Warner Home Video's James Cagney - The Signature Collection presents five films new to DVD: The Fighting 69th, Torrid Zone (both 1940), The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941), Captains of the Clouds (1942), and The West Point Story (1950). The set is definitely second-tier Cagney: one of screendom's iconic tough guys, Cagney is better remembered for gangster roles in classics like The Public Enemy and The Roaring Twenties, in musicals like Footlight Parade, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and Love Me or Leave Me, and comedies like Mister Roberts and One, Two, Three. However, all of those movies are already out on DVD in other boxed sets or as stand-alone discs, leaving Warner Home Video little choice but to select from the actor's lesser-known titles. It's a hit-and-miss set, though there are a few gems in the package, and the "Warner Night at the Movies" programs that accompany each feature bolster its appeal considerably.
The Fighting 69th is a surprisingly compelling World War I film, in spite of the fact that it's a veritable catalog of war movie cliches and sloppily sentimental. A tribute to the famous Irish Brigade and real-life hero Father Francis J. Duffy (Pat O'Brien), Cagney leads an ensemble cast as cocky Private Jerry Plunkett, a wise guy and a show-off who thumbs his nose at military protocol and soon earns the ire of everyone in his battalion. Selfishly and naively looking for glory on the battlefield, Plunkett's recklessness directly leads to the violent death of dozens of his comrades, and pretty soon only Father Duffy holds out any hope for Plunkett's redemption.
Like the following year's Sergeant York, The Fighting 69th was a deliberate effort on the part of the Warner Brothers to use its World War I setting to prepare American audiences for a Second World War with Germany that by early 1940 was fast becoming unavoidable. Though the film overflows with Irish-American stereotypes and comic vignettes which are emphasized in the film's trailer and other advertising, it takes an honestly grim turn once the soldiers reach the trenches, and Cagney's almost irredeemable, bad egg-turned-frantic coward makes a compelling characterization.
In the film's best scene, the over-anxious Plunkett sends up a flare and tosses a hand grenade at the German line, answered with shelling that buries alive virtually all the men within a few yards of the irresponsible private. Though not at all graphic by today's anything-goes standards, the sequence is harrowing and Cagney's panic is unnervingly authentic. A similarly effective sequence later on has Cagney, on the verge of a complete breakdown, giving away his platoon's position to the enemy, resulting in more casualties.
Father Duffy's interest and faith in this first class loser comes off outrageously disproportionate - he seems to spend more time one-on-one with Plunkett than all the other men combined - but the film's payoff works on a basic emotional if not intellectual level.
The Fighting 69th looks expensive. The expansive backlot streets supervised by art director Ted Smith and throngs of costumed extras create a reasonable facsimile of 1918 France, and the film's subtle special effects (by Byron Haskin and Rex Wimpy) lend the film an impressive authenticity. The cast is crammed with familiar faces, though as is often the case with war movies it's almost impossible to keep track of who gets killed and who survived since everyone's more or less dressed alike with their faces obscured by dirt and their helmets. Alan Hale (Sr.) comes off best burly Sgt. "Big Mike" Wynn, though Jeffrey Lynn has some good moments as Joyce Kilmer, the sergeant-poet killed at the Second Battle of Marne. Also memorable if more than a little strange is Sammy Cohen's performance as the Irish-accented Jew "Mike Murphy," an alias of Mischa Moskowitz.
Torrid Zone is tepid reworking of the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur The Front Page, with Cagney in the Hildy Johnson part and Pat O'Brien, who had played Hildy in the 1931 film version, now bumped up to the Walter Burns role. The Front Page's court pressroom setting has been changed to, of all things, a banana plantation somewhere near the equator, the "torrid zone" of the title. Steve Case (O'Brien), general manager of the Baldwin Fruit Company, isn't getting his bananas to market on time after ace foreman Nicky Butler (Cagney) quits and is replaced by ineffectual supervisor Bill Anderson (Jerome Cowan). Desperate to retain his services - despite the fact that Nicky has had an affair with Steve's wife - Steve unscrupulously plots, cajoles, and blackmails Steve back to work, at least for two weeks, time enough to set things straight.
Meanwhile, cabaret singer and cardsharp Lee Donley (Ann Sheridan) faces deportation at Steve's powerful hand (he's all but bought off the local authorities); he doesn't want a "white woman" prancing around distracting his workers - but she falls in with Nicky. The two begin a steamy romance, this despite the fact that ladies man Nicky is already in the midst of yet another affair, this time with Anderson's lonely wife, Gloria (Helen Vinson).
Despite the fast patter and occasionally witty dialogue between Cagney and O'Brien, Torrid Zone isn't very interesting, and the fruit company's battle with indigenous rebels fighting to get their land back in the untamed hills of Burbank, led by humorous villain Rosie La Mata (George Tobias) isn't very exciting. The picture's main asset is the chemistry between Cagney and Sheridan: they had already appeared in Angels with Dirty Faces and City for Conquest before this, but here really generate some sparks together, mainly because she's as tough-talking and streetwise and he is, and it's fun to watch them discover just how made for each other they are.
Beyond that, the film is pretty ordinary, though Warners obviously spent a good chunk of change on its production, which includes a full size locomotive hauling all those bananas. Both Andy Devine and Grady Sutton turn up in comedy relief roles, and George Reeves and Victor Killian make an unlikely pair of Latino desperados Cagney gets to beat up.
The Bride Came C.O.D. is a breezy if instantly forgettable reworking of It Happened One Night (1934), made palatable only because of its terrific (if mismatched) leading performances and, to a lesser extent, the fine supporting cast. In It Happened One Night a rebellious heiress (Claudette Colbert), angry that her marriage to an aviator has been annulled by her super-rich father, runs off and becomes stranded with a stranger (Clark Gable) who accompanies her for his own selfish interests, but the two ultimately fall in love. In The Bride Came C.O.D. Joan Winfield (Bette Davis) is a rebellious heiress angry that her super-rich Texas oil baron father (Eugenne Pallette) wants to prevent her marriage to a famous if vain bandleader (Jack Carson) and hires an aviator, Steve Collins (Cagney) to "kidnap" her and bring her back to Amarillo, but his plane crashes out in the desert and the two become stranded.
Cagney had been teamed with Bette Davis just once before, in 1934's somewhat better Jimmy the Gent, and this was their last feature together. There's a surprising lack of chemistry, partly because Davis is miscast as a delicate, impetuous rich girl. ("I've got nothing to show for me 23 years," 33-year-old Davis says), though both she and Cagney are very good, rising above the weak, derivative story by making the most of Julius and Philip Epstein's snappy dialogue. By Cagney's standards his performance is somewhat subdued, but he comes off well as the quietly amused, heavily in debt pilot.
The film's setting is its only novelty, with most of the action taking place in an especially run-down ghost town near the California-Nevada border, its only occupant being an eccentric old prospector, well played by Harry Davenport. The supporting cast is very good, especially Pallette's millionaire. Others in the cast include George Tobias, Stuart Irwin (as a KFWB gossip columnist!), William Frawley, and Edward Brophy.
Unfortunately, the film just isn't very funny (despite what the trailer claims, few will be "howling for months to come!"); the biggest yucks are built around having Cagney and Davis repeatedly fall into cactus plants. Nor is it especially romantic, since the sparks between the pair just aren't there.
Captains of the Clouds, in part a tribute to the Royal Canadian Air Force, was shot in the summer and fall of 1941, just before America entered the war, but released in February 1942, barely two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. One of the last of Warner Bros.'s prewar propaganda features, its climax includes a ruthless German fighter pilot and undoubtedly the film resonated strongly with audiences of the time.
Its structure similar to The Fighting 69th, Cagney this time stars as unscrupulous Canadian bush pilot Brian MacLean, who in the film's early scenes undercuts his competition with unethical business practices, stealing jobs away from fellow pilots Johnny Dutton (Dennis Morgan), Francis Patrick "Tiny" Murphy (Alan Hale, Sr.), Blimp Lebec (George Tobias), and perennially broke Scrounger Harris (Reginald Gardiner). MacLean is also reckless, forcing Tiny's plane down in a crash landing, while MacLean himself carelessly steps backward into his plane's propeller, splitting his head wide open.
Dutton generously fetches a local doctor despite hazardous flying conditions, but MacLean, unaware of Dutton's kindness, tries to steal Dutton's fiance, Emily (Brenda Marshall), who turns out to be unapologetically materialistic and unfaithful. She eagerly embraces his advances.
MacLean, Dutton, and Tiny eventually work together on a big transport job, and when MacLean learns that Dutton risked his life to save him, he figures that you've got to be cruel to be kind: he runs off and marries Emily to spare Dutton the agony of finding out that his girl has feet of clay. Disgusted, Dutton joins the Royal Canadian Air Force, and soon thereafter, after listening to Winston Churchill's famous June 1940 speech before Commons ("We shall fight them in the fields," etc.) the other pilots all decide to enlist. (The IMDb reports that an uncredited Miles Mander did Churchill's voice. It's a terrible imitation, and probably elicited some laughs when the film played in Britain.)
