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Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Where Action Cagney Came Back

Blood On The Sun (1945) Exposes Japan's "Tanaka Plan"

"Cagney --- With Both Fists Flying," said posters, and it was about time. Three years had gone since Jim threw a punch, then left Warners for (he thought) greener field of independent production. Johnny Come Lately was first try at that, plentiful admissions sold thanks to good will from Yankee Doodle Dandy, but disappointment for most once they got in. Everybody but Cagney wanted him rough and tough. The star and producing brother William were bent on dismantling an image that had sold for well past a decade. United Artists would release, partially finance, but not control content of the vehicles, thus Johnny Come Lately, which thanks to Cagney presence and wartime seats habitually filled, did show profit. The brothers overspent developing properties, reached beyond money's grasp, and had no meaningful asset save Jim. A second under their banner, Blood On The Sun, would at least come back to basics and put him again in action, a right product at the right time, and most successful of films the Cagney brothers would make.

Jim About To Take Receipt Of Fabled "Tanaka Plan"

Blood On The Sun has demon reporter Cagney on alert for stuff-of-legend "The Tanaka Memorial," or Plan, both label on written scheme for Japan's world takeover, the "Original" Mein Kampf, according to post-credits scroll. Such a document was smuggled out of Japan in the late 20's, translated into Chinese, published, further translated into most known languages, further published worldwide. Lots said it was forged, most vehemently Japan, but projections Tanaka made came to fruition through the 30's, which lent the thing credence. Here if nothing else was great basis for a thumping yarn, Cagney at front end of knowledge that Japan was serious threat (Blood On The Sun takes place in late 20's, though you'd not know from dress or setting). Much is made of proving his find authentic, for which Jim nearly dies in the doing, but his character, and the situation, are entirely fictional. It was enough to confirm Nippon treachery going way back, and that war was both inevitable, and in fact, overdue. Fact the struggle was nearly won (Blood On The Sun released summer 1945) gave the film leeway to explore roots of conflict rather than well-worn assurance that we'd prevail in the end.

Focal point of selling was a big judo fight Cagney engages with would-be assailants, brief bouts leading to sock finale where he and beefiest baddie sling it out. Extended screen bouts could run afoul of censors, too much brutality a no-no through most of Code era. Even late as Bad Day At Black Rock in 1954, karate whacks Spencer Tracy gave Ernest Borginine had to be toned down. Martial arts came in wider variety than ketchup, however, some more akin to tumbling than would-be man killing. Judo as staged in Blood On The Sun is vigorous, exciting, but somehow less lethal. Such was choreography that Cagney and opponents seemed more dance partners than combatants. This being case made judo a bloodless contest with bodies rolled rather than smashed. In fact, Cagney had been a student of the art and used it to "stay in shape," a needed process for this star who tended toward weight gain between jobs. Expanding middle ran in Jim's family, and there was his fondness for desserts, a vice preferable to alcohol/tobacco that laid low most of his peers (Cagney one of few Classic Era lead men to enjoy venerable age). Martial arts had been practiced on US screens, Mr. Moto an oft-participant, but Blood On The Sun played more for keeps, its down-to-mat finish an Eastern equivalent to John Wayne-Randolph Scott dust-up in 1942's The Spoilers.

Against much that Blood On The Sun did right, there was  nagging lack of energy Warner Bros. would have lent this otherwise cut-from-mold Cagney vehicle. He clearly tried to do things an old-fashioned way, but no house style is reflected here, and however weak some of Warners' were, they all at least had verve plus JC presence. Grand National attempt of Great Guy and Something To Sing About, for which Jim jumped ship before, should have cooled further effort to emulate the brand, but the Cagney brothers' determination died hard, Blood On The Sun a last success they'd have as fully independent venture. Reception beyond 1945 cooled as Blood On The Sun fell into quagmire of 70's Public Domain, and non-stop duping from 16mm prints in televised circulation. There are DVD's, lots in fact, from which one can track odor of complaints at Amazon. Is there outcry so enraged as that of a customer laid low by bad videos? Neither discs nor free streaming can be trusted, it seems. For the record, the Roan Group and Hal Roach labels have best overall transfers. Blood On The Sun isn't likely to engage anyone's interest or outlay for a Blu-Ray, it being minor Cagney despite pleasures enumerated, but odder things have happened, and someone may yet perform High-Def rescue.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Make-up artist Craig Reardon shares insight regarding make-up used in "Blood On The Sun":


Leave it to you to cover "Blood On the Sun"!

