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Captains of the Clouds was released fairly early in 1942 and therefore began production before the Pearl Harbor attack, when the U.S. was still a neutral country. Isolationists in Washington condemned Hollywood's increasingly pro-mobilization movies as violations of the Neutrality Act, and caused trouble for the Warners' film Sergeant York and a few others. Despite a mostly cornball script, this splashy Technicolor film encouraged volunteers for the Royal Canadian Air Force and was highly successful wartime propaganda for our democratic neighbors to the north. Star James Cagney led a cast of mostly regulars from the Warner lot, but Canadians were impressed by the appearance of WW1 ace Billy Bishop. Acting comes naturally to Air Marshall W. A. Bishop, who even quips that Texas is a loyal Canadian province.
Captains of the Clouds is an odd propaganda concoction that begins as a pro-United Kingdom advocacy piece and finishes as an ersatz combat film. The previous year's Dive Bomber promised combat and delivered a story about medical research. This colorful oddity finds a way to pit America's favorite Public Enemy against a nasty Messerschmitt in an aerial game of 'chicken.' Cagney plays a 'loveable' rat of a pilot, who sneers at his friends while stealing their business and their girlfriends. Once in the service, he can't follow orders but instead puts his faith in his flying instincts. When that philosophy gets him cashiered, he has only one more chance to prove himself. That's when our lone wolf's showboat heroism ends up saving the day.
Audiences always give James Cagney's characters every benefit of the doubt. And since the movie doesn't try for much in the way of character complexity, it works. Filled with the gumption of the great north woods, the reckless Brian zooms and twirls in his vintage wooden seaplane, hop scotching across the forests from one lakeside outpost to another while pulling dirty tricks on his pals.
Cagney's MacLane bad boy antics involve kissing, too. He tempts Brenda Marshall's Emily with a trip to the wide-open town of Ottawa (What happens in Ottawa stays in Ottawa?), which turns out to be a combo dirty trick and noble gesture. The script tags Emily as No Good for being interested in more than one guy. Then we see her and a third guy in the vicinity of a haystack, which in Production Code terms classifies her as a Jezebel, First Class. Brian marries Emily and then dumps her, just to keep her from "despoiling" her innocent fiancée Johnny Dutton. That makes Brian a very special kind of best friend, the sort that sleeps with your girlfriend (this isn't firmly established) for your own good. Sure enough, when we see Emily again, she's wearing a shocking red dress and drinking in a nightclub: Brian did the right thing. Captains of the Clouds' application of the classic Double Standard can only be described as bizarre.
In flight school and later training duty we discover that MacLane isn't cut out for military discipline, which expects recruits to show at least a passing interest in the rules. He mouths off to everyone and then wipes out a student pilot by 'instinctually' flying through his own bomb explosion. Sometimes The Force works, and sometimes it doesn't.
Brought low by his own hubris, Brian atones with (to quote Detour) a "Class-A Noble Sacrifice" that puts him nose-to-nose with a Messerschmitt. This land-based German fighter is somehow hundreds of miles West of England, even though French-based fighters couldn't even provide bomber cover when the Luftwaffe was hitting London. Dozens of unarmed Canadian planes are at this single plane's mercy until Brian disobeys orders and attempts a purposeful suicide collision. Rather primitive models zip and zoom, inter-cut with dynamite close-ups of Brian's wild-eyed grimace as he bears down on the German plane. It's a rather silly attempt to recreate Cagney's noble suicides from hits like Angels with Dirty Faces and The Roaring Twenties, and it works only because we love Jimmy the Gent and will follow him anywhere. This theme would later be thrown back in our faces at the end of White Heat, when Cagney figuratively transforms himself into a human atom bomb. We don't want to follow him quite that far.
Some people have called Captains of the Clouds the template for the early Tom Cruise films, in which Cruise portrays intensely unpleasant young men doing truly rotten things, yet maintains his hero status by star billing alone. Movies like A Few Good Men present Cruise's character as an utterly selfish and immature swine, and then resolve the conflict by having all the other characters get behind him anyway, because he's special. Top Gun's selfish flier has some similarities to this film's Brian. If Captains of the Clouds were to follow the Cruise pattern more closely, Brian MacLane would be awarded a medal for killing the trainee under his care.
Director Michael Curtiz uses the standard casting choices at Warners, teaming Cagney with the same four or five faces that show up in all of his movies. Alan Hale and George Tobias are Brian's best buddies and Reginald Gardiner is in as a Brit happy to return to England to fight the good fight. Dennis Morgan is the perfect second lead: handsome, relaxed and oblivious to the absurdity of the script.
Warners' DVD of Captains of the Clouds is an almost picture-perfect video representation of the Technicolor original. All of those handsome Canadian aerial scenes (filmed by Elmer Dyer and Winton Hoch) are breathtaking, and the full-color portraits of Brenda Marshal make her look dark and luscious. Aviation fans love the aircraft on view, including a rare shot of a British Hawker Hurricane that stands in for a German fighter.
The Night at the Movies collection of short subjects include a Canada-themed hunting featurette and two cartoons, one of them with Elmer Fudd in a Mountie uniform. Trailers on view are for the main feature and the 1942 Bette Davis picture In This Our Life.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Captains of the Clouds rates: