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Warner Home Video presents
James Cagney: The Signature Collection (The Bride Came C.O.D. / Captains of the Clouds / The Fighting 69th / Torrid Zone / The West Point Story) (1940-50)

"I'm not disobeying orders. I just can't hear you."
- Brian MacLean (James Cagney), in Captains of the Clouds

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: June 27, 2007

Stars: James Cagney
Other Stars: Bette Davis, Eugene Pallette, William Frawley, Dennis Morgan, Brenda Marshall, Alan Hale, George Tobias, Reginald Gardiner, Reginald Denny, Pat O'Brien, Ann Sheridan, Andy Devine, Doris Day, Virginia Mayo, Alan Hale Jr., Gordon MacRae
Director: William Keighley, Michael Curtiz, Roy Del Ruth

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 08h:09m:15s
Release Date: April 24, 2007
UPC: 085391137009
Genre: compilation


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B+ BCC+ B-

DVD Review

James Cagney was an incomparable, absurdly versatile and unquestionably iconic star of Hollywood's golden era, so of course it's a pleasure to welcome a signature collection to DVD—the trouble, though, is that most of Cagney's best films (ranging from musicals like Yankee Doodle Dandy to gangster pictures like White Heat) have already made their DVD debuts. This set, then, yokes together five Cagney movies made between 1940 and 1950, and if they're not on the top of the world, ma, they've all more or less got something to recommend them. Let's have a look, shall we?

The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)

"That dame! Undoubtedly the outstanding screwball of her generation."
—Steve (James Cagney), on Joan (Bette Davis)

There are great couples in the pantheon of romantic comedy—from Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn up through at least Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan—but I'm not entirely convinced that James Cagney and Bette Davis are among them. Yes, they are two of the most iconic and imitated movie stars, and it is kind of a kick to see them together here; and the film runs a brisk 91 minutes, so there's not too much time to get fidgety. It's not really a laff riot, but it's likely to put a smile on your face, and the somewhat shopworn plot has been borrowed from heavily by movies like Runaway Bride and Midnight Run.

Davis stars as Joan Winfield, a millionaire's daughter with too much money, too much time on her hands, and an eye for the boys. Her inamorata of the moment is an oily bandleader, and after knowing him for just four days, the two decide to get hitched. But they cannot wait a moment, and certainly not the couple of days it will take to get the appropriate permits in Los Angeles—so under the watchful eye of a columnist figuring he's getting a heck of a scoop, they hire a plane to fly them to Las Vegas for a quickie wedding. Cagney plays Steve Collins, the pilot of the charter, who is about to lose his plane to the repo men when a fortuitous phone call comes in, from Joan's father. He doesn't want his bubble-headed daughter getting married to some gold-digging lunkhead, so Collins agrees to fly her not to Vegas, but into Daddy's arms—the pilot will essentially kidnap her and ransom her back for the price of the loan on his plane.

Will you be shocked to learn that these two cannot abide one another initially, but that things take a more romantic turn in the third act? I should hope not, and there aren't a whole lot of surprises in the screenplay by the Epstein brothers, Julius and Philip, whose more memorable credits include Casablanca and an even better Cagney picture, Yankee Doodle Dandy. The most fun in the movie is probably when Davis and Cagney crash in on an old coot who's the last inhabitant of an otherwise abandoned mining town, which briefly becomes the eye of a media storm; and it's a mark of how Hollywood this movie is that after a couple of days in the desert and complaining of hunger and thirst, Miss Davis doesn't have a hair out of place, her makeup looks perfect, and her wardrobe looks as if it came off the runway. A couple of familiar faces add to the comforts of the film, especially froggy Eugene Pallette, always outraged as Davis's father, and William Frawley, as the Los Angeles County Sheriff.



Captains of the Clouds (1942)

"You know why it ain't my war? Beacause I fly by the seat of my pants."
—Brian MacLean (James Cagney)

The same year that Cagney and director Michael Curtiz teamed up to make Yankee Doodle Dandy, they also partnered for this weirdly bifurcated Canadian war movie. It's one of those films that can't quite figure out what it wants to be, and seems to change its mind in midstream; I guess lots of aviation footage and location shooting is supposed to distract us from the fact that the plot doesn't really add up.

Cagney stars as Brian MacLean, an aviator with a cowboy's mentality in the Canadian wilderness. He and his brothers in flight maraud around looking for passengers and loads of stuff to carry and deliver—you sense that all they're really looking to do is cover costs, and that they'd be happy to fly for free. The first portion of the movie is a pretty standard love triangle: Johnny (Dennis Morgan), another flyboy, is engaged to Emily (Brenda Marshall), a frisky little thing who lives with her father in a remote town, and is happy to bat her eyes at any fella who flies through town while the cat's away. Soon MacLean is smitten—but it's bad form and mighty complicated to steal another guy's girl. In a Hays Code world they can't say as much, but there's the strong suggestion that Emily's virtue is not her strong suit—these men who fly have the right stuff, and we can't have this little tart bringing them down.

