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.
On 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.
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.)
There 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.