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Devil Dogs of the Air
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Devil Dogs of the Air

Devil Dogs of the Air

James Cagney was the spitfire wild card of Warner Bros. leading men, all arrogance and energy and firecracker charm. His specialty was spunky loners, impulsive rascals, and maverick leaders. He didn't just trample the rules, he made a show of it, thumbing his nose at the suckers along the way. By 1935, that attitude earned him a spot in Hollywood's top ten box office stars.

He doesn't stray far from type in Devil Dogs of the Air (1935), a pseudo-sequel to the 1934 sailor drama Here Comes the Navy, a film notable largely as the first pairing of Cagney with Pat O'Brien. The chemistry proved to be great box office and they were brought back (along with director Lloyd Bacon) to scuffle and spar through Devil Dogs of the Air, a peacetime military drama set in the Marine Flying Corps. Once again, O'Brien is the elder, seasoned veteran and Cagney is the upstart cadet under his command.

Lieutenant Bill Brannigan (O'Brien) is a Marine flyer and respected officer who encourages his Brooklyn buddy Tommy O'Toole (Cagney) to come out to San Diego and join up. Cagney makes a memorable entrance as hot-dogging gypsy pilot O'Toole, buzzing the military parade grounds during an official ceremony in a plane with a painted logo that reads "World's Greatest Aviator." Within minutes of arriving he crashes his plane (for a hotshot pilot, he's awfully sloppy about things like checking his fuel), puts the moves on his buddy's girl, Betty (Margaret Lindsay), and makes a mockery of the respect for command. His showboating skill is matched only by his grinning arrogance, which quickly turns the entire base against him.

Reliable Warner character actor Frank McHugh provides the comic relief as ambulance driver Crash Kelly, who spends the movie waiting for someone, anyone, to need his services, even if it means prodding O'Toole and Brannigan to fisticuffs.

The original story is credited to John Monk Saunders, who specialized in aviation stories such as The Dawn Patrol (1930), but the drama is all second-hand, a romantic triangle and the taming of a conceited loner into an officer, if not exactly a gentleman. It's really a showcase for Cagney's cocky charm and smart-aleck attitude and director Bacon, the Warner Bros. workhorse who cranked out four or five films a year for the studio, was an old hand at bringing out Cagney's best in films such as Footlight Parade (1933). Cagney's a regular spark plug as O'Toole, riding roughshod over Brannigan's friendship and authority and courting his girl with a grin.

According to a 1937 Fortune Magazine article (reprinted in Rudy Behlmer's book Inside Warner Bros.), the "service" picture was a specialty of Warner Bros. producer (or supervisor, as Jack Warner called them) Lou Edelman. "Given Pat O'Brien or Dick Powell, the setting, and the technical cooperation of the government, Lou can let the story take care of itself, and brings in some of his assignments at as little as $300,000 apiece." For Devil Dogs of the Air, he had the cooperation of the Marines and Navy, and was allowed to shoot on location at the U.S. Naval Aircraft Base in San Diego.

The stunt flying is top notch, but even more impressive than the solo flying circus antics of the opening scenes, where O'Toole loops, barrel rolls, buzzes the troops and bounces his biplane like he's playing leapfrog, is the spectacle of the third act. There may be no war for the these men to prove their mettle, but the war game exercises of the finale, a simulated beach landing and invasion featuring battleships and the air fleet, proves to be plenty dramatic. Planes lay down thick clouds of smoke over the water to screen the approach of the ships, creating a striking backdrop for the fleet maneuvers, and execute tactical formations with precision flying. Edelman knew how to make the most of military cooperation.

Devil Dogs of the Air was another hit for Cagney and it cemented the pairing of Cagney and O'Brien both onscreen and off. They became close friends and appeared together in seven subsequent features. They even bowed out together, making their respective final screen appearances in the 1981 film Ragtime.

Director: Lloyd Bacon
Screenplay: Malcolm Stuart Boylan and Earl Baldwin; John Monk Saunders (story)
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Art Direction: Arthur Kay Kooken
Music: M.K. Jerome and Bernhard Kaun (both uncredited)
Film Editing: William Clemens
Cast: James Cagney (Thomas Jefferson 'Tommy' O'Toole), Pat O'Brien (Lt. William R. 'Bill' Brannigan), Margaret Lindsay (Betty Roberts), Frank McHugh (Crash Kelly), John Arledge ('Mac' MacIntosh), Helen Lowell (Ma Roberts).

by Sean Axmaker