Director: Michael Curtiz
Writer: Arthur T. Horman, Roland Gillett, Richard Macaulay, and Norman Reilly Raine
Cinematography: Wilfred M. Cline, Sol Polito, Winton C. Hoch, and Charles A. Marshall (not sure what this was about)
Producer: Hal B. Wallis and William Cagney
by Jon Cvack
It’s every time I think I’m going to close the available Michael Curtiz films, Netflix adds another couple more to the bucket. The movie sounded interesting enough, following James Cagney as a bomber pilot during World War II. I hadn’t seen a film with Cagney since John Ford’s Mister Rogers (1955; no relation to the show); which was awesome and one of my first experiences with the non-criminal Cagney (other being Curtiz’s other Cagney collaboration Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three (1961).
Captain of the Clouds offers a hybrid model; following Canadian shipping pilot and scoundrel Brian MacLean (James Cagney) as he delivers loose freight across the bush country; determined to live his life chasing money, women, and alcohol. At one of his regular rest stops, MacLean discovers the beautiful Emily Forster (Brenda Marshall) who’s engaged to fellow pilot Johnny Dutton (Dennis Morgan). Without a care in the world - and straight out of Cagney’s gangster persona - Brian swarms in on Emily; flirting relentlessly and, at times, forcefully. All before fully seducing her when she nurses him back to health after accidentally banging his head against the propeller and Dutton saves him.
In gratitude, MacClean joins up with Dutton and his aspiring shipping business, somehow failing to piece together MacClean and Emily's relationship. It's interesting to note that Wikipedia explains this affair in a peculiar way; describing Emily as a “gold digger” and Brian as acting in the good interest of Dutton who would otherwise fall for her manipulations. With very little ambiguity, I saw MacClean as a predator who was willing to forfeit his professional, and potentially personal relationships in order to pursue the women, or anything he desired, for that matter. And if he could make a buck by offering some modicum of reconciliation to someone he hates (that is, Dutton), so be it. Ultimately, without even telling Dutton, MacLean and Emily elope all in an effort to save Dutton the pain of her infidelities.
The problem is that Emily never plays like a despicable gold digger, but rather like a love interest swayed by MacLean's charm, which given how weird and sleepy MacClean plays the character, I'm not sure how well even this played out. Without the glamor and danger of gangsterdom, Cagney can’t really pull off the lady’s man.
Nevertheless, even learning of the marriage, Dutton and MacClean along with a few other bush pilots enter into some strange and precarious shipping business, culminating in Dutton forced into some into some emergency landing disaster that occurred during a heavy thunderstorm; utilizing a mixture of real aeronautics and a god awful miniature plane model that cut together about as well as oil and water. Yet again, for a moment, Dutton and MacClean worked together; MacClean finally showed actual compassion to his friend, which then faded when they got paid for the gig and again I’m left wondering if he actually cares about anyone but himself.
Somehow this all leads to the outbreak of WWII, in which the men are inspired by Churchill's “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech and they join the Royal Canadian Airforce; where MacClean learns that he has to learn to fly all over again, take orders, and abandon his rebellious ways; all with the added caveat that his instructor is Dutton, which bites at his pride, getting him kicked out in the process; possibly because he was also too old, which I doubt, though I just don’t remember.
During the graduation for the other pilots, MacClean and one of his bush pilot buddies complete a series of drunken flybys until his buddy stalls out and crashes into a fiery death - again with shitty models. Somehow MacClean remains out of jail.
Later, when two Canadian transport planes are shot down by German forces, the RCA needs a fleet of extra bomber pilots to transport weapons across seas to Britain. For some reason, although both kicked out for insubordination and nearly killing an entire platoon of fresh Air Force grads whilst drunk flying, he’s welcomed back. Sure enough, the Luftwaffe attack and the bomber planes lie helpless. MacClean again rejects Dutton’s orders, flying his flame into the enemy (Independence Day (1996) style) sacrificing his life for the other men.
The film was produced by James Cagney’s brother, who doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page nor all that many credits on IMDb. While his following film he would be Associate Producer on Yankee Doodle Dandy, he’d produce less than twenty films up through 1953, when he wouldn’t produce anything again throughout the next thirty five years up to his death in 1988. I haven’t heard of any of his credits before this film, which appear to be a lot of B and C-grade films; which is kind of what this feels like.
Having just read John Steinbeck’s "Bombers Away" (1942), as propagandistic as it feels it does provide you an inside look into the types of people required for each crew position. Coincidentally the book was published the same year (though that’s not why I watched it). This film feels empty of any interest in the field; as though a bridge between Cagney’s gangster performance and the Good Guys he’d later play. It’s clear they hoped to create that hair trigger buddy of yours who would do anything for his friend, but instead MacClean is a self-centered, greedy asshole; who seems as much interested in his own gain from helping people, as he is in the act itself. When he helped Dutton land in the thunderstorm, you could argue it was for the money. But when he sacrificed his life, I couldn’t help feeling it was to make himself into a martyr. I can’t think of a studio film which had such an awful lead character without the irony of following the awful character. MacClean felt designed to be respected. Placed within a plot that bounced from one section to the next, with details failing to blend together and action scenes too ambitious to be achieved, it felt like a film more concerned with betrayal and action than with telling a good story; which it could have been.
BELOW: Nothing but a trailer on YouTube so here ya go
Like what you read? Support the site on Patreon
Please report any spelling, grammar, or factual errors or corrections on the contact page
© Jonathan Cvack and Yellow Barrel, 2015 - 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jon Cvack and Yellow Barrel with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.