OttawaMatters.com, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in the city's history.
16 July 1941
It was mid-summer 1941. Britain, Canada and the rest of the Commonwealth had been at war with Nazi Germany for almost two years. Although the Royal Air Force had fought off the German Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, the war news was grim.
That June, German forces had launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. By mid-July, Russian forces, their officer corps decimated by Stalin’s purges, were in rapid retreat falling back towards Kiev and Moscow.
On the other side of the globe, shooting of a very different sort got underway in Canada.
A crew from Warner Brothers, the motion picture studio, arrived in Ottawa, their six-week mission to film Captains of the Clouds, the first ever Hollywood movie shot entirely in Canada.
The movie was the story of brash, Canadian bush pilots joining the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) after hearing Churchill’s historic “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech following Dunkirk. Deemed too old for combat missions, they become instructors, but later are called upon to ferry bombers to Britain.
The BCATP was the largest-ever aircraft instructional programme, training Canadian, British, Australian and New Zealand servicemen as well as men from other Commonwealth and foreign countries, including the United States. From when it commenced operations in early 1940 until it was wound down in late 1944, the Plan trained 131,553 pilots and crewmen, over half of whom (72,835) were Canadian. Costing $2.2-billion of which Canada paid $1.6-billion (equivalent to about $25 billion in today’s money), the Plan was Canada’s single-most important contribution to the Allied war effort. Recall also that Canada’s population at the time was only 12-million, a third of what it is currently.
The movie, which was directed by Michael Curtiz, starred James Cagney who was at the peak of his skills and at the height of his popularity. It was Cagney’s first movie to be filmed in Technicolor, also featuring Dennis Morgan, Alan Hale Senior, and George Tobias as his bush pilot pals, and Brenda Marshall as the love interest.
The movie was filmed in co-operation with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). Air Marshal “Billy” Bishop played a cameo role as himself in a graduation, or “wings,” ceremony. Bishop was an ace Canadian pilot from the First World War, and a recipient of the Victory Cross. In 1941, he was the Director of the RCAF and in charge of recruitment. Hundreds of RCAF servicemen and women also appeared in the film as bit players and extras.
Much of the movie was filmed at Uplands Airport (now the Macdonald-Cartier International Airport) in Ottawa, with the bush scenes filmed in the North Bay area at Trout Lake and Jumping Caribou Lake. Flying scenes were also filmed at air stations located in Trenton, Dartmouth, Jarvis and Mountain View.
Cagney arrived in Ottawa dressed in a white suit in the wee hours of the Sunday morning before the beginning of the shoot, scheduled for Wednesday, 16 July 1941 at Uplands Airport, site of the No. 2 Service Flying Training School. He arrived by train from his Martha’s Vineyard farm, and stayed in a suite on the second floor of the Château Laurier Hotel, accompanied by his brother William who was a producer on the movie. Initially reluctant to star in the movie, Carney apparently made his participation contingent on Warner Brothers hiring his brother.
Despite the early hour of his arrival, there was a crowd of female fans and a large press contingent there to greet him in the lobby. The Ottawa Evening Citizen reported that Cagney was not the “tough guy of the screen” but rather a “mild spoken, quiet, mannerly, young fellow.”
The first scene filmed on the Wednesday morning was the “wings” ceremony starring Air Marshall Billy Bishop, along with Wing Commander, W.R. MacBrien, the chief instructor at Uplands, Group Captain W.A. Curtis, the airport’s commanding officer, and Flight Lieutenants Harry Wood and Paul Rodier. Behind the scenes, the Warner film technicians wore sky-blue overalls to identify themselves as the film crew so they wouldn’t be confused with possible “fifth columnists” and saboteurs. Although Bishop performed well—Cagney called him “a natural”— the shoot was a nightmare requiring many takes owing in part to bad weather, malfunctioning equipment and the need to coordinate the ground action with complex aerial manoeuvres.
It was well worth the effort, however. The scene of the airmen receiving their wings set against the backdrop of bright yellow Harvard trainers and camouflaged bombers with the service flags of Canada, Britain and Australia flying overhead provided a stirring spectacle, especially when you remember that these weren’t actors but real, wartime servicemen who would shortly be thrown into combat.
Generally speaking, the film was difficult to make from other perspectives.
The American movie crew was unused to filming in wartime conditions. America was still a neutral country when Captains was made, five months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Ottawa was choc-a-block full of servicemen and women. Consequently, living space was at a premium. While Cagney and the other stars were put up at the Château Laurier, the rest of the crew slept in the barracks at the Uplands flight school, eating service food. They were also far from the amenities of Ottawa. Reportedly, the crew almost struck over unsatisfactory conditions. Working in the bush also proved challenging. Cagney, who did some of his own stunts, suffered a concussion that delayed filming for several days as he recovered. As well, Sol Polito, the cinematographer, who initially had trouble getting into Canada owing to his Italian birth, reportedly suffered a heart attack while the film was being made.
Cagney, the other stars, and the Warner Brothers’ crew stayed in Ottawa for ten days.
