"So Full of Spectacle and Glory it Had to be Made in Technicolor!" screamed the ads for Captains of the Clouds, and sure enough, James Cagney's first color movie boasts some spectacular aerial sequences. The story follows a group of Canadian bush pilots who decide to join the Royal Canadian Air Force when WWII breaks out. It sounds simple enough, but the truth is that Captains of the Clouds was an exceptionally challenging and difficult picture to make. Warner Bros. producer Hal Wallis wrote in his memoirs that the film "proved to be by far the most extensive and difficult venture in location work undertaken by Warners since the silent period." Most of the film was shot in and around Ottawa. With difficult wartime conditions, every hotel in the area was booked, and the crew had to be housed in an army camp - with army food. "They grumbled loud and long," recalled Wallis, "and twice we came close to a strike on the picture."
One day, Cagney suffered a concussion during a stunt in which his character gets knocked into the water by a propeller. Afterwards, Wallis and director Michael Curtiz were informed by their technical adviser that in such a situation "the propeller would normally have been turned off, and we had gone through this experience for nothing." Other problems included truck crashes, plane crashes, various on-set injuries and even lightning, which one afternoon struck a camera reloading shed "and burned it to the ground."But the single hardest sequence to shoot was the elaborate "wings" ceremony, in which Air Marshal Billy Bishop's speech to the ranks on an airstrip is interrupted by Cagney's daredevil flying maneuvers. The scene took forever to nail down. Just getting the timing right was a major logistical challenge which required many attempts, but there were other problems: A sudden rainstorm. Engine trouble. Not enough sunlight. Malfunctioning cameras. The air marshal showing up late. After a week, wrote Wallis, "Rain, technical mishaps, and problems of every kind continued to dog us. We finally had to piece together fragments of footage from the many days of shooting in order to achieve a finished result. In the picture, however, it looks as if the whole sequence was shot at high noon in optimum sunny conditions."Captains of the Clouds sprang from a magazine story called "Bush Pilots" which Canadian actor Raymond Massey had brought to Wallis's attention. Cagney wasn't crazy about the script but was persuaded to do the film by Jack Warner, who told him that he would be contributing to the war effort by accepting the role. Cagney relented, but only on the condition that his brother Bill be the line producer. In his memoirs, Cagney also remembered the film as one of his most grueling, but he added, "the one consolation for all the hard work was the kind of person you worked with. Alan Hale, that big, wonderful guy we all loved. Always in a good humor. Dennis Morgan, also a nice, nice guy. As the years wear on, I look back at those people and think about them. When they were around, I really enjoyed them, but now I realize that I could have enjoyed them more. The picture business has always been such a hysterical one and the demands on attention so great that one didn't have time to savor everything to the fullest - particularly your friends. That is one of my regrets."
Reviews were mixed, but critics raved over the sensational aerial scenes. Time said, "Although Cagney is much better than his thankless role, the real heroes of Captains are director Michael Curtiz and his five cameramen, who caught the matchless greens and browns of Canada's infinite north-country." The Motion Picture Academy thought so, too, nominating Sol Polito for a Best Cinematography Oscar®. (He lost to Fox's The Black Swan, shot by Leon Shamroy.) Ironically, Polito almost didn't make it to the set. As an Italian, he had serious trouble getting across the Canadian border since Canada was already at war with Italy. He also suffered a heart attack during production.
Captains of the Clouds was completed before Pearl Harbor and released in January 1942. In hindsight, the picture is an interesting precursor to the WWII combat film genre that would soon get underway. Intended also as a rousing "war preparedness" film for American audiences, by the time it played, the U.S. was already at war, but it did serve as a showcase of the Canadian war effort. Released in an era of patriotic films that skirted propaganda themes, Captains of the Clouds received an enthusiastic public acceptance. Although it was a "Hollywood" production, the film premiered simultaneously on February 21, 1942 in New York, London, Ottawa, Cairo, Melbourne, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver with RCAF pilots transporting film copies to all these cities. The public reaction can be partly attributed to the plot line that revolved around the unique Canadian wilderness and the enigmatic bush pilot mystique. The vivid aerial scenes filmed in Technicolor were another aspect of the expensive production that garnered critical attention. Although reviews were mixed especially in regards to the stagey plot and forced "romantic" overtures, the aerial scenes were considered the film's redeeming feature.
The description of the film's production is detailed in an article at http://www.pastforward.ca/perspectives/august_292003.htm
the crew stayed at the Empire Hotel and at Len Hughes Camp Champlain during
their stay here. The big stars spent very little time here but some of the crew
remained for several weeks shooting the bush plane scenes. Cagney hated flying
and did not fly as was the case with the other actor pilots. Hollywood stunt
flyers were brought in. The close-ups of the cabins of the planes were shot
later in Hollywood in mock up cockpits. Of local interest is the fact that well
known North Bay businessman Harry Mulligan, who had some Hollywood connections
was instrumental in bringing the movie to North Bay. He loaned his carrier
pigeons to the director to send messages to North Bay for transmission to
Hollywood and elsewhere. Trout Lake was just in the early stages of its
development and there were no phones and the roads were very rough. Yvette
Gravelle Boyce who lives on Nipissing's south shore and her sister Jeanette
worked as cooks at Len Hughes Camp Champlain in 1941 and fed the staff and crew
of the film on several occasions. Cagney and others had cabins there for
convenience. The sisters and a brother were asked to be a part of a scene where
people were needed in the background and their brother caught a rope thrown from
a docking plane in one scene. Stand ins were often used until a scene was
actually shot and before the stars stepped in and sometimes a double that looked
like the star was used where a close up was not required. Mildred "Middy"
Morland, daughter of the owner of North Bay's Morland real estate company was
chosen to be a double for Brenda Marshall. In one scene she stands on a
wagonload of hay while Cagney's bush plane buzzes the wagon. The scene was shot
several times and the star was nowhere in sight until she comes down off the
wagon and is seen in a close up. Mildred married Jack Gorman, a young reporter
at the Nugget who covered the shooting of the film. They live in North Bay. She
recalls the good pay and the trips to work in a Deluxe taxi.
The film obviously recycles elements of both Devil Dogs of the Air and Ceiling Zero (in a very clumsy attempt), but without O'Brien (regrettably), and neither color nor the addition of an awful (I'll say) title song could freshen it. Anyway, Captains of the Clouds was Jimmy Cagney's second Warner Bros. aviation picture in a row (you see, it was made after The Bride Came C.O.D., and it was his fourth overall), but his very first to feature material connected to World War II. After directing this film, Michael Curtiz directed two of the generally best films in American film history which make this film look like crap: Casablanca (which I like very much since it doesn't overpraise the US unlike the latter film) and Yankee Doodle Dandy.Anyway, I did not really watch the fighting scene at the end and some of the flying scenes since they were too dramatic. I would recommend this film for James Cagney fans who enjoy watching him in war films. Happy Commenting!!
(Next blog: A Day at the Races )
Clips from Captains of the Clouds: