Viewers who think a lack of originality is something new under the Hollywood sun should take a look at William Keighley’s Torrid Zone (1940). Here we have Warner Bros. co-opting two Howard Hawks movies. It takes its setting and some of its setup from Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and much of its plot and tone from His Girl Friday (1940) — though the latter is perhaps by way of Lewis Milestone’s The Front Page (1931), which (along with the 1928 play) was the source for His Girl Friday. (For that matter Only Angels Have Wings owes a lot to Victor Fleming’s 1932 film Red Dust.) The big difference between this “golden age” orgy of borrowings is that it may not be original, but it doesn’t lack for creativity — almost to the point that it feels original.
The film stars James Cagney (with an ill-advised mustache), Ann Sheridan and Pat O’Brien. Cagney plays Nick Butler, the former overseer of a banana plantation in some never identified South American locale in the titular “torrid zone.” He happens to be passing through on his way to a “normal” job with a grocery store chain in Chicago, but he can’t resist bombarding his ex-boss Steve Case (O’Brien), with collect cablegrams. On the other hand, Case views Nick’s stopover as a chance to bamboozle him into returning to his old job. Thrown into the mix is entertainer Lee Donley (Sheridan) who has come to a place “where redheads are more scarce.” Case, however, wants her sent packing to the States before she can cause trouble with the locals. Of course, what happens is Case will con Nick into a two week stint for a quick thousand bucks to get the troubled plantation back in shape, and Lee will stowaway on the train to said plantation. Now, throw in the snooty-but-slutty wife (Helen Vinson) of the lousy overseer, a desperado (George Tobias) out to get his land back from the banana company and various complications and you have one entertaining film.
The parallels — or outright steals — from the earlier films are fairly obvious. We have the exotic locale from Only Angels Have Wings. Helen Vinson stands in for Rita Hayworth in that film, Jerome Cowan for Richard Barthelmess and Sheridan for Jean Arthur. The whole setup between Nick and Case is essentially the one between the ace reporter and the publisher of the paper in The Front Page (interestingly, O’Brien has played the Nick equivalent in the 1931 film). The two-week last job is about the same as the one last interview in The Front Page. Even George Tobias’ desperado is essentially the escaped murderer from that source. The drive and pace of Torrid Zone is pure His Girl Friday, as are the nonstop wisecracks and insults. There are also a few in-jokes — a reference to Sheridan’s status as “the oomph girl” and Andy Devine endlessly playing “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles (the theme from Cagney’s first big hit, The Public Enemy) on a harmonica. Yeah, it’s a melange of much, but, boy, is it ever a lot of slickly made fun. And, yes, that is TV Superman George Reeves as one of Tobias’ henchmen.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Torrid Zone Tuesday, April 2 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.