I always have enjoyed this movie, a lot. Like all '30s and '40s films, you enjoy them in context---with their times, with the style of filmmaking then. There is, to be sure, a lot of bile in it, but Japan had earned it, big time, and it was still flowing heavy in the mid-'40s. Today's Japanese might be less willing to dismiss the many Occidental actors arrayed in latex makeup to play 'Japaneez', than by the angry tone and the portrayal of treachery at every turn, in what was undeniably a brutal and hateful contest in its day. I wouldn't know as I am NOT Japanese! However, I am a makeup artist and I find the work in this film to be very amusing, and I don't mean that in any ridiculous sense, although that's a matter of taste I'd say. John Halloran and Robert Armstrong seem to be having a tough time negotiating talking with those big buck teeth in their mouths, but John Emery carries it off with his usual oily grace. I wouldn't say any of them look Japanese, but they sure as hell don't look like themselves, either! I think it all works, but another person may think it stinks. In general, makeup today is like the movies it serves: hyperrealistic, almost hagridden by concerns of 'realism', lacking whimsy or theatrical flourishes. Not a lot of fun, in my opinion. Older movie makeups are fun. I miss that. I don't know if some might think character or ethnic makeups ought to be 'fun'. They might have a point, and they'd be entitled to that opinion. But I always enjoy seeing ethnic transformation makeup. Tony Randall as Dr. Lao in George Pal's "7 Faces of Dr. Lao" is better than anything on view in this movie, and that movie was much more steeped in the fantastic and playful. Anyway...the crucial makeup is credited to Ern Westmore onscreen, but Josef Norin is credited on the IMDB, and this, trust me, is where the ability was. Joe Norin was a wonderful sculptor. I'm certain all the transformations were devised by him. I'm assuming Ern Westmore helped put them on.

I think the sets are great, too. Ward Ihnen. I particularly like the (indoor, on stage) dock scenes, with water, boats, rickety stairs and walkways, and spooky warehouses. I recognize portions of the Goldwyn lot, from having worked there, during a nocturnal chase in what appear to be industrial streets, which is actually at the western end of the lot, near the mill, in fact. Today, I regret to report, the studio is CALLED "The Lot". Worst name for a movie lot, ever. Like calling a restaurant "The Restaurant". Oh, well. And of course it was originally United Artists (on Santa Monica Blvd.), and this is a United Artists release.

The other element I enjoy is Miklos Rozsa's score, although it indulges heavily in cliche to evoke the hustle-bustle of Japanese streets. He's at his best in the romantic scenes, which utilize his main theme which is puts through characteristically expressive harmonic changes.

The real engine of the picture is Cagney, of course! He's at his best, as there are scenes when he's "Jimmy the gent", and the little tough guy who you wouldn't want to mix it up with, all the way to a rough and tumble ju-jitsu expert. He's very convincing in all the romantic scenes, too. Sylvia Sidney is, I think, very effective as the Eurasian girl he falls for. What a career SHE had, all the way from her youthful beauty and dulcet voice in the '30s to her frankly gnarled appearance, and now gravel-voiced, in two wonderfully funny roles in two Tim Burton movies toward the end.


5:44 AM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Is this the movie where Wallace Ford takes a header into the ground and the grass bunches up like a cheap rug? Unfortunately, that's all I remember.

6:11 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I didn't notice when I watched, but that's a distinct possibility. Most of the exteriors were done on a sound stage.

7:43 PM  
Blogger shiningcity said...

On the subject of Cagney, if anyone is in NYC soon try to catch the play, CAGNEY, on West 42nd. It is terrific, with great performers channeling Cagney and Jack Warner. I smiled for two hours.

7:07 PM  

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