Cagney and Warners Take To The Air
Captains Of The Clouds was a project held more or less in contempt by its star --- one more justification for Cagney's decision to bail out of Warners for greener independent pastures. I didn't like this story the last four times I did it, and I don't like it now, said he when exec producer Hal Wallis proposed Captains --- patriotic considerations may have persuaded him, and the fact it would be his first in Technicolor. This one is a must-see, or rather a must-have. It’s Cagney improv --- he cares not about the silly narrative and even less that we know it. When bored with dialogue (often), he breaks into Yiddish --- in one scene, hapless Alan Hale's crossing the room and Cagney trips him (you can tell Hale didn't see it coming). Jim was pushing 42 when he made this, so there is at least tacit script recognition of his character's age. Still, he’s surrounded by an elderly lot of sidekicks --- Reginald Gardner, George Tobias, the aforementioned Alan Hale --- these four amount to a roving band of vaudevillians in the Canadian wild. One can imagine them whiling away location hours singing "the old songs" Cagney loved so dearly. And, oh yes, they vocalize in the picture too (with sheet music issued by WB for hopeful Hit Parade berths). Other endearing moments --- an extended nightclub sequence with snappily uniformed aviators surrounded by appreciative chorus girls and a rousing rendition of Captain's title song (itself heard from then on whenever Bugs or Daffy took to the air). Were there really clubs like this during the war? If so, I don’t wonder enlistment was up. Let’s not forget Brenda Marshall --- cold and passionless in The Sea Hawk --- not so here! She's a revelation --- hot, sexy, ruthless. I love it when Cagney gives her the honeymoon suite pay-off. She rips open that cash envelope like a tigress --- wowzers! --- too bad she more or less dumped the career for marriage to Bill Holden. There's little combat in Captains --- mostly aerial training stuff, but fascinating. Gorgeous color really sugars it up. Cagney's great years were essentially over when he pulled out of Burbank. Only White Heat lay ahead to remind us of glory days. Captains Of The Clouds is a curtain call for the old "fun" Cagney of the thirties --- and as such, a definite keeper.
There’s urgency, if not conviction, in wartime actioners produced at a time when outcome of the conflict itself remains in doubt. Captains Of The Clouds started as preparedness propaganda that lucked into completion shortly before Pearl Harbor and release soon after. Destiny’s gift of perfect timing gave audiences a Cagney they’d had in reserve for just such an emergency. Misbehavior necessitated by a Depression and tolerated through numerous peacetime service hitches (wherein combat was limited to scraps with Pat O’Brien) supplied background and qualification for Warner’s aging warrior to take on the dirtiest opponents his country had yet faced. No star came into this war packing more credibility. That Cagney would elect to play genteel hobos (Johnny Come Lately) while the shells of Air Force, Destination --- Tokyo and Action In The North Atlantic were bursting back on a home lot he’d abandoned is one of the great movie losses of WWII. He’d have enhanced not only the foregoing, but any number of Axis-busters, to undoubted sellout numbers, if grosses on Captains Of The Clouds are any indication. Worldwide rentals ($3.4 million) for C.O.C. secured the record for all Cagneys thus far, to be surpassed only by his succeeding patriotic gesture, Yankee Doodle Dandy (with $6.5). The star would wrest himself from a public’s fond embrace by choosing to effect a studio (and image) change at precisely the moment we wanted (and needed) him most. There were belated reports for duty with 13 Rue Madeleine and Blood On the Sun --- both too little, too late. Had Cagney answered the call to arms C.O.C. and Yankee Doodle Dandy put forth, he and Warners could have won the propaganda war in a walk.
