Torrid Zone contains perhaps the quintessential Ann Sheridan performance. A down-on-her-heels, tough dame getting by with her wit and sass. She's been around, but no one is gonna put anything over on her.
Co-starring James Cagney (taking over for George Raft) and Pat O’Brien, the quip-filled screenplay, written by Richard Macaulay and Jerry Wald, incorporated (uncredited) elements from both Red Dust and The Front Page. Cagney, who almost turned the film down, felt that the script had “no real substance or importance,” and referred to the finished product as “Hildy Johnson Among the Bananas.” I have a feeling that Torrid Zone is as underrated as it is today because of Cagney's low opinion of it. While the film was a hit at the time, boasting lively exchanges between the characters and a breezy script, making it one of Warners’ best comedies ever, it really isn't considered the classic it should. “Nice little park you got here,” Annie considers, surveying the plantation, “if you like bananas.”
Sheridan is a cardsharp/nightclub entertainer (she sings “Mi Caballero”) who gets mixed up with a South American banana plantation owner (O’Brien, talking a mile a minute) and his reluctant foreman (Cagney). Cagney is attracted to Annie - that is, until she takes him for $300 (“Lucky at cards, unlucky in love”). The rest of the film finds her trying to win him, while swapping barbs with her rival for his affections, Helen Vinson.
Cagney and Sheridan, seen also in the classic Angels with Dirty Faces and City for Conquest, score again as a team and Cagney has never seemed sexier (this despite his mustache, grown out of defiance). They spar throughout, and the great thing about Annie was her ability to never take him seriously. The fun between the two was the empathy they exuded while verbally clashing; their exchanges were playful instead of nasty or abrasive. O’Brien walks in on one of their passionate kisses, scolding them for “acting like a couple of high school kids.” Sheridan, without missing a beat, tartly responds, “You just interrupted a postgraduate course.”
Likewise, in a different way, the uppity Vinson and the down-to-earth Sheridan make terrific, sharp-tongue competitors for Cagney:
SHERIDAN (Picking up Vinson’s discarded cigarette): I understand the Chicago fire started from something like that.
VINSON: The Chicago fire was started by a cow.
SHERIDAN: History repeats itself.
The best line is the tagline, written by the film’s associate producer Mark Hellinger. At the fadeout, Cagney, clutching Sheridan to him, for their final kiss, grumbles, “You and your 14-Karat Oomph!” Cagney disliked the line, requesting that it be cut. Hellinger bet him that the line would get the biggest laugh in the picture. A few days after Torrid Zone premiered, Hellinger received his check for $100 from the actor.
Annie’s likable feistiness (“You push me one more time and you’ll wear this suitcase as a necklace”) made everyone take notice. Torrid Zone’s importance to Annie’s career cannot be overemphasized. “Ann Sheridan really comes into her own,” announced Screenland. “She’s not only more Oomph-ish than usual, but gives a tangy performance of the girl whose morals, despite her way with cards and Cagney, are above reproach.” The New York Times raved: “[She] steps up a notch or two in our estimation as the femme fatale of the piece . . . But if the males are two-fisted, Miss Sheridan meets them blow for blow, line for line,” and The New York World-Telegram added: “Miss Sheridan is entirely at ease as the hard-boiled torch singer, and when the occasion demands sentiment and simplicity that too, is at her command.”
Producer Mark Hellinger became an early Sheridan booster and lover. It has been reported that (the married) Hellinger had a private phone in his office, one that only Ann had the number for. When Hellinger died suddenly in 1947, Ann reportedly was sobbing so strongly, she had to leave the church where the funeral was held.
Regardless of the nature of their personal relationship, it is very obvious that Hellinger thought enough of Ann to provide her with substantial roles at Warners, roles that propelled her to stardom: It All Came True, Torrid Zone, and They Drive by Night. His presence in her life and career at this point was crucial to her development as a leading star.