One of the screen’s greatest partnerships was James Cagney and Pat O’Brien. Best friends for decades off screen (and co-founders of the so-called “Irish Mafia” social group), on screen they were two feisty, stubborn Irishmen who taunted, fought, irritated and generally spent most of their screen time together butting heads until they earned each other’s (grudging) respect.
Their early films together are formula in the best Warner Bros. tradition. Unlike other screen partnerships, whose early films are often the best, the Cagney/O’Brien teamings only got stronger as they went along. Over the course of eight films between 1934 and 1940, a James Cagney/Pat O’Brien movie meant regular coinage to the Warner Bros. coffers.
(They also appeared together in Milos Forman’s “Ragtime” (1981), but its been so long since I’ve seen that film, I can’t remember if the two shared screen time together).
The two started their partnership paying tribute to the armed services, first in “Here Comes the Navy” (1934), followed the next year by “Devil Dogs of the Air” (1935).
Other films included “The Irish In Us” (1935), an engaging boxing yarn with Cagney paired with a teenage Olivia deHavilland, in one of her first films.
1936 saw the release of the very rare (due to rights issues) aviation drama “Ceiling Zero.” Directed by Howard Hawks, it’s the only James Cagney movie I’ve never seen, and I hope the rights could be cleared so we can all see this title. I’m assuming that Cagney and O’Brien go at it in that one as well, but until I see it, it remains one of my most wanted titles.
The boys out yelled each other in the frantic Hollywood satire “Boy Meets Girl” (1938), and then came the big one, the one that today remains one of the most watchable Warner Bros. melodramas of the decade, “Angels with Dirty Faces” (1938) with Cagney as tough guy Rocky Sullivan and his boyhood friend Jerry Connolly, now Fr. Jerry.
Next was another military drama, “The Fighting 69th” (1940), with Cagney as a cocky recruit Jerry Plunkett and Pat O’Brien as Father Duffy, chaplin to the famed World War I unit who does his best to temper the trouble making Plunkett.
Their screen partnership ended on a high note, with the hugely entertaining “Torrid Zone” (1940), a melodrama set in a banana republic, with Ann Sheridan along for the ride.
I will be focusing on their first two films together, “Here Comes the Navy” and “Devil Dogs of the Air”, both directed by Warner Bros. workhorse Lloyd Bacon.
While they’re strictly formula, and both entertaining if not particularly inspiring, they are important for setting the Cagney/O’Brien template. On another note, “Here Comes the Navy” has become an important historical document, in ways the makers never intended.
What’s especially remarkable about them is Cagney himself. Always brash and cocksure, in the early scenes of these two movies he’s often downright unlikable and we want O’Brien to deliver a swift kick to Cagney’s behind. . But Cagney is so dynamic that he makes even these unlikable characters watchable, and that’s no mean feat.
In “Here Comes the Navy” Cagney plays Chester “Chesty” O’Connor, an iron worker who works in the naval yard. In typical Cagney fashion, he’s dismissive of the Navy and the men who serve there, including Biff Martin (Pat O’Brien) one of the officers aboard the USS Arizona, in dock for repairs.
Chesty and Biff (am I writing about a Hardy Boys book?) take an instant dislike to each other. Matters aren’t helped when O’Connor takes a liking to Martin’s sister Dorothy, played by Gloria Stuart of “Titanic” (1998) fame.
A meeting at a local dance between the two means the welders and the sailors have to separate the two from duking it out. Far more entertaining is a short scene with Cagney showing off a few fancy dance steps. Cagney had surprised audiences with his hoofing in “Footlight Parade” (1933); few knew at the time one of the screen’s premiere tough guys started his show business career as a chorus boy. The scene is far too short, but it’s a great antidote to those of us very familiar with his dancing in his (too few) musicals.
O’Connor eventually joins the Navy and of course, he’s assigned to the Arizona, where Martin is his commanding officer. On board also is O’Connor’s pal Droopy Mullins (Frank McHugh) and what 1930s Cagney vehicle would be complete without Frank McHugh. (McHugh was also a member of the Irish Mafia and was also close friends with Cagney and O’Brien off screen).
Hijinks ensue, mainly with Chesty on leave to woo Dorothy or breaking rules to sneak off the ship to meet with her. One of these scenes involves O’Connor putting on blackface to mix with the black mess cooks leaving for liberty. I suspect this scene is one reason why the film isn’t shown as often as other Cagney vehicles.
Despite almost 75 minutes of non-stop antagonism, when Martin is caught on a rope dangling from a Navy airship, who else but O’Connor climbs down the rope to save him.
There’s not a whole lot to read into “Here Comes the Navy” except that it’s very entertaining and fast moving. What’s most interesting about the film today is not as a dramatic vehicle but as a historic one.
