' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Torrid Zone (1940)

Friday, August 26, 2016

Friday's Old Fashioned: Torrid Zone (1940)


It’s not critical tradition (law) to begin a review by digressing on the movie’s poster but hey, we here at Cinema Romantico serve our Old Fashioned any way we damn please. And this poster amuses and confounds me because to look at it would leave you with an entirely wrongheaded impression of what this 1940 William Keighley movie might be. There’s James Cagney, strumming a guitar, eyes closed, like he’s Captain Corelli and that’s his mandolin, and Ann Sheridan on his shoulder, looking like the rosy-cheeked girl next door, cuddling up to her beau, just hoping he’ll take her down to the soda fountain for a chocolate malt. And the grinning Pat O’Brien? Well, maybe he’s the soda fountain proprietor who just can’t get over how happy he is to see these two young kids in love, or the dad of the girl next door just overwhelmed with good tidings for these two lovebirds. But then you’d watch the movie and realize that O’Brien never smiles, Ann Sheridan ain’t so sweet and Jim Cagney never, not once, picks up a guitar. Marketing, man, that crap will mess with your mind.

The odd misdirection of this advertisement, however, is apropos of the film itself, one that seems dead set on making O’Brien the star before he suddenly hands the starring role to Cagney, while Sheridan, riffing on Jean Harlow in “Red Dust”, operates always between the two. O’Brien is Steve Case, a humorless fruit company magnate who oversees a banana plantation down Central America way. His foreman is Nick Butler (Cagney), who decides to quit for a straitlaced job in Chicago, only to be lured back by a big bonus for a few weeks work to deal with a persnickety revolutionary, Rosario (George Tobias), who has just escaped execution. Nick agrees, but takes Sheridan’s Lee Donnelly along with him, who Steve has just ordered to leave the Torrid Zone and never come back if for no other reason than a mischievous twinkle in her eye which lets you know that she is always in the mood to some start shit. Eventually, after getting cheated by Lee at cards, Nick tries to send her away too, though she still refuses to budge, lurking around the edges, and calling him out on his dalliance with a married woman.


This is, of course, literally a banana republic, with Steve’s company in charge, displacing locals from their native land, a cause that is taken up by Rosario, who is less a hardened revolutionary than a romantic, the kind dreamed up on the Hollywood backlot rather than culled from the annals of actual history. Still, even if “Torrid Zone” might not be that sympathetic to Rosario’s actual cause, it remains sympathetic to him, thankfully refusing to turn him into a cartoon villain. There is an early scene, in fact, when Lee and Rosario are locked up behind bars in the same place and become fast friends. There is a reason for this friendship and it is their mutual interest in mixing things up.

That is the foremost motivation in “Torrid Zone” – causing trouble. This Torrid Zone is filled with troublemakers. Everyone wants trouble; everyone seeks trouble; everyone finds trouble. This is why Steve Case has to be moved out of the picture midway through, until he re-surfaces at the end to get his, because he is the one character here truly intent on preventing trouble in order to maintain his operation. Oh, Nick might act like he wants to keep things on the straight and narrow, but we know that’s a lie as well as Lee does. That’s why she keeps poking and prodding him, and that’s why we know he will never take that job in Chicago, which he doesn’t. He belongs in the Torrid Zone. They all do.

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