James Cagney meets Technicolor for the first time in Michael Curtiz’s wartime aviation drama Captains of the Clouds, not one of his most fondly remembered roles but one worth seeing at least once.
The Production: 3/5
James Cagney meets Technicolor for the first time in Michael Curtiz’s wartime aviation drama Captains of the Clouds. With his cocky top-billed star at his most aggressive, a first-rate director, and a sensational cadre of character actors offering sterling support, Captains of the Clouds should have been a better film; Technicolor helps in providing visual allure, and there are some excellent aerial calisthenics, but the narrative is only partially successful as a morale booster and Cagney’s late film heroics can’t quite compensate for his mostly disagreeable character.
Hotshot bush pilot Brian MacLean (James Cagney) thinks nothing of stealing flying jobs from other freelancers like Johnny Dutton (Dennis Morgan), “Tiny” Murphy (Alan Hale), Blimp Lebec (George Tobias), and Scrounger Harris (Reginald Gardiner), and since he can fly circles around them when they come looking to even the score, he isn’t at all worried about revenge. He even offers to go in with them to start an air freight service in Canada once they’ve all saved enough money to get the business off the ground, but World War II and the flirtatious, gold-digging goodtime girl Emily Foster (Brenda Marshall) kill the business before it can get going. The boys decide to offer their aviation gifts to the Royal Canadian Air Force but are shocked to learn they’re too old for combat missions but are just right to serve as instructors for the youthful pilots. A cocky rule-breaker like MacLean, however, finds military discipline a trying ordeal even though his talents as a pilot aren’t lost on the commanders.
The screenplay by Arthur T. Horman, Richard Macaulay, and Norman Reilly Raine divides neatly into two halves: the barnstorming adventures of the men as bush pilots for the first half and the more stringent flight school instructions of the second half with most of the most suspenseful action saved for the film’s last quarter hour as the men are tasked with flying an unarmed squadron of planes across the Atlantic for European combat service with the possibility of the Luftwaffe behind every cloud. Try as he might, director Michael Curtiz can’t drum up any really great action or suspense until that last fifteen minutes as the planes in stiff formation are sitting ducks for enemy aerial gunfire. Earlier hijinks with MacLean’s flying antics and brawling (mostly with Dennis Morgan’s Johnny Dutton) over the comely Miss Foster come and go without making much of an impression (other than painting MacLean and Foster as scoundrels and Dutton as a naïve waif). The flight cinematography is a mixture of real aerial work and good (if somewhat obvious) models, and the graduation ceremony of honorable men (real-life young pilots recruited for the film before heading off for real combat missions) offers a patriotic and disciplined respite from the unbridled chicanery of MacLean and Murphy (which also serves to set up the last second surprise that leads into the film’s climactic mission).
While Brian MacLean is in the same league with so many of his other cocky antiheroes from earlier films, James Cagney’s work here is sometimes a bit off-putting. Rather than explaining to Dennis Morgan’s sincere and open-hearted Johnny about the mistake he’s about to make with the calculating, amoral Emily, MacLean prefers to simply foil her plans his own way and allow himself to be thought of as a selfish cad by everyone else – a nonsensical rather than heroic maneuver. Brenda Marshall’s performance as the feckless love interest is brave in its self-centeredness and unbridled lust and even a late movie reappearance fails to do damage control to her character’s basic indecency. Much more entertaining are Johnny’s buddies played by Alan Hale, George Tobias, and Reginald Gardiner. Their every appearance is a buoy for the film. And the movie is stuffed with wonderfully familiar faces doing one and two scene roles: Paul Cavanagh and Reginald Denny as commanding officers, Frederick Worlock as president at the court martial, Russell Arms as a talented rookie pilot, and Gig Young and Morton Lowery as young students at the flight school.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 is faithfully rendered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. The picture is so sharp and crystal clear that at most times it looks as though one could walk right into the frame. The Technicolor hues are beautifully rendered here with flesh tones most appealing and the blue skies almost palpable. There are no visual anomalies to distract one’s enjoyment of the sterling image quality. The movie has been divided into 36 chapters.
The DTS-Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix is strong and clear. Any problems with age-related hiss, crackle, flutter, or pops have been completely eliminated. Dialogue throughout is crystal clear and has been combined with Max Steiner’s stirring background score (and a title tune by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer that gets multiple plays) and the various sound effects with professional ease.
Special Features: 2.5/5
Newsreel (2:14, SD): James Cagney appears in this 1942 newsreel advocating for war bonds.
Rocky Mountain Big Game (10:06, SD): live action short on hunting, part of The Sports Parade series.
Animated Shorts (HD): the classic What’s Cookin,’ Doc (8:12) and Hold the Lion, Please (8:26), both with Bugs Bunny.
Theatrical Trailer (2:50, HD)
While it’s not among his most fondly remembered roles, James Cagney nevertheless takes Technicolored flight in Michael Curtiz’s Captains of the Clouds. Warner Archive offers another of its Technicolor marvels for public consumption which fans of the film’s stars or director will likely want to add to their collections.
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