Upon enlisting, however, the men learn that they're well past the 26-year-old age ceiling for fighter pilots, and struggle to adjust to positions as flight instructors, with irresponsible MacLean, who refuses to follow orders and procedure, struggling most of all.
Shot in splendiferous three-strip Technicolor by Wilfred M. Cline and Sol Polito, Captains of the Clouds visually is quite spectacular. All of the second unit photography was apparently shot in and over the rich green hills and blue lakes of Canada, and it looks as if Cagney and a few other players might have gone over there as well for a week or two, though most of the time they're seen standing in front of obvious rear-projected process screens. The first third of the picture makes superb use of the Canadian wilderness and Brenda Marshall looks lovely, and the aerial footage (supplemented with miniatures of varying degrees of realism, though most of it is pretty phony) supervised by Warner Bros. Chief Pilot Frank Clarke is quite spectacular.
Though clichéd and predictable, Captains of the Clouds offers a few surprises, especially in terms of Brenda Marshall's loose woman and Cagney's awareness of her shortcomings and treatment of her. The film's grim finale is quite suspenseful and surely had audiences on the edge of their seats when it was new. The use of real pilots and officers in some scenes lends the film an added degree of poignancy: for both audiences at the time and watching the film now, one is aware that many of these pilots would not survive the war.
Even by '50s musical standards, The West Point Story's screenplay is unusually preposterous. Julie Styne and Sammy Cahn's original songs are pretty good, and the musical performances of its cast generally excellent, making it one of those pictures where it's best to just sit back and enjoy it on that level, and not to question how utterly ridiculous it all is.
Billed as "Another [Yankee Doodle] Dandy!" that even references George M. Cohan at one point, Cagney this time plays Elwin "Bix" Bixby, a down-on-his-luck Broadway director and choreographer whose gambling addiction has him "fighting his way to the bottom," so says long-suffering girlfriend-dancer Eve Dillon (Virginia Mayo). As the film opens Bix is staging a crummy nightclub act, but then he gets an offer from former producing partner Harry Eberhart (Roland Winters) to direct an amateur musical at West Point. Bix catches on quickly that Eberhart's real aim is to use Bix to convince Eberhart's talented nephew, cadet Tom Fletcher (Gordon MacRae), to give up his dreams of becoming an officer and embrace his true calling as a Broadway star.
Very reluctantly, Bix and Eve make for West Point, the "Alcatraz on the Hudson" as Bix, a heroic but insubordinate, army-hating veteran of the last war calls it. He's won over by Tom's talent and the polished dancing of another cadet, Hal Courtland (Gene Nelson), but driven to distraction by his cast's obligation to other classes and military protocol. He eventually slugs the all-male show's genial "princess," played by Cadet "Bull" Gilbert (Alan Hale, Jr.) and is temporarily banned before a highly improbable compromise is reached: Bix is allowed to direct the show, but must register and live on campus as a new cadet himself! (Cagney was 50 years old at the time.)
Further straining all credibility, as part of his strategy to woo Fletcher away from West Point and to keep his girlfriend in check, Bix invites Hollywood star Jan Wilson (Doris Day), whom Bix discovered when she was a chorus girl, to join the show.
The West Point Story's musical numbers are pleasant enough with Cagney, stockier than before but still light on his feet, performing several numbers in his own inimitable style, and Nelson does a dance involving straw hats that's a real knock-out. Day, on the verge of superstardom, has some good songs as well.
The picture, though, is pure corn. Cagney's erratic performance ranges from subtle to outrageously broad: several times he loses his temper and launches into spastic convulsions suggesting Daffy Duck. The script shoehorns elements of Cagney's earlier triumphs without regard to logic and believability, and the West Point setting is not well-used. Throughout the film Cagney and the other leads stand in front of process screens while a bad double of Cagney walks around the campus in second unit long shots.
One interesting note about the production is the appearance of Alan Hale, Jr., more than a dozen years away from immortality as "The Skipper" on Gilligan's Island. Cagney might have been a good friend of Hale's look-alike father, though they only did three pictures together. Senior died in January 1950 so the film would have been in production while Junior was still mourning his death; it's entirely possible that Cagney helped secure Junior his substantial role here.
