Somehow, James Cagney is a lot more likeable as a gangster smushing a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face in The Public Enemy than in any scene of his first Technicolor film, Captains of the Clouds, as a roguish pilot. Writers Arthur T. Horman, Richard Macaulay, and Norman Reilly Raine walk a tricky line with Cagney’s character Brian MacLean, but rather than tip-toe carefully, they fall flat on their faces. MacLean is meant to be a shifty character with a heart of gold, but he just comes off as a jerk who excuses his actions with false justifications. Could that be the point? It’s hard to tell, but intentional or not, his characterization makes the otherwise fun Michael Curtiz Technicolor adventure more of a downer.
MacLean is a bush pilot in Ontario, one who the other pilots loathe for his practice of stealing all their gigs by offering a lower price. He’s good enough at piloting that when the group comes across a big job, they get him to come along, and eventually enlist together in the air force after hearing Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech in June 1940.
Throughout the film, MacLean butts heads with Johnny (Dennis Morgan), another pilot whose fiancee, Emily, (Brenda Marshall) MacLean starts to flirt with. The film’s treatment of Emily is bizarre as well—one moment she’s depicted as a saintly local girl, and in the next she’s a gold digger. MacLean goes to the ridiculous length of marrying Emily to protect Johnny from her, a nonsensical move for plenty of reasons, but also one of many moments removing any agency she might have as a character.
Part of the problem might just have been casting Cagney in the first place. Though he’s good in the part, bringing as much charm as anyone could to this unlikeable character, he also brings an edge to MacLean that certainly doesn’t make him a more sympathetic guy. In fairness, Cagney himself didn’t like the script, but was persuaded to take it on by Jack Warner purely as a contribution to the war effort. Morgan and the other ensemble pilots are good enough, but don’t come anywhere near saving the film. If anything does, it’s the typically excellent Warner Brothers technicians, people like composer Max Steiner and cinematographers Wilfred M. Cline and Sol Polito, all working under the reliable Curtiz.
Though it’s certainly a better aviation-themed movie than the one Curtiz released a year earlier, the deathly dull Dive Bomber, Captains of the Clouds mixes overbearing patriotic messaging with an unlikeable lead character to unremarkable results. The film was still a massive hit, and Curtiz and Cagney would move on to collaborate on a much better film: Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Where to Watch
Buy it on DVD