The film abruptly shifts gears with the report of the evacuation at Dunkirk—it stirs the patriotism of every good Canadian, and gets Johnny, Brian and the rest to sign up for the Royal Canadian Air Force. Dunkirk is supposed to function here the way that Pearl Harbor does in a raft of movies made south of the border (perhaps most notably From Here to Eternity), but it feels just kind of odd here, especially since we're launched essentially into a second movie. This one takes the trappings of the World War II platoon movie and moves them all to Canada—instead of one soldier from the Midwest and another from Brooklyn, here one's from Saskatoon, the next from Ottawa, and so on. MacLean is the play-by-his-own-rules pilot familiar to us from many, many movies—it's almost like this is the precursor to Top Gun, with Cagney as Maverick. (He even gets his own Goose—Alan Hale, as Tiny Murphy.) The inevitable climactic battle and telegraphed sacrifice might have provided some comfort to American and Canadian audiences in the first year of World War II, but it's a dramaturgical mess. The whole film is dedicated to the Royal Canadian Air Force, so at least the heart is in the right place.



The Fighting 69th (1940)

"There's a lot of things in this man's army I don't like."
—Plunkett (James Cagney)

With the U.S. on the cusp of war, this 1940 film looks backward rather than forward, and tells a pretty straightforward tale of bravery and self-sacrifice set during the war to end all wars. This World War I story is like an omnibus of war movie staples, and almost seems consciously to be setting the table for the raft of movies that would be rushed into production after Pearl Harbor. Cagney stars as Private Plunkett, a wiseacre—the film opens at Camp Mills, NY, for basic training, and nobody cares for Plunkett much, especially since he pays no respect to the pedigree of his unit, which provides the film's title. No doubt the Army is going to make a man out of him—he gets put through every indignity the Army can muster, right down to the old KP punishment of peeling potatoes.

The question about Plunkett becomes this: is he just a bad apple, or is he yeller? He's a danger not only to himself, but to everyone around him; if it weren't for our good will for Cagney, Plunkett would seem entirely loathsome, an insanely selfish sort who quite literally gets everybody around him killed. Sticking up for him and sensing that his soul needs saving is Pat O'Brien as Father Duffy—Plunkett becomes Duffy's pet project, especially as the Fighting 69th gets shipped overseas to take on the Germans. This is one more in a long line of priests played by O'Brien, and Duffy isn't the only notable historical personage here—also in the unit is Joyce Kilmer, a poet who we see composing verse while displaying valor under fire, but whose historical legacy may be greater for his arboreal couplet, "I think that I shall never see / A poem as lovely as a tree."

Director William Keighley brings some great, noiry feel to the battle sequences particularly, and Alan Hale is on hand again to lock horns with Cagney. It's also a movie with what even at the time had to be a saccharine view of soldiers in their spare time—no wine, no women, just a bunch of doughboys crowded around the piano singing "The Old Gray Mare."



Torrid Zone (1940)

"Well, everyone to his own tastes. Personally, I'll take Chicago."
—Nick Butler (James Cagney)

Keighley takes the helm again, and O'Brien gets to hang up the vestments for this one, a strange and almost reactionary comedy. The story is set quite literally in a banana republic, called Puerto Aguilar, where the de facto law is the American fruit company that drives the locals mercilessly and ships boatloads of bananas back to the States. O'Brien plays Steve Case, who has all the drive of his later AOL counterpart, if not all the smarts—he wants to squeeze every last penny he can out of those under his command, and the local police are the lapdogs in his little fiefdom. He's got to swat down trouble wherever he sees it, and most recently it's come in the form of Ann Sheridan as Lee, a slinky American nightclub singer and card sharp who wants to work the room, but will, in Case's mind, give the boys the wrong idea about white women.

The racial politics are actually just that explicit, and just that offensive—all the Puerto Aguilar natives are portrayed as morons (the cops), beasts of burden (the men in the fields), or deeply crazy and dangerous. Most prominent among the last group is Rosario, a jailed revolutionary who wants his comrades to rise up against the American oppressors and their local enablers—it sometimes feels like Che Guevara got dropped into the middle of a tropical screwball comedy, and the tone never quite works itself out.

