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DVD Reviews

HTF REVIEW: James Cagney: The Signature Collection



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#1 of 3 OFFLINE   Ken_McAlinden

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Posted April 20 2007 - 04:01 AM

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James Cagney: The Signature Collection
The Fighting 69th (1940)/Torrid Zone(1940)/The Bride Came C.O.D.(1941)/Captains of the Clouds(1942)/The West Point Story(1950)

-– James Cagney receiving his AFI Lifetime Achievement Award

Of the over 40 films James Cagney made for Warner Brothers in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, only one of them had been released on DVD by Warner Home Video through 2004. The studio went a long way towards addressing this with the "Warner Bros. Pictures Gangsters Collection" in January of 2005, which featured four of his signature gangster roles, and then with the "Tough Guys Collection" in July of 2006, which featured three more gritty crime dramas starring Cagney. "James Cagney: The Signature Collection" is the first DVD box set dedicated exclusively to the actor, and it emphasizes his versatility by eschewing the crime genre altogether. Don't worry, though, whether war drama, screwball comedy, banana republic adventure, or musical, you can rest assured that Cagney punches somebody bigger than himself hard enough to knock them down in each and every one of these films.

The Films

The Fighting 69th (1940 - Warner Brothers - 90 minutes)

Directed By: William Keighley

Starring: James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, George Brent, Alan Hale, Jeffrey Lynn

"The Fighting 69th" is a World War I military drama that mixes both fictional and factual characters to tell a story of the titular primarily ethnic-Irish United States Army infantry regiment with a proud tradition dating back to before the Civil War. Among a group of newly minted enlisted men assigned to the regiment is Jerry Plunkett (Cagney), a tough talking Bronx native who claims to have little use for the regiment's traditions and training practices, and is anxious to get to Europe to start fighting the Germans. His attitude quickly runs him afoul of his Sergeant, "Big Mike" Wynn (Hale), officers such as Major "Wild Bill" Donavan (Brent), and even his fellow enlisted men. The only man who sees any hope for his redemption is his chaplain, Father Francis Duffy (O'Brien). Faced with actual combat, Plunkett panics and endangers his whole regiment. Father Duffy encourages Major Donovan to give him another chance, but Plunkett fails to demonstrate humility or courage until further fatal blunders find him facing a court-martial and likely execution.

This war film is a bit of an odd duck in that it has a lot of elements of a propaganda film, favorably portraying the US military as a noble and honorable institution that is a bastion of religious and ethnic tolerance. These qualities are best represented by the Donavan and Duffy characters, both of whom are based on real life individuals with distinguished and storied military careers. At the film's center, however, is the story of a soldier who is a dishonorable danger to all who serve with him. The scenes of combat are also brutally unglamorous, conveying a sense of the horror inherent to early 20th century trench warfare.

The relationship between Cagney and O'Brien in this picture was likely designed to parallel that from the successful gangster melodrama "Angels with Dirty Faces" from two years earlier. In both films, O'Brien's character is a clergyman encouraging Cagney's character to redeem himself right up to the point where he is facing execution, although the earlier film was more poignant due to the childhood connection of the two characters.

Plunkett is just as incorrigible and nasty as any of Cagney's gangster creations, which makes Father Duffy's efforts to redeem him convincingly difficult, but which also stretches credulity since his actions would likely have had him washed out and/or court-martialed in the real Army long before most of the events of this film would have taken place. In contrast to Cagney, O'Brien plays Duffy as a near saintly presence which is understandable since the film appears to be conceived largely as a tribute to the real-life Father Francis Duffy, but undercuts the drama when he appears barely affected by several deaths caused by his advocacy of the unappreciative Plunkett.

The story is rounded out by some stock "character" moments from actors well suited to delivering them, including Sammy Cohen as a Jewish soldier who enlists under an assumed Irish name, even affecting a brogue, for a chance to serve in the storied 69th. Frank McHugh plays Terence "Crepe-Hanger" Burke, who is given periodic bits of comic business, often involving mooching off of his buddies. Dick Foran and William Lundigan play brothers of Alan Hale's character, one who is an officer, and the other a new enlisted recruit.

