Wednesday, April 10, 2013

James Cagney Blogathon: Here Comes the Navy and Devil Dogs of the Air

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 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.


Judy said...

Kevin, great discussion of the films that Cagney and Pat O'Brien made together. I definitely agree that 'Devil Dogs' isn't up there with some of John Monk Saunders' other scripts, but the chemistry between the two great friends just about carries it off, as is also the case in 'Here Comes the Navy'! As you say, Cagney got fed up with this type of part and with the sheer number of films he was having to make, but he still plays the parts with plenty of enthusiasm.

A pity you haven't had a chance to see 'Ceiling Zero' as yet - this might just be my favourite film with the two together (though I also love 'Angels with Dirty Faces'.) 'Ceiling Zero' is a great aviation drama and has a lot in common with Hawks' later 'Only Angels Have Wings'. Warner has actually issued 'Ceiling Zero' on DVD in France, so let's hope it does get a release elsewhere too.

Kevin Deany said...

Judy, I'm so envious you got to see "Ceiling Zero". I would love to see it someday.

I agree about their chemistry together. Even in lesser entries like "Devil Dogs of the Air" or "The Irish in Us" their scenes together have an undeniable crackle. It's great fun to watch Cagney and O'Brien interact.

Caftan Woman said...

Your article highlighting the wonderful partnership of Cagney and O'Brien is a winner.

I haven't seen "Devil Dogs of the Air", but am a little concerned that Frank McHugh's name is "Crash".

Grand Old Movies said...

What a fun and informative post! O'Brien and Cagney seem so natural together on the screen, yet their professionalism always shows; they never break character (though in Boy Meets Girl they come pretty close to the kind of clowning that Hope & Crosby did in their films). I recall that in several of his films Cagney started out as an unlikeable smartass, the one always bucking authority and flaunting the rules, such as in Captains of the Clouds and The Fighting 69th. They're both also military-themed films, as are the two you discuss, so WB seems to be making the point that, while hot-dogging and grandstanding may be fun, there comes a time when you must grow up and work as a team, mainly when in the armed forces.

Patti said...

Kevin, first of all, I must say that I am completely impressed that you have seen all but 1 of Cagney's films. Wow! That is quite a feat, as he has over 60 titles in his filmography! I am mildly close to having John Garfield's and Montgomery Clift's filmographies complete (2 and 3 films to go), but with Garfield making just over 30 films and Clift making only 17, seeing all their films is much more doable. Hats off to you for tracking down dozens of films. I hope you are able to track down that one lone film very soon.

I haven't seen either of these films, but I want to see them both. The information about the USS Arizona is quite sobering. Indeed, yes, I would imagine there were extras in the film who perished with the ship.

I love that our song-and-dance man got to insert a few of his beloved dance steps into "Here Comes the Navy." I know he did that in "The Public Enemy," and I love it there. That little 2-step on the sidewalk is about the merriest we ever see Tom Powers.

This was a great write-up, Kevin, and a terrific addition to the blogathon.

Rick29 said...

Kevin, I knew Cagney and O'Brien had co-starred together a lot, but didn't realize it was eight films. They were a fine screen team and I love your description of their films that were "formula in the best Warner Bros. tradition." You picked two entertaining examples of their partnerships (which don't seem to be shown as much as, say, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES). YOur mention of Lloyd Bacon prompted me to look him up--130 director credits, wow! All in all, thanks for another stellar post.

Kevin Deany said...

CW, I hadn't thought of that but you are right. You don't want to be around someone in the Army Air Corps named Crash.

GOM, you're right about the subtext of these movies about working together for a common good. In "Here Comes the Navy" especially, the Cagney character is quite unlikeable, and since 1934 is just at the edge of the Code enforcement, I suspect he wouldn't be so obnoxious in later films. But he still remains as watchable as ever.

Patti, it's thanks to TCM that I've been able to see all of his films. It also helps that so many of his 1930s movies are in the 70-minute range, so there's not too much of a time commitment.

I must add that in addition to "Ceiling Zero" I have yet to see Cagney's only directorial effort, "Short Cut to Hell." Would love to see that one someday. That one is equally elusive.

Rick, glad you enjoyed the post. They did make a great team. Even though the screen partnership ended around 1940, their off-screen friendship continued for another 40 years. That says a great deal about both men, I think.

John/24Frames said...

Well, I knew they made quite a few films together but eight is suprising, one more than he made with Joan Blondell. Of course, Blondell had better legs, but that's another story. Unfortunately, i have never seen either one of these films nad Cagney and O'Brien just play off each other very well. Will have to add these to my ever growing list.

Sam Juliano said...

