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Case Number 11256

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James Cagney: The Signature Collection

The Fighting 69th
1940 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Torrid Zone
1940 // 88 Minutes // Not Rated
The Bride Came C.O.D.
1941 // 91 Minutes // Not Rated
Captains Of The Clouds
1942 // 113 Minutes // Not Rated
The West Point Story
1950 // 107 Minutes // Not Rated
Released by Warner Bros.
Reviewed by Judge Dylan Charles (Retired) // April 23rd, 2007

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All Rise...

Judge Dylan Charles says going back in time was fun, but he missed his DVD player back in the 1940s.

The Charge

"I hate the word "superstar." I have never been able to think in those terms. They are overstatements. You don't hear them speak of Shakespeare as a superpoet. You don't hear them call Michelangelo a superpainter. They only apply the word to this mundane market."—James Cagney

Opening Statement

When I reviewed the Robert Mitchum Signature Collection, I found it to be a fairly thorough introduction to Robert Mitchum and his work over several decades. So when I saw that the James Cagney Signature Collection was up for review, I jumped at the chance without taking a close look at what was inside.

And I got caught off guard by "Warner Night at the Movies" and a much more narrow selection of movies.

Facts of the Case

The Bride Came C.O.D.

Wealthy oil heiress Joan Winfield (Bette Davis) is planning to run off to Las Vegas to elope with singer Allen Brice (Jack Carson), a man with a thoroughly healthy ego. Joan wants to get it done on the sly and in a hurry to avoid the wrath of her father, Lucius K. Winfield (Eugene Pallette). But charter pilot Steve Collins (James Cagney) sees this as an opportunity to make some extra cash. Collins contacts her father and promises him that Collins can deliver Joan unmarried in Amarillo, payment to be received on delivery.

Captains of the Clouds

Canadian bush pilot Brian MacLean (James Cagney) is the best there is and every other bush pilot hates him for it. His prices are lower, his plane is faster, and he's sneaky as all get out. But soon the war on the continent (World War II) has made its way over to beautiful and free Canada. What was a lighthearted drama soon becomes another World War II Canadian propaganda movie. As if 49th Parallel wasn't enough.

The Fighting 69th

A regiment that became legendary for its fighting prowess now must prove itself in battle against the Germans in World War I. Straight from the streets of New York and more or less Irish through and through, the 69th is ready for anything. Except for Jerry Plunkett (James Cagney), who has a chip on his shoulder and isn't afraid to show it. His only friend in the service is Father Duffy (Pat O'Brien), a noble man in the middle of one of the bloodiest and most pointless wars. Plunkett must struggle with his own battlefield fears or face the loss of his honor.

Torrid Zone

Steve Case (Pat O'Brien) is in trouble. The current manager of his South American banana plantation is incompetent, political dissident and guerrilla Rosario La Mata has escaped from prison to resume his activity in the nearby jungle, and a singer/card sharp named Lee Donley (Ann Sheridan) is in danger of causing a ruckus in the nearby town. Only one man can help Case now and that's Nick Butler (James Cagney), the former manager of the plantation. It's just matter of whether or not he wants to, seeing as Nick has his heart set on Chicago.

The West Point Story

Elwin Bixby (James Cagney) is a down-and-out Broadway choreographer/dancer/singer who has a chance to make a pile of cash. All he needs to do is head out to West Point, help the cadets put on a show, and, in the process, convince Tom Fletcher (Gordon MacRae), a cadet with a pretty face and a great singing voice, to come with him back to Broadway. Bixby enlists the help of his girlfriend Eve Dillon (Virginia Mayo) and actress Jan Wilson (Doris Day). Lots of forgettable music follows.

The Evidence

Before I get to reviewing the movies proper, I'd like to talk to you about the extras for the set. Don't come to the set expecting in-depth interviews with Cagney or behind-the-scenes featurettes that give the dirt on whether or not Bette Davis really fell on a cactus three times for The Bride Came C.O.D.. No such extras are included. No audio commentaries, no chats with any of the stars that are still kicking, none of that.