Torrid Zone (1940 - Warner Brothers - 88 minutes)

Directed By: William Keighley

Starring: James Cagney, Ann Sheridan, Pat O'Brien, Andy Devine, George Tobias

Four months after the release of "The Fighting 69th", audiences were able to see Cagney and O'Brien working once again under the direction of William Keighley in the lightly comic action-drama "Torrid Zone". O'Brien plays Steve Case, the high strung owner of a fruit company in an unnamed banana republic somewhere in the tropical region of the Americas. Despite his wealth and iron-fisted control of the local law enforcement, he is beset by troubles including the recent resignation of his number two man, Nick Butler (Cagney); a local revolutionary, Rosario (Tobias), who just won't stay imprisoned long enough to be executed; and an American nightclub singer and card shark, Lee Donley (Sheridan), who continuously resists his efforts to deport her. After a train full of over-ripened bananas arrives at the shipping location, Case entices Butler to come back on a temporary basis, fully expecting to ensnare him into returning full time. When Butler takes the train back to the center of their banana-picking operations, his work is complicated by mild resentment from his ineffective replacement manager, unwanted advances from said manager's bored wife, massive defections of his employees to Rosario's cause, sabotage and disruptive raids by Rosario's gunmen, and the distraction of the lovely Miss Donley who stowed away on the train in an effort to dodge Case.

One gets the feeling that screenwriters Richard MacAuley and Jerry Wald were fans of Howard Hawks because more than any other film I can think of that was not directed by Hawks, this story has all of his favorite elements in place: a band of men working under rugged conditions, a tough girl who can dish it out as well as the men, parts tailored perfectly for movie stars' established personas, and lots of humorous dialog even under the direst of circumstances. Heck, the core of the plot even mirrors "His Girl Friday"/"The Front Page", with a fast-talking employer wheeling and dealing to seduce/con his best employee away from his announced resignation.

In a change of pace from the usual Cagney and O'Brien pairing, they play somewhat equally-matched type-A personalities, and seem to have a lot of fun doing so. Cagney, in particular, is playing to his strengths, including his trademark strangely effeminate way of firing a pistol and punch-ups with six-foot goliaths including a young George Reeves (take that, Superman) as a native employed by the fruit company with questionable loyalties.

The real revelation in the cast is Ann Sheridan who steals every scene in which she appears as the savvy singer and card hustler. This performance built on the promise of her recent breakthrough roles in "Angels with Dirty Faces" and "Dodge City", and demonstrated just enough extra, ... well ... "oomph", to establish her solidly as a leading lady for the next several years. There is even a cheeky mention of her studio-generated "oomph girl" nickname in the movie's closing moments. Her breakthrough was reinforced when she also registered strongly with audiences and critics in "They Drive By Night" only a couple of months later. The supporting cast is strong, with Andy Devine playing Cagney's lightly comic sidekick, George Tobias in not-too embarrassing bandito drag as Rosario, and Frank Pugilia as a humorously incompetent "Bernardo Fife"-style chief of police.

The film is overall very entertaining, but is undermined slightly by an ending that seems to swing unevenly in tone between serious and screwball in a way that does not quite seem to fit with everything that preceded it.

The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941 - Warner Brothers - 92 minutes)

Directed By: William Keighley

Starring: James Cagney, Bette Davis, Harry Davenport, Jack Carson, Stuart Erwin, Eugene Pallette, William Frawley, George Tobias

The highlight of this collection for me is the flat-out screwball comedy "The Bride Came C.O.D.". The witty screenplay by Julius and Philp Epstein from a story by Kenneth Earl and M.M. Musselman, tells the story of Joan Winfield (Davis), an oil heiress who has impulsively accepted a marriage proposal from band leader Allen Brice (Carson). After a radio gossip show host, Tommy Kennan (Erwin), convinces them to elope on a slow news day, Steve Collins (Cagney), the pilot who is scheduled to transport them to Las Vegas, spoils their plans when he conspires with Joan's father, Lucius (Pallette), to spirit her away to him in Texas for a freight rate of $10 a pound. Collins is hoping to make enough money to save his airplane which is being repossessed by creditors, but his plans are also spoiled when plane trouble finds him forced to perform an emergency landing in the desert near an all-but-abandoned mining town. The rest of the film follows the battle of wills between abductor and abductee while tracking the efforts of Lucius, Allen, the media, and Steve's creditors to locate them.