Cagney plays Nick Butler, the indispensable man—he's breathtakingly efficient on the job, but frequently makes the mistake of canoodling with other men's wives, so he's not much loved by his colleagues. In his pencil moustache, Cagney is catnip to women, and Sheridan falls for him hard—you can almost feel the actor straining for the comedy in the piece, and trying to strike a balance with the odd and imperialistic material he's been given. (He and Billy Wilder would find the right balance a couple of decades later, in Berlin, with One, Two, Three.) The film sort of devolves into a series of love triangles and climaxes with a shoot 'em up, but the fun of the movie is in Cagney's relationship with Sheridan, which is tart, and with O'Brien—the exchanges between Cagney and O'Brien are occasionally blistering, making this feel in its best moments like a Third World Front Page. But it's really kind of a mess of a movie, though there's some good supporting work, from Andy Devine as Wally, Butler's doofy sidekick, and George Reeves, pre-cape and tights, as one of Rosario's henchmen.



The West Point Story (1950)

"Alcatraz on the Hudson."
—Bix (James Cagney), describing West Point

After the couple of war films in this set, you might anticipate, given the title of this picture, you're in for another battle story—instead, though, it's time to put on a show! This peculiar musical has a nice pedigree, with a score by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, but it's really a silly little mess of a movie. Cagney stars as Elwin Bixby, known to one and all as Bix—he's a Broadway choreographer and musical director whose down on his luck, because he can't keep his big yap shut and he likes to play the ponies. So he's consigned to directing dinner theater and trying to hold on to his girl, played by Virginia Mayo—but much like Adelaide and Nathan, without a ring on her finger and a walk down the aisle, she's ready to bolt. A conniving producer calls in Bix with a scheme that sets the plot in motion, and it's your forgiveness for the implausibility of it that's likely to determine what you think of the movie.

It seems that the producer has a nephew who is about to graduate from West Point, and his kindly old uncle wants to keep him out of the service, but purely for professional reasons—the kid has a set of pipes that will make him the next great leading man of Broadway, and he and his buddies have written a musical revue for senior spring at the Point that's ready to transfer directly to the Great White Way. So will Bix go up to West Point, whip the show into shape, and convince the crazy kid to listen to his true calling, not to his country but to the theatuh? (Yes, he's going out there just a plebe, but he's coming back a star.) The only way that Bix can get the rehearsal time he needs is to become temporarily a cadet himself, and he knows the true way to a military man's heart—he ropes in his old pal Jan (Day), now a Hollywood starlet, to come play the lead in the college show.

Obviously it's not the realism of the piece that will draw you to it. And I'm not foolish enough to question Cagney's manhood, but on paper or in other hands, his role is very much the stock character of the sissy—the mincing choreographer who wants to get the steps just right with dancers who bungle it, his Bix is close kin to Corky St. Clair. But it's almost like the stupidity of the material is liberating for Cagney, who goofs and dances his way through the role, having more fun than the show might seem to allow. Day is as earnest as ever, and nobody else gets a whole lot to do, though notable in the supporting cast, as one of the cadets pressed into playing a female role at the all-male military academy, is Alan Hale Jr.—it's nice to see him at the tail end of this box set after seeing his father in a few of the other features, and to watch him in the years before he ran the S. S. Minnow aground.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Image quality varies among the films—the best transfer is probably The Fighting 69th, and the worst is unquestionably Captains of the Clouds. One wants to be forgiving of an early Technicolor feature like this one, but it's full of scratches, threads, and nasty evidence of fading. The Bride Came C.O.D. looks almost as bad.

Image Transfer Grade: C

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishno


Audio Transfer Review: English mono tracks only on all five films; static level varies, though there's nothing nearly as egregious here as with the image transfers.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 133 cues
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
5 Original Trailer(s)
5 Other Trailer(s) featuring Honeymoon for Three, In This Our Life, Brother Orchid, Santa Fe Trail, Tea For Two
5 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Box Set
Picture Disc
5 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Five installments of "Warner Night at the Movies" (see below)
  2. radio adaptation of The Fighting 69th
Extras Review: Each of the five features comes with an original trailer and an installment of Warner Night at the Movies, an effort to re-create what the theater-going experience must have been like for the original audiences of these movies. (It's kind of nice to see this stuff, but you do sort of get the sense that Warners figured they could empty out their vaults a little bit with these old shorts.) Each boasts a newsreel, a trailer for another film, a Warner cartoon, and a short subject—my favorite of these was the one on Torrid Zone featuring Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra. There are a couple of bonus cartoons as well, most notably on Captains of the Clouds, where you'll find What's Cookin', Doc?, in which Bugs Bunny attends the Oscars. (Also worth a mention is The Fighting 69 1/2th, in which the brave brigade is rendered as an invading ant colony.) The only additional feature in the set is a radio adaptation of The Fighting 69th, originally broadcast in 1942—Cecil B. De Mille hosts, and Cagney doesn't reprise his performance, unfortunately. The stars are Robert Preston and Ralph Bellamy instead.

Extras Grade: B-

 

Final Comments

Your favorite Cagney movie is likely not in this set, but it's still an ample collection of five of the actor's star turns from the 1940s.

 


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