Captains of the Clouds: A Patriotic Canadian Film

James Cagney in Captains of the Clouds. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

While initially greenlit as a war preparedness film, the United States was already at war when Captains of the Clouds was released in 1942.

Captains of the Clouds made history during its initial production in 1941. It would mark the first time that a Hollywood film would be produced in its entirety in Canada. Warner Bros. was all about greenlighting any films that would help prepare the US for war. This time around, the studio was more than happy to help America’s neighbors to the north. The main focus is on the Royal Canadian Air Force and their efforts in the war. Of course, the film tells its story through the lens of a few Canadian bush pilots. Warner Archive released it on Blu-ray in 2022.

The first half of the film sets up a love triangle between Brian MacLean (Jimmy Cagney), Johnny Dutton (Dennis Morgan), and Johnny’s fiancé, Emily Foster (Brenda Marshall). Johnny hopes to start an airline but Brian is a very different type of pilot. Anyway, Johnny is the one who flies out to get a doctor when Brian injures his head. But even then, the two continue to get into it. Never mind the fact that Brian more or less makes his move on Emily while Johnny is away. Brian marries Emily as a way of saving Dutton. This takes us into the second half of the film. First, Johnny enlists in the RCAF. Second, with the marriage seemingly over, Brian joins the other bush pilots at a bar only to draw inspiration from Winston Churchill’s (Miles Mander) “We shall fight on the beaches” speech on the radio.

MacLean and company enlist in the RCAF but learn they are too old to serve as pilots. They end up serving as British Commonwealth Air Training Plan flight instructors much to their own reluctance. Much to their surprise, Dutton is the commanding officer. In any event, Brian’s own rule-breaking tactics are the ultimate reason for receiving a court martial and a discharge order. Later on, Brian and Tiny Murphy (Alan Hale) plan their revenge when they learn Air Marshal William “Billy” Bishop is giving out the wings. Unfortunately, this act results in Tiny’s death and Brian losing his pilot’s license. Brian makes his way back into the service when he uses Tiny’s papers. The RCAF just lost 44 ferry pilot and needs as much help as they can get. Luckily for Brian, Emily told Johnny the truth. Brian ultimately sacrifices his life when they fight the Germans.

In watching the final product, you would not know that the film had issues with its production. Cagney would have been better off using a stunt double but ended up with a concussion. Regardless, the aerial sequences are among the film’s better visuals. I could really do without the love triangle because it is not necessary. The only thing it does is drive the major characters into the RCAF. It’s really during the second hour in which the film does what it needs to be doing. Cagney improvises some of his lines in part because of his reluctance to take on the role. If not for his brother serving as an associate producer, he wouldn’t have done the film. Cagney also went head to head with Curtiz over mistreatment of other actors. Whatever issues they had wouldn’t stop them from reteaming on Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Had the film been released prior to December 7, it could have been received very differently because it was a war preparedness film. Much like other patriotic films during the era, this was also a propaganda film in living Technicolor. Not in a bad way, of course, but RCAF’s main goal was to increase enlistment in the air force. It is a film that is very much in line with the Warner Bros. model of thinking in the late 1930s and early 1940s. This time around, they were doing the film as a favor to the RCAF.

Michael Curtiz wasn’t initially assigned to direct but got the assignment when the studio assigned William Keighley to another film. Max Steiner handles the scoring duties, finishing his work just two days prior to Pearl Harbor. Steiner’s scoring of the fog sequences suggest that danger is in the air. It’s a quiet scene and yet so beautiful in terms of music. After a bumpy start in Canada cinematographer Sol Polito earned an Oscar nomination for Cinematography–Color.

Captains of the Clouds could benefit from a stronger script but the cinematography and Steiner’s score are among the few highlights in this RCAF enlistment booster.

Bonus Features

  • 1942 Newsreel
  • Rocky Mountain Big Game (Short)
  • What’s Cookin’ Doc? (Cartoon short)
  • Hold the Lion, Please! (Cartoon Short)
  • Theatrical trailer

DIRECTOR: Michael Curtiz
SCREENWRITERS: Arthur T. Horman, Richard Macaulay, Norman Reilly Raine
CAST: James Cagney, Dennis Morgan, Brenda Marshall, Alan Hale, George Tobias, Reginald Gardiner, Reginald Denny

Warner Bros. released Captains of the Clouds in theaters on February 21, 1942. Grade: 3.5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.