Warner Bros. received permission from the U.S. Navy to film aboard the USS Arizona, both on the sea and in dock. Yes, that’s the same Arizona that was sunk at Pearl Harbor and is now a memorial. It’s a beautiful ship and the footage of the ship sailing through the ocean, and men loading its enormous guns, is something to see. Many of the crew members served as extras. One wonders how many of those sailors we see in the background re-enlisted for duty and were aboard the Arizona on December 7, 1941.
Not only the Arizona, but the airship shown in the film’s climax is the USS Macon, the Navy’s last dirigible airship. The Macon also met a tragic end, crashing into the Pacific Ocean a year later, fortunately with only minimal loss of life - two crew members out of 100. The footage showing the operation and flight of the Macon is very impressive. Again, actual crew members served as extras and because the Macon crashed a year later, I’m sure the men we are seeing on the screen are the same ones who experienced that horror.
“Here Comes the Navy” was such a rousing success, even earning a Best Picture nomination that year, that Warner Bros., seeing gold in the Cagney/O’Brien match up, put into production the next year “Devil Dogs of the Air”. Again securing cooperation from the Navy and the Marines, Warner Bros. had another hit on their hands.
Both films run about 10-15 minutes longer than other Cagney films of the era and I suspect that it’s the excess footage of those airplanes, ships, training facilities, etc. The studio got access to all this military equipment, and the armed forces got an entertaining live action recruiting poster. A win win situation for everybody
“Devil Dogs of the Air” is the weaker of the two films, and Cagney’s character is even more obnoxious than his Chesty O’Connor. A slight twist is that new Army Air Corps training recruit Tommy O’Toole (Cagney) and Lieut. Bill Brannigan (O’Brien) start off the film as friends before Cagney’s hijinks put his unit, and Brannigan’s command, in jeopardy. (At least this time their character names are normal).
O’Toole crashes his plane near a restaurant owned by Betty Roberts (Margaret Lindsay). He steals a kiss from her and is completely unrepentant when he finds out Betty is Brannigan’s girl. There never seem to be enough girls to go around in these movies.
Oh, and Frank McHugh is back again as Cagney’s pal, Crash Kelly.
Brannigan gets fed up with O’Toole, requests a transfer, O’Toole continues to buck authority (after all, he knows all the answers) and things look to come to a head when O’Toole and Brannigan are teamed during a war games practice.
This sequence is visually the best in the movie and it required the full cooperation of the U.S. Navy and the Army Air Corps to make it work. Part of the war games scenario concerns the planes trying to find the ships through massive smoke screens generated by the ships to camouflage them from the air. To me it looks like a vast array of cruisers, battleships and destroyers sailing through the ocean hurling vast plumes of smoke while the Army’s bi-planes soar over them looking for their targets. Nothing filmed in a tank on the backlot here.
Their plane catches fire and they both look to be goners, but O’Toole climbs on the wing of the bi-plane to put out the fire, saving both of them.
“Devil Dogs of the Air” was written by John Monk Saunders, a specialist in aviation stories. It’s serviceable enough, but the characters don’t have the depth of some of his other scripts, such as the 1930 and 1938 versions of “The Dawn Patrol” “Wings” (1927) and the exceptionally intriguing “The Last Flight.” Saunders was married to Fay Wray in the 1930s, but committed suicide in 1940.
It doesn’t show on the screen, but Cagney must have chafed at the assignments he was given by Warner Bros. He did four films in 1934 and five films in 1935. Tired of the Warners grind, and suing for breach of contract, he left the studio a year later and signed a short-term contract with Poverty Row studio Grand National Pictures for $100,000 a film and 10 percent of the profits. He made two films there and the first film “Great Guy” (1936) wasn’t much different from what he was making at Warner Bros. In that one he plays an inspector with the Bureau of Weights and Measures (!).
His second film was “Something to Sing About” (1937), a musical I assume he enjoyed making as he always had good things to say about his musicals. I remember an interview he gave years ago, where he said he never watched one of his old movies on television, but if one of his musicals was playing, he would stop and watch the numbers.
Little Grand National couldn’t handle Cagney’s salary and the films returns weren’t what they expected.
In 1938 Cagney was back at Warner Bros. with a new, more favorable contract. He was glad to be starring with Pat O’Brien in his first two films under the new contract, the aforementioned “Boy Meets Girl” and “Angels with Dirty Faces.”
While “Here Comes the Navy” and “Devil Dogs of the Air” will never be listed as Cagney’s greatest achievements, they still entertain today, even though I would list “Devil Dogs of the Air” as the weakest of the eight Cagney/O’Brien films. But Cagney is dynamic in them, the historic footage can’t be beat, and when it comes to delivering the goods, few could do as well as James Cagney. Always timeless, he will never date.
Visit The Movie Projector for a list of dates and other Cagney titles under discussion during the week-long blogathon at http://themovieprojector.blogspot.com/. There’s also the chance for an opportunity for a lucky person to win a copy of the special edition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942), featuring Cagney in his Academy Award-winning portrayal of George M. Cohan.