Torrid Zone

Movie Information

In Brief: Fast-paced, funny Warner Bros.-style comedy adventure. (The style, the look and the pace are all typical of the studio in that era.) It's essentially a star comedy built around James Cagney, Ann Sheridan and Pat O'Brien in a tropical setting in South America. At bottom, it's a reshuffling of The Front Page — only on a banana plantation rather than in a newsroom, and it works surprisingly well. It's the kind of movie that almost never gets revived, which is a pity because it's really a lot of good fun.
Genre: Comedy Adventure
Director: William Keighley (The Man Who Came to Dinner)
Starring: James Cagney, Ann Sheridan, Pat O'Brien, Andy Devine, George Tobias, Helen Vinson, Jerome Cowan
Rated: NR

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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3 thoughts on “Torrid Zone

  1. Mark Saulys

    This movie is propaganda for imperial colonization, Yankee style. The U.S. pretended it didn’t hold colonies or subjugate and exploit people and their countries but it only pretended not to. It would enslave a people and plunder their natural resources throughout Latin America, to maintain its own extravagant lifestyle, puppeteering dictatorships in the regions just as European Powers did in Africa and Asia more overtly. That’s until after WW II when it became morally unacceptable to colonize non white people, so then, beginning with Viet Nam, the U.S. would show European Powers how to also colonize by covert puppeteering of Native governments so they could also pretend not to colonize and still maintain the extravagant standard of living they had become accustomed to – and then to have the audacity to call out the Soviet Union for the doing same thing because the U.S.S.R. was practicing the same imperial colonization upon people who were white.
    So, anyway, this movie simply justifies the rapaciousness of American businesses like the United Fruit Company (Chiquita Brands, today) that owned countries like Guatemala (and other countries in the region), kept its people in slavery with a terror and torture regime the C.I.A. maintained (Allen Dulles’ family members even sat on the Board of Directors of United Fruit) and prevented any nationalization of the country’s own natural resources or any democratic government of the Guatemalan people from gaining control of their country.
    The movie advances the racism essential to colonial imperialism and it’s propaganda, portraying the local population as too stupid for self governance and the Great, White Father of Yankee exploitation as their natural masters only fit to rule and exploit them as beasts of burden, thus their little revolutionary movement was doomed to fail against the naturally superior Americans of European ancestry.

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