Devil Dogs of the Air (1935)

Just a short review today as I don’t have time for one of my epics, you may be relieved to hear! In all honesty, I also don’t have all that much to say about Devil Dogs of the Air, which is a light comedy-drama, though it does feature some spectacular aviation footage. However, I thought I’d write something about it before it fades in my mind.

devil_dogs_of_the_air_1932On the face of it, there are quite a few similarities between this movie , directed by Lloyd Bacon, and one of my favourite James Cagney films, Howard Hawks’  Ceiling Zero, made later in the same year. Both see Cagney playing a daredevil pilot, and both team him with Pat O’Brien as a long-suffering old friend in a position of command. (They are mail pilots in Ceiling Zero, fleet marine force aviators here.) Cagney even makes almost the same entrance in both films. In each case his character has had quite a build-up before he appears, and is first seen in a plane doing daring aerobatics, before cheekily throwing himself into a dismayed O’Brien’s arms on landing.

Yet the two movies feel very different to watch – partly of course because Devil Dogs is mainly comedy and Ceiling Zero mainly drama, but also, I think, because Hawks’ film gives so much more complexity to the characters.  In Ceiling Zero Cagney’s character, “Dizzy” Davis  is in his mid-30s (with a thin moustache to make him look a little older and more dashing), getting rather old to fly and also finding his life of womanising starting to wear thin.

Margaret Lindsay, James Cagney and Pat O'Brien

Margaret Lindsay, James Cagney and Pat O'Brien

James Cagney as Tommy O'Toole

James Cagney as Tommy O'Toole

In Devil Dogs, by contrast, his character, Tommy O’Toole, is supposed to be a young lad straight out of flying school (in black and white and a lot of make-up, the 35-year-old actor could just about get away with this!), who hero-worshipped Bill Brannigan (O’Brien) as a teenager.

Most of the characters seem to be alternately charmed and infuriated by O’Toole. That was my reaction too, but I must say that – rarely for me with a Cagney role – I find him more infuriating than charming much of the time. He boasts, breaks the rules, carries out a series of daft stunts, and shamelessly sets out to win the heart of  Bill’s  girl, Betty Roberts (Margaret Lindsay, who was Cagney’s leading lady in several films in the 1930s.)

devildogs6There are some lovely moments, all the same, such as a scene where Tommy files his nails with great finesse all through an instruction talk just to prove that he’s heard it all before. As always, Cagney pours a lot of his own mercurial personality into the role – but it’s still hard to care all that much about the big-headed Tommy, and I found myself half-hoping Betty would stick to Bill. Pat O’Brien does at times give the feeling of a man really in love with Betty, although apart from that much of his role consists of shouting.

Eventually, and predictably, O’Toole does prove his worth as an aviator, becomes more of a member of the team and also feels some pangs of conscience about breaking Bill’s heart by stealing the woman he loves – though it is a bit late to worry about that.

The actor who seems to have the most fun in the film is Warner regular Frank McHugh, another great friend of Cagney’s. He all but steals the show as ambulance driver “Crash”  Kelly, who is fed up with exercises and false alarms and desperate to see someone really break a leg (even if he has to organise it himself) so that he has something to do. Ironically, in the one scene in the film where someone is genuinely hurt, Crash is nowhere to be seen!

Apart from McHugh’s antics, the best thing about this film is the aerial footage, which is breathtaking at times and compelling to watch. As the film feels so light, I was slightly surprised to see that it is based on a story by John Monk Saunders, who also wrote the story for the dark and harrowing First World War movie The Dawn Patrol (1930), directed by Howard Hawks. One similarity is that this film, too, shows the skill and dedication needed to fly – and, although here the flying is in peacetime, at moments, for instance when a plane catches fire, there are glimpses of danger amid all the joking.

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13 thoughts on “Devil Dogs of the Air (1935)

  1. Judy,

    Nice job on shedding a little light on a film not very well known. While it sounds like a fairly average programmer you seem to have found some high points like the aerial footage and Frank McHugh’s performance. McHugh is always enetertaining and was one of WB’s classic character actors.

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    • Thanks for the kind comments, John – I’ve mainly seen McHugh in comic roles, like the one he plays here, but he is also good in a more dramatic role in another Cagney movie, ‘The Crowd Roars’ (directed by Hawks).

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  3. Sorry I was over her sooner to comment, Judy. Your excellent review here reminds me of the fact that I need to see more Cagney-O’Brien films. For all of my love of Angels With Dirty Faces, I don’t have a whole lot of their work outside of it.

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    • Thanks, Dave. To be honest I don’t think this is one of their best films together – I think ‘Ceiling Zero’ is a much better movie with him and O’Brien together, and ‘The Fighting 69th’, which I haven’t written about yet, is also pretty good – a bit corny in places, but with an astonishing performance by Cagney (and that one is actually available on DVD!) Much as I like to see them together, I sometimes think O’Brien is better in films where he isn’t with Cagney, like ‘The Front Page’, as then he gets more scope to play a slightly wild character himself rather being typecast as a responsible older brother/father figure…

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  4. Likewise, Judy, like Dave I would have hoped to get over here a few days ago, but I’m happy to see you’ve posted a new piece. And there is nothing wrong with a capsule, even though many of us appreciate your ‘epic’ essays. Truth be said I have never seen this one, but Cagney in the mid 30’s is always something to investigate. I see you are very high on McHugh’s performance, and The Hawkes film THE DAWN PATROL is a great one.

    Cagney and O’Brien of course would have their greatest moment together a few years later in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES.

    Again, excellent piece and right on with the exploration of the more difficult-to-find titles.

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    • No worries, Sam, and many thanks for commenting. I often tend to end up writing about the harder-to-find titles because it is easier to think of new things to say about them! But I do hope to get round to writing something about some of Cagney’s better known movies too…

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  6. The 9-picture team of Cagney and O’Brien is interesting. I remember seeing O’Brien as a very old man heading the cast of a TV-movie called “The Over the Hill Gang” (1969) and being surprised at how commanding he was and what a good, confident actor, then remembered what a big career he had for a long time until his career mysteriously dipped in the latter ’40s, before the real blacklist even got under way. He mused in his memoir “The Wind at My Back” that he had no idea what happened but he was suddenly cut off from A-pictures, and that his other Irish red-headed pal, Spencer Tracy, had to fight the studio to get him into one of his movies.

    He was always an odd actor in some strange way that you can’t quite put your finger on, wasn’t he? Couldn’t get the big, colorful leads later on like Fred MacMurray in “Double Indemnity,” a role offered to every other extant leading man to hear Billy Wilder tell it, but he did do one film early on that I’d love to see and can’t find so much as a frame from, about a flamboyant(!) boxer who wore a derby and danced around in the ring in “The Personality Kid,” a part that must have been written for Cagney.

    And by the way, when television’s “The Over the Hill Gang” garnered excellent ratings, the network ordered a sequel with the same cast, except that O’Brien was replaced by Fred Astaire.

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  7. Hi Judy, was doing some research on my Grandfather; Marine Lt.Col. Ray A. Trevelyan of the USS Saratoga. My Grandpappy did the flying for Cagney & O’Brien in the movie; “Devil Dogs of The Air”… pretty kool knowing & hearing all the guys that love & enjoy the flying maneuvers. Thank You everyone. US ARMY/ Gulf War Veteran. His proud Granddaughter.

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