A few months ago your correspondent befriended a older gent in Florida who goes by the name of Dave. Dave is a retired USAF helo crew chief and retired law enforcement officer, but he still keeps an active hand in the aviation industry by working at his local airport. Owing to his age, experience and natural enthusiasm for the industry, the man is an encyclopaedia of aviation knowledge, both military and civil. A few months ago we had chatted about aviation movies, and Dave suggested several that your scribe didn’t even know existed. That conversation launched me into a rewarding exploration of the classic aviation films of yesteryear.
First on the docket is a very rare bird: Captains of the Clouds, the Top Gun of its time. Brian MacLean (James Cagney) is a skilled, overconfident bush pilot who undercuts his rivals’ rates, stealing their cargoes and passengers. Eventually he makes peace and becomes fast friends with them. With the outbreak of war, he and his fellow bush pilots enlist in the RCAF. He gets himself into (and out of) trouble with his peers and superiors. Near the top of his game, he is brought low by a confidence-draining loss, but battles back and eventually redeems himself at a critical moment in battle with the enemy.
There’s also a couple other fellows who you’d swear you’ve seen elsewhere. Johnny Dutton (Dennis Morgan), a fellow bush pilot in love with fickle north country glamour girl Emily Foster (Brenda Marshall). I found his resemblance to contemporary Canuck Paul Gross distracting—it kept pulling my attention out of the movie until I had to grab the laptop and check IMDB to see if they were related. (They’re not, Mr. Morgan is of Swedish stock out of Wisconsin, while Mr. Gross hails from Calgary, Alberta.)
Then there’s this guy (also a bush pilot), ‘Tiny’ Murphy (Alan Hale). If you’re seeing a family resemblance to the Skipper, of Gilligan’s Island fame, that’s because this man is his father. Alan Hale Senior’s mannerisms and expressions—at least as much of them as you get to see in this film—are eerily similar to those of his more famous son.
Interestingly, when Captains of the Clouds started filming in July of 1941, the United States was not yet at war (that would come later in December, with the attack on Pearl Harbour). The film was Hollywood’s first epic shot entirely in Canada, and James Cagney’s first feature in Technicolor. The bush flying scenes were shot near North Bay on Trout Lake and Jumping Caribou Lake. The RCAF scenes were shot at several stations, including Uplands, Trenton, Dartmouth, Jarvis and Mountain View.
One thing that needs to be made clear right up front is that the story is extremely formulaic; every twist and turn of the plot is carefully telegraphed well in advance of the action. I’m not exaggerating by saying that the dialogue and acting is occasionally painful to watch. What makes it worthwhile, though, are the shots of the rugged bush aircraft (Noorduyn Norseman, Fairchild 71), the many trainers and warbirds of the RCAF, and brief glimpses of RCAF stations around the country in a state of wartime preparedness—in 1941, Canada had already been at war for two years.
Here some images captured from the film (click on them to enlarge). This was a TV capture and not DVD quality, so the resolution is not the greatest.
FAVOURITE MOMENT: When Air Marshall Billy Bishop is presenting wings to new cadet graduates, he asks Leading Aircraftman (LAC) Grew where he is from. Grew replies “Texas, sir,” to which the Air Marshal quips “One of our most loyal provinces.” Grew replies “I think so, sir,” and Billy replies “Well I think so too. We thank you for coming up here and helping us.” You can see the entire exchange starting from 1:35 through 1:55 in this YouTube clip.
It’s worth noting that everyone you see in that Wings Parade (minus the marquee actors) are real RCAF cadets and personnel who would shortly be facing combat in Europe. One hopes LAC Grew made it back home to Texas in one piece.
VERDICT: I enjoyed the film for the historical aspects and the opportunity to see RCAF bases hosting BCATP aircraft and crews. In terms of storyline it is not the best writing you will ever see; the film was meant as a recruiting drive for the RCAF and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan specifically. It will hold some attraction for warbird and history aficionados—if that describes you, enjoy it. If not, give it a pass.
SEE IT YOURSELF: It’s a rather lengthy thing to try and watch on YouTube, but some hardy soul has uploaded what appears to be the entire film, carved into twelve chunks. Here is the first of the twelve segments.