While Bette Davis may not be the first name you think of when the term "Screwball Comedy" is bandied about, she acquits herself well as a light comedienne in this change of pace role. Her established ability to jerk tears from audience eyes is matched in this film by her ability to comically pluck cactus spines from her posterior. This was her second and final pairing with Cagney, and the only collaboration between them when they were both at their career peaks. They are a well matched pair, who each stake claim to their section of the scenery to chew, whether via physical slapstick or snappy dialog.

The pace is kept fast and frothy enough that one does not dwell on the many incredulous elements of the plot, my favorite being the novel concept that the FBI does not consider it kidnapping as long as your father is among the conspirators. These films live and die based on the chemistry of the leads and the appealing quirkiness of the supporting cast, and "The Bride Came C.O.D." acquits itself fairly strongly on both counts. Harry Davenport is particularly amusing as the coot who seems to be the only person left in the mining town. He savilly plays on people's expectations of him to be a half-mad eccentric.

Director Keighley keeps things snappy, and the 92 minutes of the film fly by fairly effortlessly, even as the plot complications keep accumulating. If the film stumbles anywhere, it is in its failure to properly lay the groundwork for the romantic reunion at its end, but I could say that about 95% of the screwball comedies ever produced, so I will not hold it against this one.

Captains of the Clouds (1942 - Warner Brothers - 113 minutes)

Directed By: Michael Curtiz

Starring: James Cagney, Dennis Morgan, Alan Hale, Brenda Marshall, George Tobias, Reginald Gardiner

James Cagney, who had a documented fear of flying, followed up "The Bride Came C.O.D." with yet another film in which he played an aviator, this time under the direction of Michael Curtiz, who had also most recently worked on an aviation drama ("Dive Bomber"). This was Cagney's first film in Technicolor, and one of only three color films he would make for Warner Brothers during their long association.

In "Captains of the Clouds", Cagney plays Brian MacLean, a Canadian bush pilot who has raised the ire of fellow pilots Johnny Dutton (Morgan), "Tiny" Murphy (Hale), "Blimp" Lebec (Tobias), and "Scrounger" Harris (Gardiner), by frequently undercutting them and stealing their fares. Before they have a chance to confront him about it, he is seriously injured in an accident outside his plane. Dutton makes a dangerous run in harsh weather to bring a doctor to MacLean, who is subsequently nursed back to health by Dutton's fiance, Emily Foster (Marshall) who develops a romantic interest in him. After his recovery, MacLean, Dutton, and Murphy go into business together for a lucrative season, but their newfound friendship is sundered when MacLean steals Dutton's fiance. Months later, MacLean, Murphy, Lebec, and Harris are listening to a radio broadcast of Churchill's "We shall fight..." address to the House of Commons, when they all decide to offer their services in the Royal Canadian Air Force. MacLean's hot dogging seat of his pants philosophy does not mesh well with the military regimen, and he encounters further complications when the officer assigned to train him turns out to be Dutton.

This film has something of a split personality, and feels like two different movies imperfectly grafted together. The first half, focusing on the lives of the Canadian bush pilots, is the most interesting, with appealing action, colorful characters, a unique setting, and just enough romantic melodrama to keep things interesting. The second half plays more like a standard propaganda film, inclusive of a protracted graduation ceremony speech that stops the film dead in its tracks, and lots of noble sacrificing all around. Parts of this approach work because it underlines the fish out of water nature of the bush pilots in the military setting, but the pacing is thrown off, and the romantic subplot takes a turn for the ridiculous that causes thing to drift into the realm of the hokey. That being said, Curtiz must have learned his lesson from the dull training and testing narrative of "Dive Bomber", because he works in an actual war combat sequence for the film's climactic cross-Atlantic flight that mixes excitement with poignancy.