Kevin, you give both of these rarely screened or discussed films the kitchen sink treatment in a wholly engaging post with all kinds of fascinating facts, information and analysis. The most famous Cagney/O'Brien collaboration of course is ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, but I have seen HERE COMES THE NAVY, and did know it received the Best Picture Oscar nomination in 1934 back at the time when ten nominees were chosen for about a decade. I agree with you Kevin that it's nothing profound, but Cagney as always is exceptional. I have not seen DEVIL DOGS OF THE AIR, but your summary judgement does not surprise me at all.

Terrific post!

R. D. Finch said...

Kevin, I haven't seen either of these, but I enjoyed your post nevertheless. Someone else commented on how many pictures Cagney made where he started out as an obnoxious wiseguy before winning the audience over. These sound like they're very much in the same vein. I'd never really thought of O'Brien and Cagney as a team before, but if they costarred in eight pictures together, that surely qualifies them for team status.

FlickChick said...

Since my Cagney crush started at a time when local TV played lots of old not so great films, I got to see almost all of Cagney's 1930s films - the great and the not so great. I have fond memories of "Here Comes the Navy" and agree that "Devil Dogs" was not so interesting. Thanks for a terrific post on a few no so great films that are elevated to the stars by Mr. Cagney's presence.

Kevin Deany said...

John, "Blondell had better legs" gts my prize for my favorite sentiment of the week, and one I heartily concur with.

Thanks, Sam. Even with a formula script, Cagney can inject some excitement into the proceedings.

R.D., we usually think of screen teams as male/female or comedy teams, but yeah, you make eight films together and that constitutes a team. Heck, I even consider Errol Flynn and Alan Hale a team (no disrespect to Olivia intended)

FlickChick, "Devil Dogs of the Air" is generally considered the weakest of their pairings, but since I was going to do "Here Comes the Navy" I thought I'd take another look at it. Some pick "The Irish In Us" as their weakest film, but being Irish, I enjoyed it more than Devil Dogs.

Thanks to everyone for reading.

Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

Kevin, I've seen Here Comes the Navy, but not Devil Dogs. I think you;re right about Chesty being a bit unlikable, but I think you can find something to dislike in about every character Cagney played. Great that you spotlighted Cagney & O'Brien's many films together.

Cliff Aliperti said...

Fascinating stuff on the Arizona, makes me want to pull "Here Comes the Navy" out to watch again! Pretty sure I've seen both of these, names and incidents ring familiar, but there are so many aviation flicks from the '30s that titles do seem to cross over with one another.

Enjoyed your post a lot, and feel like I got a bonus 6 films for the price of 2!

Kevin Deany said...

Kim, thanks for writing. He could be obnoxious in many films, but he's really at his zenith here. Ultimately, I think "Here Comes the Navy" is more successful today as a historical piece than a dramatic one.

Cliff, not only are there a lot of aviation flicks from the 1930s, but since so many of them were written by John Monk Saunders, there is a similarity of tone and incident that is found in many of them. So it is sometimes hard to keep them all straight.

Classicfilmboy said...

Terrific look at the films of this duo. I've had "Here Comes the Navy" on my Tivo for a year, but I just haven't seen it yet. I will get to it soon and I like the historical aspect of the movie. Great post!

Ken Anderson said...

I've not seen either of these films, but your witty and informative post certainly pique the interest. I especially found comical your Hardy Boys reference regarding the names Chesty, Biff, and Droopy!
I learned a lot from this post and smiled a lot too while reading it. Thanks for such an entertaining essay!

The Lady Eve said...

Kevin, I may have seen one or both of these pictures on TV back in the day, but I don't remember. Your post is both enjoyable and informative with or without having seen them, though. I do love Cagney and O'Brien together. As I understand it (but also don't remember), the two weren't onscreen together in "Ragtme." I'd read the book when it was out and was interested to see the movie, but my big interest (as I suspect was of great interest of many) was to see Cagney again. Turned out to be his last turn on the big screen - he was magnificent, of course.


Cagney and O'Brien didn't share the scene in Ragtime, unfortunately. I love those film partnerships that become firendships out of the screen.
I haven't watched any of those movies, but they seen very cool, in a war context. Their names in "Here comes the navy" aren't that cool, specially considering that "Biff" sounds like the Portuguses word for "stake".
Don't forget to WATCH my contribution to the blogathon! :)

Kevin Deany said...

Brian, I hope you get to see "Here Comes the Navy" soon. I would be interested in your take on it.

Ken, thanks so much. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I really enjoyed your post and look forward to reading more from you.

L.E., I went to see "Ragtime" too to see Cagney again. I would love to see it again. It's been far too long.

Le, I have a crappy computer at home that is slower than molasses, but when I get to a better computer, I will definitely be taking a look at your visual blog. Thanks for writing.

Silver Screenings said...

I'm another one who hasn't seen either of these films, but any Cagney/O'Brien pairing sounds good to me! Thanks for a couple of great reviews!