Michael Curtiz was an accomplished director. One of the best, if his list of credits is any indication. So why was this man who gave us Casablanca, Adventures Of Robin Hood, and Yankee Doodle Dandy treated like a cur dog by his employers? He was a masochist, a weirdo, said colleague Byron Haskin. He was a freak; he had to have abuse. Studio brass was nothing if not accommodating on that score. What the hell is the matter with you, and why do you insist on crossing me on everything that I ask you not to do?, asked Hal Wallis when Curtiz put lace cuffs on Errol Flynn in Captain Blood. What do I have to do to get you to do things my way? Jack Warner’s advice to production head Wallis was succinct. For Lord’s sake, get ahold of this Mike and set him on his pratt. No matter the success nor honors accorded his work … Curtiz was regarded little better than latter-day corporate beanbags in their own cubicled purgatories. Every night (during Captains Of The Clouds) he would have to call the studio back in Hollywood, and report to Warner and Wallis, recalled Haskin. If you ever saw a guy beaten to a pulp on the telephone, this guy was it … they’d bounce him around like a Ping-Pong ball for twenty minutes, absolutely tear him to pieces. Byron Haskin was doing second unit work on Captains Of The Clouds. He was in charge of much of what we saw in the air; Canadian location shots of bombers, convoys, etc. Basically, Haskin’s job was cleaning up after Curtiz. Office visits to the boss were similarly traumatizing for the director. Warner would just mow him down --- "You bum, you creep, you wouldn’t have a wife, you wouldn’t have a dollar, you wouldn’t have anything if it wasn’t for me." James Cagney’s indifference toward the project was somewhat tempered by Curtiz’s willingness to let the actor go his own way as to a script Jim described as the same old crap. Mike Curtiz was not only used to my adding to the dialogue or changing it, but actually encouraged it. Cagney’s creative input did not go unnoticed by Hal Wallis. All these little added bits that Cagney has been putting in are fine. He certainly knows how to add color to a character. Conciliatory words for a personality Warners couldn’t easily replace, particularly at a moment when Cagney’s services would most definitely be needed for the forthcoming Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Technicolor is the major selling point now as then --- but can that trademark be accurately applied when dealing with digital? Real Technicolor would necessarily thrive on film, preferably dye-transfer and nitrate. One or two of these might exist on Captains Of The Clouds, more than that far less likely. There wasn't a major reissue, so to my knowledge it was never available for 35mm safety bookings in IB Tech. How far removed are we from the 1942 experience? Anecdotal evidence suggests Captain's color was astounding. Good as Warner’s new DVD looks, I wonder how it would compare with one of those nitrates. Once during collector days, and this was thirty-five years back, I threaded up a Coney Island trailer on a military surplus DeVry semi-portable 35mm projector. The mechanisms were linked by seeming miles of what resembled bicycle chains, the weight of this leviathan at least four-hundred pounds, but Betty Grable’s image on nitrate was lifelike beyond belief. Once exposed to an original canvas, could any of us be content with mere facsimiles afterward? Not likely --- so perhaps it’s as well the real thing is (largely) unavailable. With Technicolor, that’s been very much the case for many years. One can look at Captains Of The Clouds and swear this is the process at its summit, but what if someone at UCLA invited us out for a screening of their nitrate vault original? How different would such an encounter be? We’ve been separated from true Technicolor long enough to forget what it once looked like (and note the monster-sized camera used here to photograph Cagney). The industry discontinued regular use in 1975. Most surviving prints were eventually junked. Even rare 35mm screenings are often compromised by xenon lamp sources unequal to the task of cutting through the density of three-strip film stock. Projectors with proper carbon arc lamphouses are virtually non-existent. Fox’s DVD releases of Blood and Sand, The Gang’s All Here, The Black Swan, etc. are but pale shadows of formerly brilliant hues, thanks to the studio having land-filled Technicolor elements decades ago. Universal has excelled in reclaiming beautiful images from their 40's properties --- Arabian Nights, Shepherd Of The Hills, Can’t Help Singing --- these can at least simulate long-ago nitrate splendor. Warners has recently done as much for Captains Of The Clouds, Adventures Of Don Juan, and some of the Doris Day Technicolor features. To aspire toward dye-transfer prints of these projected as they were on original release is impractical. We’ll content ourselves with digital substitutes (hopefully) pleasing to the eye, and redirect imaginings to what Technicolor glories our forebears once knew.