The circumstances of the film's production make the awkward shift in tone understandable, as it was likely undergoing its final editing around the time that Pearl Harbor was bombed, and it was made with the full cooperation of the RCAF. Cagney and Curtiz would meld entertainment with patriotic propaganda much more satisfyingly with their next film together, "Yankee Doodle Dandy".

The West Point Story(1950 - Warner Brothers - 107 minutes)

Directed By: Roy Del Ruth

Starring: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Doris Day, Gordon MacRae, Gene Nelson, Roland Winters

Shortly after the success of "Yankee Doodle Dandy", James Cagney had one of his famous fallings out with Warner Brothers, left the studio, and worked primarily in freelance and self-produced projects for most of the rest of the 1940s. In 1949, however, Warner Brothers and Cagney reunited with a little reluctance but to great mutual success for the updated gangster thriller "White Heat". After another somewhat artsy foray into the crime genre with the independently produced noir "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye", Cagney was signed by Warner, along with his "White Heat" co-star Virginia Mayo, to do the musical film, "The West Point Story".

In "The West Point Story", Cagney plays mercurial Broadway director Elwin "Bix" Bixby. His brash (trademark Cagney) nature and gambling problems have burned almost every bridge in the vicinity of Manhattan, to the point that even his long-suffering assistant/girlfriend Eve Dillon (Mayo) is ready to walk out on him. After some considerable cajoling from producer Harry Eberhart (Winters), Bix is convinced to take a job directing a bunch of United States Military Academy cadets in their annual "100 Days" revue with the ulterior motive of convincing Eberhart's talented nephew, Tom Fletcher (MacRae), to quit the academy and sign a talent contract with him. Through the course of his efforts, Bix puts the cadets through their paces while trying to both bend and adapt to the West Point way of doing things, going so far as to actually live as the oldest first-year "plebe" on campus. In his efforts to attract Fletcher away from his military commitment, he even calls in a favor from movie starlet Jan Wilson (Day) a plan which almost works too well as Bix starts learning a thing or two about honor and commitment.

As movie musicals go, this is a pretty weak effort, but it is not without its charms. While the film is devoid of truly memorable songs (with the possible exception of the sing-songy "By the Kissing Rock" which is reprised a couple of times and will be stuck in your head for days whether you like it or not), it has a number of remarkable dance routines from Gene Nelson, Cagney, and Mayo. MacRae and Day are always good together, and it's also fun to see Nelson and MacRae together five years before "Oklahoma", but all of those qualities were present in a better film released a few months earlier called "Tea for Two".

The plot is cheesy, predictable, and incredulous. The production looks like it was made on the cheap, with frequent use of rear-projection plates to stand in for any recognizable West Point location, including a courtyard where Cagney is forced to march when he is disciplined.

The Video

All of the films in the "James Cagney Signature Collection" are presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio representative of their original theatrical presentations.

The black and white transfer for "The Fighting 69th" has good detail with natural film grain. Contrast had sufficient depth to properly render shadow detail during the film's many night scenes. I saw no signs of significant compression artifacts or ringing along high contrast edges.

The black and white transfer for "Torrid Zone" was similar in character to that for "The Fighting 69th", but with slightly higher contrast resulting in less shadow detail and whites occasionally on the edge of blooming.

The black and white transfer for "The Bride Came C.O.D." has light natural film grain and good contrast. I did not notice any significant compression artifacts or edge ringing. In my opinion, this is the best video transfer in the collection.

The transfer for "Captains of the Clouds", the only Technicolor film in this collection, is a bit grainier with more visible film element damage than has been typical in recent Warner classic film releases, although it is not excessive in either case. The transfer seems to favor slightly orange-ish skin tones, and has decent, although not perfect registration. Compression artifacts are not an issue, and I did not notice any significant ringing around high contrast edges.

