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James Cagney CollectionThe James Cagney Signature Collection on DVD

By Jim Bray

James Cagney may have been known best for his tough guy roles, but he was a multi-talented actor whose roles encompassed everything from crime action to screwball comedy, song and dance musicals and even biopics.

The James Cagney Signature Collection's five titles doesn't cover all the bases (for example, his portrayals of "the Man with 1000 faces" Lon Chaney and "Yankee Doodle Dandy" George M. Cohan aren't here), but it's a pretty good representative sampling of Cagney's versatility.

Not only that but, as is Warner Brothers' wont with several other such releases, the titles are packaged as "Warner Night at the Movies" that combine newsreel, trailer, short subject and cartoon into what would have been a night out at the flicks back when these flicks played the local movie house.

The titles in question are: The Bride Came C.O.D., Captains of the Clouds, The Fighting 69th, Torrid Zone, and The West Point Story, and the set also offers a star-studded list of "also appearings" including Bette Davis, Dennis Morgan, Alan Hale, Pat O'Brien, Ann Sheridan, Doris Day, Gordon MacRae and Virginia Mayo, which is a pretty good cross section of Hollywood talent of the time as well.

All of the movies are presented in their full frame aspect ratio, widescreen not being a staple of the big screen back then, and the audio is mono – and though it should be said that some of the movies look a tad grainy, the one color entry looks great.

Of the five films, my favorite was Captains of the Clouds, a movie of which I had seen parts in the past but the ending of which I had never reached for a variety of reasons. It may not be the best of the group (though I'd argue it is anyway), but with Michael Curtiz as director and Max Steiner scoring, how can it not be great?

Captains is also an early World War II homage to the Royal Canadian Air Force and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, one of Canada's greatest contributions to the war effort.

At the film's opening, Brian Maclean (Cagney) is a bush pilot in Northern Canada, a hotshot who's rubbing his fellow bush pilots the wrong way by horning in on their routes, customers and, in one case at least, girls. But he's very talented and quite engaging in a way only Cagney can be, and he ends up friends with the pilots who wanted to shoot him down early in the film.

But war interrupts, and Maclean and his buddies head to the big city to offer their services and experience to the RCAF – which rebuffs them initially because they may be great pilots, but not necessarily the type of people the Air Force wants. They do manage to do their bit eventually, initially as instructors and, later, a bit closer to the action.

This is a great movie, not only as a Cagney/Curtiz film but as a historic (at least as far as Hollywood can do history) time capsule as we are treated to actual scenes of Canadian aerodromes and training programs of the time (including an air base that became Ottawa International Airport, where I spent much time as a schoolboy fascinated by anything aviation-related – and that's why this film speaks to me so much).

It's also gorgeously filmed (if you overlook some cheesy model effects) in Technicolor.

Extras for this disc include the sports short "Rocky Mountain Big Game" and the cartoons "Fresh Hare" and "What's Cookin' Doc?", the latter of which combines live action and animation into an apparent plea to give Bugs Bunny an Oscar. Alas, it makes the worst mistake a Bugs Bunny cartoon can: it isn't funny.

In The Bride Came C.O.D., an oil heiress (Bette Davis) is all set to elope with a bandleader she's only known for an incredibly short time. Cagney is a poor (financially, if not aeronautically) pilot who's supposed to fly them to Nevada so they can do the deed, but instead he makes a deal with her father to deliver her home with the dirty deed undone.

This black and white "screwball comedy" was written by Julius J. and Philip Epstein of Casablanca and Arsenic and Old Lace fame, two terrific old films that have nothing to do with James Cagney but which are well worth seeing. It also stars Stuart Erwin, Eugene Pallette, Jack Carson and George Tobias and features another great Max Steiner score.

Extras for this one include a couple of musical shorts (which has nothing to do with one's underwear after a Chili dinner) and two classic cartoons (including the Oscar-nominated "Rhapsody in Rivets".

The Fighting 69th is another WWII film, kind of – and a hokey but enjoyable one. Cagney and Pat O'Brien play two members of the title regiment, which was a famed, WWI regiment populated mostly by Irish Americans. Cagney is a cocky and scrappy Jerry Plunkett, the bane of his officers and non-coms. They, and chaplain, Father Duffy, try to teach him some discipline, but for naught until after one particularly cowardly act costs the lives of some fellow soldiers, he's inspired by the Chaplain to redeem himself, perhaps.

Extras accompanying this black and white feature include two patriotic shorts ("Young America Flies" and "London Can Take It!") another pair of classic cartoons and a radio adaptation of the film, starring O'Brien with Robert Preston and Ralph Bellamy.

In the "steamy action comedy" Torrid Zone, O'Brien plays Banana company executive Steve Case trying to convince former co-worker Nick Butler (Cagney) to take over the plantation. But Butler is a tad distracted by night-club singer Lee Donley (Ann Sheridan), and you know what happens when a broad comes into the picture…..
Another black and white feature and, at 88 minutes, a very short one, Torrid Zone also features a musical short featuring Ozzie Nelson and his orchestra, the historical short "Pony Express Days," and the Oscar-nominated toon "A Wild Hare."

The final title in the set, The West Point Story, is "a song- spangled, colors flying salute to Uncle Sam's own cadets," and features some big name musical stars of the day. Broadway showman Elwin "Bix" Bixby is having a bit of a rough patch and is persuaded, against his better judgment, to help the cadets at West Point military academy put on a show.  And he thought he had troubles before!

Extras accompanying this black and white feature include a Sports Parade short ("Granddad of Races") one classic cartoon ("His Bitter Half") and some trailers, along with another newsreel.

Okay, this only scratches the surface of what Cagney did, but if you aren't familiar with his work - or if you are and want a pretty good showcase of the man and his history, this isn't a bad place to start.

The James Cagney Signature Collection, from Warner Home Entertainment.

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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