Instead you get "Warner Night at The Movies." This is an attempt to mirror what it was like to go to the movies back in the golden days, when a trip to the movies didn't just mean watching a movie. They've included vintage newsreels, trailers, cartoons, and short films—all from the same year that the movies were originally released. There's an option to watch everything right before the picture or you can watch each thing individually at your leisure.

I won't review the newsreels because, well, it's damned hard to review a newsreel. Just know that the quality is good for them all and they're just interesting on their own as time capsules. The whole concept of re-creating a 1940s theater experience is interesting and I actually enjoyed the setup. In fact, I'm suffering from some sort of temporal vertigo. After four or five days of watching James Cagney movies surrounded by 1940s newsreels and Bugs Bunny in blackface, I'm starting to think it actually is 1940. In which case, I hope Churchill gives that rat Hitler whatfor. Buy War Bonds!

On to the movies…

The Bride Came C.O.D.

In all honesty, I could do this review with a minimal amount of words (It Happened One Night on a plane. And not good.), but my integrity as a writer won't allow it.

There is chemistry between the two leads, but not the kind that leads to a romance. Cagney and Davis work best together when they're sniping at each other, not when they're making eyes at each other from the inside of a mine. Which just adds to the problem of what I feel is a pretty forced romance. I didn't feel like they had any real reason to fall for one another; it just happened because the plot dictated it. "Whoops! We've reached Act III, time to fall in love!"

The extremely bland, yet still vaguely annoying, Allen Brice character doesn't really help matters much. His presence as a threat never really registers, even when he's knocking Cagney's character into the dirt. From the moment Brice appears on the screen, you know it's all over for him. Just because it's a screwball comedy doesn't mean it has to be trite and predictable.

But being funny is a prerequisite and that's something else that The Bride Came C.O.D. doesn't do very well. The running gag of Joan falling onto a cactus wasn't terribly funny the first time they did it and listening to her painfully loud yelps as Cagney pulled the spines out of her ass weren't particularly pleasant to listen to either.

On this night at the movies you'll be able to view two cartoons and two shorts. The two cartoons are good if only because they're two of the few in this set that don't include offensive racial stereotypes. The two shorts here are probably the worst in the set, with Carnival of Rhythm being a disjointed mess. It's a loosely connected string of songs that I think made a full story about a woman and some guy. Forty Boys and a Song was, well, forty boys singing. Take from that what you will.

Captains of the Clouds

There are really two movies here. The first 40 minutes or so details the adventures of a group of bush pilots living in Canada during the early years of World War II. It's a fairly light drama, with a rivalry developing between Cagney's character, MacLean, and the other pilots. This first section is quickly supplanted by the second movie, in which the pilots enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force. This is where Captains of the Clouds begins to take a darker turn.

It's also where the movie begins to feel a bit awkward and less natural. The character develop a patriotic zest that wasn't there before and suddenly everyone's afire to take up a rifle (well, a plane anyway) and fight the Germans. It's a more restrained version of a propaganda film. Our stalwart face numerous obstacles in their efforts to get across the ocean. There's also the tragic downward spiral that MacLean faces during the second half.

The disjointed pairing of the two halves is what hinders the film. Each half would have made for enjoyable viewing taken on their own, but when slapped together they cause a kind of whiplash—particularly in the cases of Lebec (George Tobias) and Tiny (Alan Hale). Both of these characters fit perfectly into the world of the comedic drama. Lebec is a borderline caricature of a French Canadian and Tiny is your typical blustering large man (hence the name Tiny). Suddenly throwing these two in the middle of a bleak picture about feeling useless in the middle of a war just feels, well, awkward. But in Technicolor!