For Ottawa residents, the filming provided a much needed morale boost and a distraction from wartime privations and worries. The Hollywood stars were mobbed in the streets and at their hotel. On one occasion, Alan Hale had to take refuge in a shop when spotted on Sparks Street by admirers. Dennis Morgan, described by a journalist as having “the shoulders of a football player, voice of an opera star, and the face of a matinee idol,” received hundreds of letters, many of the “mash” variety, from adoring female Ottawa fans. Small boys staked out the hotel in wait for their heroes. Four enterprising young teenagers, brothers Frankie and Buddy Russell and their two friends Jim McNally and Bob Vaive managed to evade security and knocked on Cagney’s hotel room door. Cagney cheerfully signed autographs for them.
The most serious occurrence took place on the Thursday night, the day after the initial shoot at Uplands Airport. Cagney and the other stars had agreed to perform for service people, wives and sweethearts at the Rockcliffe air station. When the news got out, more than a thousand fans stormed the Château Laurier to catch a glimpse of the stars as they left for their performance. Cagney was tackled by near hysterical girls who grabbed his arms, clutched at his clothing and ruffled his hair. Alan Hale and Dennis Morgan also had a difficult time getting through the crowds. It was only with the help of a security team of soldiers who held back the straining fans that filled the hotel’s rotunda that the celebrities were able to get to their automobile. The Citizen described the spectacle as resembling “a mob scene from one of the bigger Hollywood epics.” The stars were good natured about it, but arrived a half hour late for their performance.
For the servicemen, it was worth the wait. With Cagney acting as the impromptu master of ceremonies, the Warner Brothers’ gang put on a lively vaudeville show, complete with dancers and singers. Dennis Morgan sang “Annie Laurie,” accompanied by Miss Jean McGuire of Ottawa on the piano, followed by an encore of “A Little Bit of Heaven.” George Tobias and Alan Hale told jokes. Apparently, Hale had the audience rolling in the aisles with laughter. At the end of the evening, the stars acknowledged the Dominion’s war effort saying “For what you people are doing, we salute you.”
During their stay in Ottawa, the stars and members of the Warner Brothers technical crew also played two ball games with servicemen. The Hollywood stars lost the first softball game 8-6 at Rockcliffe air station. Claiming they knew nothing about softball, the Hollywood stars asked for a rematch hardball game. This second game was played at Landsdowne Park in front of 2,000 Ottawa fans; tickets were 25 cents each, with the proceeds going to the Red Cross, the RCAF Benevolent Fund and towards the construction of a sports field at No. 2 Flying School at Uplands. For the Hollywood visitors, James Cagney played catcher, Dennis Morgan played first base, and George Tobias pitched. Other members of the Warner Brothers technical and engineering team rounded out the team. Alan Hale was umpire. Hale said “I asked to be umpire because I am prejudiced. I want to see the air force win.” Ottawa Mayor Stanley Lewis threw the first pitch. The visitors won the five-inning game by a close 5-4 score. The winning pitcher was Dick Emmons, the Warner Brothers’ grip who relieved Tobias after the first inning. Douglas Heiman was the losing RCAF pitcher. Cagney played one inning, while Hale refereed for two. Dennis Morgan played the entire game.
After ten days of shooting, the Hollywood stars and the rest of the Warner team left Ottawa to go to their next film location at North Bay. Several hundred fans were at the Château to see their idols leave. As a birthday gift for Cagney, who turned 42 while in Ottawa, the “Upland boys” presented him with a silver identification tag engraved with his name and movie rank. It read “Flying Officer James Cagney, Captain of the Clouds, 1941.”
The movie was released on 12 February 1942, with premieres in Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, New York, London, and Cairo.
The Ottawa premiere was held in the Capitol Theatre located at the corner of Bank and Queen Streets. The cinema was filled to capacity. Among the official attendees was Lieutenant General Andrew McNaughton who commanded the Canadian Corps.
Before the movie started, RCAF service men and a trumpet and drum band from Uplands paraded to the cinema. On the Capitol stage, the band of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police played a programme of patriotic, marching tunes. The Capitol’s management bought Victory bonds with the proceeds of the first week’s shows.
The same night, two hundred RCAF airmen attended the New York premiere at the Strand Theatre. The airmen were feted on their 36-hour stay in New York at the Waldorf hotel. For the showing of the film, each airman was escorted by a John Powers model. Also in attendance was Leighton McCarthy, the Canadian Minister to the United States.
While the aerial shots were applauded and the film garnered two Academy Award nominations, one for best colour cinematography, and the other for colour interior decoration, film critics gave the movie mixed reviews. T
he New York Times described the first half as a “routine, he-man fable,” but said the documentary-like, second half took on “some consequence.” The Times critic added that “he had the odd feeling throughout the second half of the film that a company of Hollywood actors, fugitive from a previous picture, had got loose amid the serious activities and flashing planes of the R.C.A.F.” Unsurprisingly, the movie was a big hit with Ottawa fans. The Citizen called it “breathtaking in its loveliness.” The paper gushed “There can be no doubt that “Captains of the Clouds” is without prejudice in any way, the finest aviation picture ever produced.”
Released only weeks after the United States’ entry into the war, Captains of the Clouds was a propaganda success for the RCAF. It also earned its place in cinematographic history as a forerunner of later combat movies. One modern critic called the film the Top Gun of its age.
While IMDb gives Captains of the Clouds a middling 6.5 rating, it’s worth seeing if for no other reason than the spectacular aerial shots and the glimpses of Uplands Airport and downtown Ottawa as they were seventy-five years ago.