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Monday, September 23, 2019

Whole Shows in Preview Nutshells

Torrid Zone and Serving a Pre-Sold Plate

Trailers have long been means by which a film is characterized and sold, its entire appeal necessarily summed up in two or so minutes. They say a best concept should be spoke in twenty-five words, preferably less. If a preview won’t bring you back next week, then down goes the show it promotes. Same for posters out front, lobby cards in their frames (that was then, of course, as LC’s aren’t done anymore). The Studio Era hewed to formula because of time they did not have to promote elevated goods. Iconoclast stars like Cagney resisted a system which marketers knew was an only one that could work. A 1940 public brought certain expectations even to a trailer for Torrid Zone, of which scenes from the upcoming film had to satisfy. “Here Comes Triple Trouble!” is the starter gun, followed by cast names not announced, but exclaimed!!! (their emphasis). It is understood that excitement will surpass that of a hurricane, and with Cagney/O’Brien reunited, a Clash Again is inevitable. Warners had a best male team in these two, neither limited as to genre, either equal to most any part. They could do, had done, comedy or melodrama, be it service pictures, Angels With Dirty Faces, for which there was critic plaudits, Boy Meets Girl and rat-tat humor, or The Fighting 69th, which Boy Scout troops nationwide called a Best Picture of its season.

Torrid Zone was letting off steam accumulated by death finish of Cagney as Rocky Sullivan and the coward-turned-hero of the 69th. He resisted Torrid Zone via a memo Brother Bill sent to Wallis, but had to realize he would ultimately do it. There were but so many properties at any one time to put into work, and as it happened, this was ready and ideal for its cast. Cagney was not unaware of what customers wanted, for it had been essentially a same thing since Public Enemy. Like others bound by a persona, he feared folks would tire of a narrow act and stop buying tickets. Warners knew Torrid Zone was derivative, so left burden on Cagney to uplift what others would leave ordinary. His job was as much to transform as interpret, a given for Cagney which was why he conferred early and often with writers. Memorizing dialogue to a word, Cagney might then paraphrase or ad lib, depending on how instinct guided him before cameras, to which no one kicked because they too trusted that instinct. Wallis even complemented Cagney on liberties he took, a permit the producer did not grant to, say, Errol Flynn, who he warned against monkeyshines on The Sea Hawk (literal, as in scenes pirate Flynn improvised with a pet ape).

Cagney would provoke the head office by turning up with a mustache (first for Ceiling Zero, again here), which bosses thought undercut his toughness. He did these things mostly to aggravate them (hair in an ugly buzz cut for Jimmy The Gent), knowing they’d stand down. It was an assumption of risk, for what if the audience balked? Weight crept up too … from here on he’d carry a paunch, minimal or more, unless dancing was involved (Yankee Doodle is JC almost a boy again). Cagney liked sweets, his vice in lieu of alcohol and smokes (little of the latter --- I wonder if he lit up at all in private life). Jim was five foot six, stood on a box often, but never minded it. A scene where he roughs up George Reeves is not to be believed, but neither is balance of Torrid Zone, and that’s a whole point. Cagney’s lack of total commitment is woven into the performance, him and his mustache sharing a joke with viewership. Helping a lot was Torrid Zone being froth to begin with, crowds laughing with it while the star laughed at it.

To knowing of images and artifice, Cagney plays off Ann Sheridan as they spoof studio machinery and foolery this imposed on them. “You and your 14-carat Oomph” he says to her as a fade line, which I’d like to think the pair dreamed up just before shooting. Cagney was no way the banty rooster he played; public awareness of that made him seem all the better an actor (though he’d go hard on co-worker slacking, thus knot jerked in Dead End Kids who slowed Angels progress). Sheridan knew phony score that was movies (going public to ridicule the Oomph tag), sued regular for better money, robotrixes among WB glamour squad punk by comparison. Howard Hawks had to have seen Torrid Zone and resolved to use her some day (I Was a Male War Bride), Sheridan a natural for his kind of lead woman.

Here We Go Again! as spoke by the trailer was freighted with meaning for a public that knew import of another Cagney-O’Brien match-up. They are friendly enemies, a shift from last two times where Pat was the priest to Jim’s irredeemable misfit. Torrid Zone was different from these for letting Cagney live at the end. He and O’Brien achieved onscreen harmony that was guarantor of profit for projects wherein they were teamed. A same click was achieved by MGM with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, who were friendly off screen, but not close friends as Cagney and O’Brien were. The Hope-Crosby pairing at Paramount sustained the longest, and was a most lucrative. Below these, but as prolific, were Edmund Lowe often with Victor McLaglen for Fox and elsewhere, Richard Arlen and Andy Devine at Universal, plus, and generally for RKO, Chester Morris with action men Richard Dix or McLaglen. Cagney as laid-back pro getting through a job that for him is just a job, livens bloopers that survive from Torrid Zone. He may have underestimated how well the show would turn out, or forgot sharp writing, quick pace, dialogue by Richard Macaulay and Jerry Wald, from decades distance when interviewers asked about Torrid Zone. Like others dismissive of films they had made so long before, Cagney would not have sat and watched past work like fans who enjoyed Torrid Zone and others repeatedly on late shows.


Blogger Dave said...

There's a lot to like in this picture, but just as much that makes me scratch my head. Between Cagney's stupid hat and O'Brien (as always) mistaking barking his lines in a rapid monotonous shout, it can be tough going.

3:58 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Oh, those lucky Irvin patrons... getting a double-dose of George Reeves! Starring in the short PONY EXPRESS DAYS and supporting in TORRID ZONE, I wonder how many in the audience whispered to their neighbor "Didn't we just see that guy?" For that matter, I wonder how audiences reacted when any actor in the midst of studio grooming turned up in more than one program offering?


1:05 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Regarding the pressbook page -- did anyone realize what part of Cagney's anatomy Sheridan is looking at? Or perhaps that was the point.

3:57 PM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

Even Cagney saw TORRID ZONE as derivative of THE FRONT PAGE, calling it HILDY JOHNSON AMONG THE BANANAS in his autobiography.

It's interesting to realize that although Pat O'Brien is thought of as the jolly Irishman, he often plays real creeps. Here, he barely lets Ann Sheridan off the boat before he's trying to kick her out. In GARDEN OF THE MOON , he deliberately sabotaged John Payne's band. And in IN CALIENTE, he panned Dolores del Rio's dancing act in his column without even having seen it.

6:50 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Watched this one the day after I watched "The Fighting 69th"; I liked that one, but this one was much better, as it jettisoned the religious angles of that pro-war service film and lets it hair down. None of the characters are played as paragons of virtue in this one; nor did I notice that any of the characters were depicted as having been improved or redeemed in any way by living through the events shown.
This and "The Fighting 69th" made for a good double-feature, albeit my viewing took place over a couple of days.The differences and similarities between the two are interesting in their own right; but "Torrid Zone" is the better of the two.

3:17 PM  

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