The short included on here is Rocky Mountain Big Game, a nifty little documentary about the Canadian Rockies. The two cartoons are "Fresh Hare" and "What's Cookin' Doc?" "Fresh Hare" ends with Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd singing "Camptown Races" while in blackface. But it is topical to the film in that Elmer Fudd is a Mountie. So, an extremely offensive, yet topical cartoon.

The Fighting 69th

This and Torrid Zone are the best movies in the collection. Unlike the uneven The Captains of the Clouds, The Fighting 69th presents a more solid picture from beginning to finish—which is to say, more depressing all the way around.

Here, Cagney is at his best, in this particular cluster of movies anyway. And there's a definite connection between him and O'Brien. Their scenes together are among the best in the movie. O'Brien is Cagney's angel on his shoulder throughout the film, with Cagney acting as his own devil. This is no more apparent then in a scene toward the end, where O'Brien talks to Cagney about how men react to fear and the definition of cowardice.

And really, that shows the tone as well. Where a lot of movies of this ilk would go into long-winded definitions about what it means to be brave, The Fighting 69th talks about being scared. Everyone gets scared, but they learn to live with it. They're talking about the same thing, but from a different perspective, a slightly darker one. This can be seen in the battles as well, where the enemy is rarely seen and characters drop like flies.

Alan Hale is back for this picture as well, playing a large, easily angered Irishman. But unlike his later role in Captains of the Clouds there's some depth to the character. A lot of the characters are based on real people. From Father Duffy to the warrior poet Joyce Kilmer (Jeffrey Lymm), all fought in the real War to End All Wars.

There are two shorts. Young America Flies is amusing just for the hokiness, but London Can Take It is just plain good. I know you were hoping for this: both cartoons contain derogatory depictions of African Americans. But at least "The Fighting 69 1/2th"'s transgression is mercifully brief.

There's also a radio adaptation of the movie, which is interesting for what it is. Pat O'Brien reprises his role as Father Duffy, but Mr. Cagney is absent.

Torrid Zone

Here's a movie where everything works well. Cagney is tough an ornery and possesses a kind of rough-hewn charisma. He plunges through jungles firing shots at guerrillas. He manages to take a plantation that's being run into the ground and turn it around. He is the quintessential man here.

And yet Ann Sheridan's character still gets the better of him, both in cards and with her sharpened tongue. After seeing Pat O'Brien playing a soft-spoken chaplain, it was startling to see him switch gears to the tough and unlikable Steve Case. The minor characters are well acted and memorable, such as the guerilla leader Rosario. One moment he's trying to kill Cagney and the next he's playing matchmaker, an idea that actually works in the context of the film. The plot is coherent and the jokes are funny.

It's neat little comedy that casts Cagney more as the straight man instead of the goofball that he is in the other comedies. In fact, Torrid Zone reminded me a lot of Robert Mitchum's Macao. Both films let the Cagney and Mitchum poke some fun at their tough-guy personas.

I am pleased to announce that the cartoon contained here has absolutely no racial stereotypes! Huzzah! But the short film, "Pony Express Days" makes up for it with the phrase, "death-dealing savages." Oh, well.

So, in short, Torrid Zone is everything that The West Point Story isn't.

The West Point Story

I am no expert on musicals. I do, however, have the notion that musicals were supposed to have catchy or moving songs that lingered in one's brain. Yet, I can't remember a single song contained in The West Point Story—and I consider this a blessing. I do remember a rather lengthy oration praising West Point that was nigh on endless. This oration shared a lot in common with several of the tap dance routines, in that they, too, were interminable. And then there was the Cagney-centric song about Brooklyn at the end. I have no problem with Cagney himself because I can't really judge his abilities from what's an awful little song.

Cagney was literally bouncing from place to place and he was the strongest aspect of the movie. Doris Day and Virginia Mayo didn't shame themselves, but everyone else was a non-entity. For some reason, Cagney has the best chemistry with women who are constantly taking him down a notch in the movie. Mayo's Eve is not up to Sheridan's level in Torrid Zone, but she still has teeth.

