O'Brien, fellow Irishmen cast as friendly rivals for the eighth time. The heat came from the birth of a new star as Ann Sheridan not only stole the picture from her co-stars but also established herself as Warner's resident sex goddess or, as the publicity department labeled her, "The Oomph Girl!"

Sheridan was hardly an overnight sensation. She had arrived in Hollywood as a teenager after winning a "Search for Beauty" contest, but had spent almost a decade in thankless roles, first at Paramount, then at Warner Bros. It wasn't until 1940 that the studio caught on to her unique combination of down-home warmth and sultry beauty. With Torrid Zone, she had the perfect vehicle to put herself over with the public in a big way. She stars as a singing con artist bilking her way through Latin America. When plantation overseer O'Brien tries to ship her back to the states, she follows his second-in-command (Cagney) to a remote plantation where she steals him from a seductive divorcee and helps him fight off a bandit attack.

Of course, she didn't do it all herself. She was helped by a strong script combining nonstop action with crackling comic dialogue. When Sheridan's rival drops a lit cigarette, Sheridan picks it and warns her, "This is how the Chicago fire got started." The woman counters, "The Chicago fire was started by a cow," to which Sheridan quips, "History repeats itself." Aware that Sheridan was stealing the film, writers Richard Macaulay and Jerry Wald re-wrote the final line to capitalize on her public image. As Cagney takes her in his arms, he says, "You and your 24-karat oomph!"

Cagney had no problem with giving Sheridan the focus. He was a fan of hers himself, having taken a liking to her when they had first appeared together in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). His only problem was with the script, which he thought just a rehash of most of the other buddy films he'd made with O'Brien. Initially, he turned the project down, claiming that he wanted to do more important pictures. He even suggested the role might be more suitable for George Raft. Eventually, he came around, but just to make the film a little different, he showed up for shooting with a fake mustache. When producer Mark Hellinger told him the front-office executives didn't like the mustache because it took away from his toughness, Cagney shot back, "They know all about that, don't they, Mark?" He then argued that he was tired of selling the public "the same piece of yard-goods all the time....Let's have some variety." (From James Cagney, Cagney by Cagney.)

Torrid Zone created the expected box-office magic, but ultimately marked the end of the Cagney-O'Brien buddy films. Although the two remained close friends for decades, they wouldn't work together for almost 40 years, finally reuniting when Cagney came out of retirement to star in the film version of Ragtime (1981). In between, Cagney did indeed move on to more important pictures, starting with his next film, City for Conquest (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), Ann Sheridan (Lee Donley), Andy Devine (Wally Davis), Helen Vinson (Gloria Anderson), George Tobias (Rosario), Jerome Cowan (Bob Anderson), George Reeves (Sancho), Victor Kilian (Carlos), Frank Puglia (Frank Rodriguez), Grady Sutton (Sam the Secretary). BW-89m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller



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