Warner Bros. at their peak is ebulliently on display in 1942’s CAPTAINS OF THE CLOUDS, directed by Michael Curtiz, and now available in a dazzling High Definition Blu-Ray from those piloting the Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment.
Certainly not the premiere IB effort from the director, who had been noodling with Technicolor in various forms since the silent days, CAPTAINS is a first for its charismatic star and the sensational locations.
Yep, after more than a decade in the Biz, James Cagney finally made his Technicolor debut. It’s weird it took so long to feature the reddish-blonde-haired actor in three (or two) strip hues and tones, but that’s Hollywood…Or Warner Bros. Okay, truth be told, he was originally pegged to star in a very different version of Adventures of Robin Hood before some Warners sage queried J.L. with the truism, “Wait, isn’t Errol Flynn under contract to us?” Suffice to say, the delay was worth it: Jimmy looks swell in IB.
The other first champions the process’s immense capabilities by being Hollywood’s initial full-scale filming of a feature film in Canada. Designed for Technicolor, the production’s Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Alberta locations are awesome.
That leaves us with the plot. True to the studio, notorious for cannibalizing past triumphs – whole and in part – to “new” projects, CAPTAINS has a bit of The Crowd Roars, some of Ceiling Zero, a tad of They Drive by Night, and a smidgeon of Dive Bomber. The fast and furious cut-‘n’-paste concoction, in fact, looks as if it may have been at some point a Raoul Walsh picture, but the upping the stakes to Technicolor practically guaranteed it to Curtiz (as noted, a veteran of the process).
What is hodge-podged together in Arthur T. Horman’s, Richard Macaulay’s and Norman Reilly Raine’s script (from a story by Horman and Roland Gillett) is a tribute to Canada’s bush pilots – those daring sorta-young men who risk their lives flying accident victims, and delivering medicine and other essential goods to inhabitants in the wilderness (of which there is pul-lenty). Cagney, in a part he could play in his sleep, portrays Brian MacLean – a cocky and even ruthless member of the profession – who puts the kibosh on the considerable opposition by slashing flight prices, and mapping detour routes that ensure shorter flying times. Natch, his competitors are pissed, and plan revenge. And, also, natch, since this a Warner Bros. picture, they’re portrayed by lovable rogues Alan Hale, George Tobias, Reginald Gardiner, and rising WB talent Dennis Morgan. But MacLean is an ace bush pilot in other ways, too – by horning in on the available (and spoken for) local hotties. Prime is Emily Foster, a boonies lass with hormones that won’t quit.
Em’s the half-and-half fiancee of Morgan’s Johnny Dutton, but Jimmy sees through her promiscuity, and his (now) respect for his air cohorts (and vice versa) prompts him to do what every bro-code-inclined BFF does: seducing the woman and marrying her so that the decent lad won’t ruin his life. What a pal!
This naturally causes dissension among the ranks, and a peeved Johnny quits the gang by joining the RCAF. Cagney, who ditches Emily the night after the wedding can’t understand Dutton’s anger – which is all pushed aside when Adolf declares war. After listening to Churchill’s iconic “we shall fight them on the beaches…” speech, the middle-aged boys all decide to join up as well, and beat them Nazis to a pulp (hey, where are these gallant gents today?). Unable to conform to the rigid guidelines of the military (their impressive flying prowess termed as nil), half the team swallows their pride and begins from scratch, the other half is washed out/up, turning to drink. Eventually, patriotism shines through, and they all take on the Heinies for an epic (and surprisingly graphic) climactic air battle.
The fact that the stirring stuff doesn’t happen until more than halfway through the pic would likely sink any movie. But Curtiz’s lightning handling, and Cagney’s usual bravura performance (as well as the game supporting cast) shove all that narrative construction nonsense to the side. Indeed, there’s not a dull moment in the piece; we even meet up with Emily again, now a high-priced “hostess,” apparently dishing out STDs like war bonds. And, as all skanky hoes do, her brief return offers a wrath of patriotic prose, including a good luck wish to former squeeze Johnny, and a take-care hug to the ex who set her on the official road to whoredom. What a gal!
As for those supporting Jimmy, it’s, as indicated, the usual Burbank crew, plus an additional array of top-notch thesps, including Paul Cavanagh, Clem Bevans, J.M. Kerrigan, J. Farrell MacDonald, Frederick Worlock, Benny Baker, Hardie Albright, Charles Halton, Louis Jean Heydt, Willie Fung, James Craven, Don Dillaway, Tom Dugan, Miles Mander, Reginald Denny, Gavin Muir, Charles Smith, Frank Wilcox, Emmett Vogan, and, in an early appearance, Gig Young. Brenda Marshall, we should mention, is quite memorable as Emily – the usually refined actress getting down and dirty with panache. Marshall’s Lucy-goosie character was a part originally slated for Ida Lupino, who eagerly risked suspension, rather than accepting the role; Cagney, himself, wasn’t even first choice – with Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, George Brent, and even Raymond Massey (a genuine Canadian) bandied about Hal Wallis’s office before cooler heads prevailed, maybe even that Robin Hood one.
Of course, the BIG star is Technicolor. The landscapes look gorgeous, as do the uniforms, and those fantastic (and colorful) bush pilot planes. Technicolor scores, too, with the aforementioned graphic content. Much blood is spurted throughout, and must have caused quite a commotion in theaters across the country. As I stated in the previous column, as late as the early 1960s, blood in color resulted in many a gasp. I can only imagine how the gushers in this flick affected the audience.
Even before the Nazis strike, there’s an early sequence where MacLean, showing off for Emily, backs up too far causing his head to split open by a still-rotating propeller. It’s double-take worthy now; can’t imagine what happened in the 1942 Bijous.
As with most Warner Archive titles, CAPTAINS OF THE CLOUDS looks and sounds tremendous – the Technicolor visuals being beautifully realized by Wilfrid Cline and Sol Polito (Oscar nominated), with special flying camera teams encompassing the stuntwork and special direction of Paul Mantz. Max Steiner does his standard expert job of providing bombastic, memorable music in a score that also comprises the title song, composed by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer.
Since Warners never let anything go, the song/theme will be instantly recognizable to WB cartoon fans, having been often utilized by the brilliant arranger Carl Stalling. Should also mention that two great Bugs Bunny cartoons from the period are included as extras, Hold that Lion, Please(1942, Chuck Jones), and What’s Cookin’ Doc? (1944, Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng).
Other extras are a mixed bag. Positive is a specifically filmed war bond theater promo film starring Cagney (which I had never seen), and, sadly, a terrible short (also from the same year as CLOUDS) Rocky Mountain Big Game, shot in 16MM Kodachrome and blown up to 35MM Technicolor. The quality of the imagery is very good, it’s the subject matter that is risible. The short follows asshole husband-wife “zoologists” Michael and Helen Lerner on a trek to hunt rare long horned sheep – the hunt being promised to be strictly with a camera. But once these morons find their prey, they can’t resist killing a pair for their trophy room (if only it had been the other way around). Watching this made me sick. Avoid like the plague.
So, yeah, you’ve seen it all before, but likely not ever so pretty, so give CAPTAINS OF THE CLOUDS a gander.
CAPTAINS OF THE CLOUDS. Color. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment. SRP: $21.99.
This title and others can be purchased at the Warner Archive Amazon Store or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.