Lord, do they pile on the melodrama. During one scene, Day's Jan, an actress who has made it in Hollywood, tells her army boytoy that they can't be together because she's "a commodity now, not a woman." I have never seen two people try so hard to keep from being together. They were almost reaching for issues to keep them apart. This was just one aspect of an altogether incomprehensible and nonsensical plot.

The short and the cartoon were both enjoyable and free of racism. And "Granddad of Races" actually learned me something. So, while The West Point Story is pretty bad, the extras get my hearty recommendation.

Closing Statement

I'm torn. I really like the "Warner Night at the Movies" concept and I like how they've implemented it, though I'm sure there are those who would rather see extras that are more centered around the films themselves. Then there are the movies themselves. There are no real standout films here, but there's nothing bad either—except for The West Point Story. And they all showcase either War Cagney or Comedy Cagney. Gangster Cagney is conspicuously absent.

All in all, I think this is a set where the packaging and presentation is better than the average offerings inside. Cagney fanatics only for this one.

The Verdict

James Cagney is innocent of ever having said, "You dirty rat!," but is guilty of having been in some pretty iffy comedies.

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Genres

• Classic
• Comedy
• Concerts and Musicals
• Drama
• War

Scales of Justice, The Fighting 69th

Video: 90
Audio: 90
Extras: 90
Acting: 90
Story: 90
Judgment: 89

Perp Profile, The Fighting 69th

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1940
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Fighting 69th

• Vintage Newsreel
• 2 Patriotic Shorts: "Young America Flies" and the Oscar-Nominated "London Can Take It!"
• Classic Cartoons: "The Fighting 69 1/2th" and "Pilgrim Porky"
• Trailers for The Fighting 69th and 1940's Brother Orchid
• Audio Only Bonus: Radio Adaptation with Pat O'Brien, Robert Preston, and Ralph Bellamy

Scales of Justice, Torrid Zone

Video: 90
Audio: 90
Extras: 90
Acting: 90
Story: 90
Judgment: 90

Perp Profile, Torrid Zone

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
•  1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1940
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Torrid Zone

• Vintage Newsreel
• Musical Short: "Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra"
• Historical Short: "Pony Express Days"
• Classic Oscar-Nominated Cartoon: "A Wild Hare"
• Trailers for Torrid Zone and 1940's Santa Fe Trail

Scales of Justice, The Bride Came C.O.D.

Video: 90
Audio: 90
Extras: 90
Acting: 85
Story: 85
Judgment: 79

Perp Profile, The Bride Came C.O.D.

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 1941
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Bride Came C.O.D.

• Vintage Newsreel
• Musical Shorts: "Carnival of Rhythm" and the Oscar-Nominated "Forty Boys and a Song"
• Classic Cartoons: "Porky's Pooch" and the Oscar-Nominated "Rhapsody in Rivets"
• Trailers of The Bride Came C.O.D. and 1941's Honeymoon for Three

Scales of Justice, Captains Of The Clouds

Video: 90
Audio: 90
Extras: 90
Acting: 90
Story: 80
Judgment: 80

Perp Profile, Captains Of The Clouds

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 1942
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Captains Of The Clouds

• Vintage Newsreel
• Sports Short: "Rocky Mountain Big Game"
• Classic Cartoons: "Fresh Hare" and "What's Cookin' Doc?"
• Trailers for Captains of the Clouds and 1942's In This Our Life

Scales of Justice, The West Point Story

Video: 90
Audio: 90
Extras: 90
Acting: 85
Story: 70
Judgment: 70

Perp Profile, The West Point Story

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 1950
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The West Point Story

• Vintage Newsreel
• Oscar-Winning Sports Parade Short: "Granddad of Races"
• Classic Cartoon: "His Bitter Half"
• Trailers for The West Point Story and 1950's Tea for Two








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