The black and white transfer for "The West Point Story" is somewhat disappointing. It seems a bit grainier and higher in contrast than the other films in this collection, and there are frequent signs of ringing around high contrast edges. The film also inherently features a lot of rear projection background shots that have even higher contrast and grain levels than the rest of the transfer.

The Audio

All of the titles in "James Cagney: The Signature Collection" feature an English Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track encoded at 192kbps bitrate, and have available English subtitles. No dubbed foreign language tracks or non-English subtitles are included.

The audio for "The Fighting 69th" had light hiss with generally good fidelity. The battle scenes had some impressive low-frequency content, and modest depth in dynamic range.

The audio for "Torrid Zone" is above average. There is a low-level audible hiss throughout, and during certain very quiet passages, I heard a very low level hum, but I had to listen very critically to notice it. The track otherwise had good fidelity and dynamics for a film of its era.

The audio for "The Bride Came C.O.D. was fairly strong. There is a constant light hiss with normally good fidelity and dynamic range. There is some occasional audible distortion, but nothing pervasive.

The audio for "Captains of the Clouds" is clear with very little noise, although critical listeners will notice occasional noise reduction artifacts.

The audio for "The West Point Story" is good, but not great, with audible noise reduction artifacts and, during certain loud passages, noticeably harsh sounding distortion.

The Extras

"The Fighting 69th" includes the following "Warner Night at the Movies" contents: A theatrical trailer for the 1940 Edward G. Robinson comedy "Brother Orchid"; an 87 second newsreel clip of US Navy ships heading out on war game training maneuvers in the Pacific; "London Can Take It" - a 9-1/2 minute documentary featurette narrated by Quentin Reynolds taking a somber but inspirational look at 24 hours in the life of London under the Nazi Blitz bombing circa 1940; "Young America Flies" - a 22 minute featurette (written by Delmer Daves) dramatizing the training of a group of students under the Civil Aeronautics Authority Pilot Training Program at Stanford University; and "Pilgrim Porky" - a Bob Clampett Looney Tunes cartoon with a bunch of blackout gags surrounding the trip of the Mayflower with Porky as the captain. Additional extras include: "The Fighting 69-1/2th" - A Friz Freleng Looney Tunes cartoon where a group of red and black ants wage war over a picnic spread; an hour-long audio-only feature of the Lux Radio Theater broadcast of "The Fighting 69th" from April 6, 1942 starring O'Brien, Robert Preston, and Ralph Bellamy which is nicely presented with chapter stops every three minutes; and the original theatrical trailer for "The Fighting 69th".

"Torrid Zone" includes the following "Warner Night at the Movies" contents: A trailer for the Errol Flynn western "Santa Fe Trail"; a one minute newsreel clip showing army recruiting; "Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra" - a 9-1/2 minute musical short with Ozzie Nelson singing and conducting his orchestra through three songs in what I believe was the screen debut for the man who would 12 years later become America's favorite TV dad; "Pony Express Days" - a 19-1/2 minute Technicolor short telling a story of the early days of the Pony Express starring George Reeves featuring an above-average video transfer; "A Wild Hare" - A Tex Avery Merrie Melodies cartoon that was the screen debut of the fully realized Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. The original theatrical trailer for "Torrid Zone " is included as well.

"The Bride Came C.O.D." includes the following "Warner Night at the Movies" contents: A trailer for the comedy "Honeymoon for Three"; a newsreel looking at the latest fashions for the Easter season of 1941 (lace is all the rage, ladies); "Carnival of Rhythm" - an 18 minute Technicolor musical short featuring Katherine Dunham that dramatizes a day in the life of a Brazilian town through song and dance; "Forty Boys and a Song" - a ten minute short subject focusing on the Robert Mitchell Boys Choir showing them singing songs in the classroom, at church, and around the fire at Boy Scout camp; "Porky's Pooch" - a Bob Clampett Looney Tune cartoon where the title character explains how he employed persistence to convince Porky to adopt him; and "Rhapsody in Rivets" - A Friz Freleng Merrie Melodies cartoon in which a construction foreman conducts his employees to the tune of Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody" while they build a skyscraper. Finally, the disc includes the original theatrical trailer for "The Bride Came C.O.D."