Video & Audio
The full frame transfers of all five films are never less than adequate. The Fighting 69th and The Bride Came C.O.D. look great; Torrid Zone and The West Point Story less so; the former has a less-sharp image and even some frame jitteriness while the latter is on the grainy side, though both look okay. The Technicolor Captains of the Clouds is a beauty, nearly flawless with eye-popping color. Its mono audio is slightly distorted in its opening seconds, but otherwise it's fine. The box set includes optional English subtitles only (on the feature films, not the short subjects) and no alternate audio tracks.
The live action one- and two-reelers also look good to excellent, but the one-reel cartoons are a big disappointment. They appear to have been sourced from older masters, displaying some video noise and use less-than-pristine film elements.
Each disc comes with a Warner Night at the Movies featuring contemporary short subjects, with the line-up usually consisting of a trailer, a live-action 2-reel short, a newsreel excerpt, and a cartoon. The Fighting 69th's supplements include several excellent shorts exemplifying Warner's campaign to prepare Americans for impending war. The Oscar-nominated London Can Take It! is a superb, enormously influential one-reeler about life in wartime London just prior to The Blitz. (If the film seems to paint a less than dire portrait of the London bombings, it's only because the most severe phase of the German attacks had not yet begun.) Young America Flies follows a group of students at Stanford University enlisting in the Civil Aeronautics Authority flight training program, a program designed to crank out as many qualified pilots as possible before America's entry into the war. Written by Delmer Daves, the cast includes William Lundigan (also in The Fighting 69th), lovely Jean Parker, and future Jack Warner assistant William T. Orr. Pilgrim Porky is a very funny black and white cartoon directed by Bob Clampett, though a second animated short, The Fighting 69 1/2th, supervised by Friz Freleng, is much less so. Also included is a Lux Radio adaptation of the feature starring O'Brien, Robert Preston, and Ralph Bellamy.
Torrid Zone includes a sleep-inducing musical short, Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra, but Pony Express Days is a fascinating if outrageous two-reel Techncolor Western that plays like a mini A-feature. Formatted rather like Young America Flies, young hopefuls vie for a shot as a pony express rider. Over the weight limit George Reeves, as a young Buffalo Bill Cody, gets his shot when several way stations are attacked by Indians. The Indians, working with pro-Confederate forces, are trying to delay word that Abraham Lincoln has been selected as the Republican Party's nominee for President, thus affecting California's decision whether to cede from the Union (!). Also included is Tex Avery's A Wild Hare, considered the first real teaming of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in their finalized screen personae.
The Bride Came C.O.D.'s extras take a break from Warner Bros. pre-war propaganda machine, offering two musical shorts, Carnival of Rhythm (featuring Assignment Outer Space's Archie Savage) and Forty Boys and a Song, the latter featuring The Robert Mitchell Boys Choir and nominated for no clear reason for an Academy Award. Two okay cartoons, Bob Clampett's Porky's Pooch and Friz Freleng's Oscar-nominated Rhapsody in Rivets are also included.
Captains of the Clouds includes a newsreel appearance by Cagney coming to the defense of Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morganthau over comments he made about war bonds covering the cost of the war. Cagney reads a statement by Morganthau in front of an American flag. A sports short, filmed in color but 16mm, (Canadian) Rocky Mountain Big Game ties in nicely to the feature, as does the Bugs Bunny cartoon Fresh Hare, with Elmer Fudd cast as a member of the Canadian Mounties. Also included is a trailer for In This Our Life, and trailer for the main attraction, and a second Bugs Bunny cartoon, What's Cookin', Doc?, which has Bugs losing an Academy Award to (an unseen) James Cagney.
The West Point Story offers a trailer for Tea for Two which, like The West Point Story, features Day, MacRae, and Nelson, and original lyrics that include a line about S.Z. Sakall (!). A newsreel excerpt is a snippet of President Truman warning an audience about the evils of communism, while a "Sports Parade" short, Granddad of Races, won an Oscar. Daffy Duck turns up in a Friz Freleng cartoon, His Bitter Half.
With its second-tier lineup, James Cagney - The Signature Collection is definitely geared more for fans of classic Hollywood cinema than the average moviegoer wanting to test the studio system waters. Like the shorts that accompany them, the five features are of varying interest, with The Fighting 69th and Captains of the Clouds coming off best, and the other three only average. At $50 retail, even with the extras this set is a bit steep, but still worthwhile. Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel. His audio commentary for Invasion of Astro Monster is due out in June.