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JAMES CAGNEY GOES TO WAR IN 'CAPTAINS OF THE CLOUDS'

1942 rating: ***1/2
James Cagney’s stalwart expression on the poster, and a glorious title like CAPTAINS OF THE CLOUDS involving Canadian Bush Pilots fighting in World War II, could be misleading for anyone loving the tough, snarky, womanizing Cagney: the persona that built his reputation before venturing into more serious matters – especially after the Second World War broke out...

But most of this film has the pint-sized icon, playing a daredevil pilot stealing jobs from his fellow airmen using every trick in the book, acting shrewder than ever.

He’s got his sites on a younger pilot's gorgeous fiancé – she too is a money-grubbing rogue and both make a fiendish pair. Brenda Marshall is the perfect mix of lovely and deceitful, wisping her long black hair while planting a soft spike into kindhearted idealist Dennis Morgan.

Scenes involving Cagney teaming up with Morgan and Alan Hale in their own cargo business lead to the group joining the RAF where Cagney’s cocky persona, training young fliers to take risks instead of following orders, gets him in hot water with the hard nosed military elites: Like all Cagney’s best characters, the ramifications mean nothing... He’s in it for the thrills and blind adventure and the audience takes part. But last thirty minutes, as the group fly off into the inevitable battle (accompanied by Winston Churchill’s famous speech), seems a bit rushed and doesn’t live up to the energetic first act of double-crossings and Arial scenery over plush Canadian exteriors. Director Michael Curtiz, a few years shy of CASABLANCA, wields each shot with precision so there’s never a dull moment. But Cagney being Cagney is what really delivers the goods throughout this overlooked gem, far exceeding your typical wartime propaganda.
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