"Captains of the Clouds" includes the following "Warner Night at the Movies" contents: A trailer for the Bette Davis drama "In This Our Life"; a newsreel clip in which James Cagney reads a message from Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau about the continued importance of voluntary War Bonds; "Rocky Mountain Big Game" - a ten minute color featurette documenting an expedition to the Canadian Rockies by Michael and Helen Lerner where they photograph wildlife and hunt bighorn sheep; "Fresh Hare" - a Friz Freleng Merrie Melodies cartoon where Bugs is pursued by Canadian Mountie Elmer Fudd notable for a politically incorrect gag at the end and for a very "off-model" Elmer that seems to vary as the cartoon progresses between the fat pear-shaped Elmer used in a few early 40s cartoons and the more popular small body/round head Elmer that eventually prevailed. Finally, the disc includes the original theatrical trailer for "Captains of the Clouds".

"The West Point Story" includes the following "Warner Night at the Movies" contents: A theatrical trailer for the musical "Tea for Two" notable for a unique promotional song written just for the trailer and sung by Doris Day and Gordon MacRae; A newsreel clip of President Harry Truman delivering an anti-Communist speech; "Grandad of Races" - a 10 minute color short in the "Sports Parade" series that looks at the Palio horse race and subsequent flag festival in Siena, Italy, the history of which dates back to the middle ages; and "His Bitter Half" - a 1950 Merry Melodies short where Daffy Duck marries for money and then proceeds to regret it immediately. Finally, the disc includes the original theatrical trailer for "The West Point Story" which features a unique promotional song sung by a male chorus.

Packaging

The discs are packaged in hard plastic slimcases with cover art derived from vintage promotional art for the films. Like other "Signature Collections", the cases are enclosed in a thin cardboard box with a portrait of James Cagney on the front and reproductions of the disc covers for each title on the back cover. All of the titles in "James Cagney - The Signature Collection" are also available individually in standard Amaray-style keepcases.

Summary

While perhaps not the most iconic films in Cagney's canon, the five films collected here provide a nice cross-section of genres in which he worked. Video transfers range from decent to very good, usually dependent on the condition of the film elements used, although "The West Point Story" had more video artifacts than I would like to see. The audio tracks are all fine representations of their vintage mono sources.

Regards,
Ken McAlinden
Livonia, MI USA

#2 of 3 OFFLINE   Steve...O

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Posted April 20 2007 - 06:06 AM

Ken, thanks for a wonderful review!

I am currently making my way through the excellent Errol Flynn set and its good to know that these will be waiting in the wings to watch afterwards. The star power in these collections among the supporting casts is incredible. The extras alone are worthy of purchase.

I hope consumers continue to support these releases. One reason I keep going back to the Warners films of this era is that they are just plain fun to watch. The use of the stock company also provides a familiarity that (I know this is corny to say) makes watching these films like viewing old friends.

Steve
Please help UCLA restore the Laurel & Hardy films: https://www.cinema.u...aurel-and-hardy

#3 of 3 OFFLINE   Ken_McAlinden

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Posted April 20 2007 - 06:28 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Steve...O
...The use of the stock company also provides a familiarity that (I know this is corny to say) makes watching these films like viewing old friends.
I know what you mean. After watching "Torrid Zone", "The Bride Came C.O.D.", and "Captains of the Clouds" consecutively, I was staring to wonder if Warner would market it under the alternate title: "George Tobias: The Supporting Actor Collection". Posted Image

Along those lines, a couple of notable supporting actors that I did not mention in my review include the always reliable Grady Sutton as Sam, O'Brien's extremely tolerant office assistant in "Torrid Zone", and the "I can't believe the 'Skipper' was ever that young" Alan Hale, Jr. as the oversized cadet initially slated for the drag female lead in the West Point Story's stage production. Sutton especially made me smile because I had just watched "The Bank Dick" with my family a couple of nights before.

Regards,
Ken McAlinden
Livonia, MI USA