Movie Review: Devil Dogs of the Air (1935)
Devil Dogs? Plural? More like hot dog, singular.
Thomas Jefferson “Tommy” O’Toole (James Cagney) considers himself the world’s greatest aviator but joins the Marines to (I guess) be with his childhood buddy, Lt. Brannigan (Pat O’Brien), and has to go through all the steps—training, flight instruction, solo flight—that he considers beneath him. He lets everyone know it’s beneath him. He’s got a superior attitude and a superior laugh. He doesn’t exactly endear himself to them. Or us.
It's kinda weird. I'm a Cagney fan but he's a real asshole in this one.
Not only does he disrespect Brannigan, he tries to steal his girl, Betty (Margaret Lindsay). Wait, he does steal her. First he tries to con the mother, Ma Roberts (Helen Lowell), by selling her his crashed airplane, which he says will attract customers to her diner; then he keeps making a play for Betty. He assumes, with that constant, superior giggle of his, that Betty is enamored of him, too. All the while, she fulminates—“Ooo!”—until she doesn’t. It’s like that transition in “Taxi” when Loretta Young goes from absolutely hating Cagney to cozying up to him on a date. Here, O’Toole basically blackmails Betty into going to the dance with him, and the next we see them they’re dancing cheek to cheek—and she’s not minding it a bit. All the “Ooo!” has gone out of her. If it wasn’t 1935, I would think Sam Peckinpah directed it, but it’s Warner Bros./Cagney mainstay Lloyd Bacon.
We keep waiting for comeuppance, but when it comes it’s muted and distracted; then rewarded.
South of La Jolla
O’Toole first shows up in his plane with WORLD’S GREATEST AVIATOR on the side and TOMMY O’TOOLE on the tops of the wings, and buzzes the San Diego Marine compound and does loop-de-loops. When instructions are given, he’s paring his fingernails. When he goes up with a flight instructor, he disables communications so he doesn’t have to listen to him. Brannigan then takes over as flight instructor but when the plane catches fire he bails out, while O’Toole, with a laugh and a “So long, sucker!” lands the plane safely to acclaim. The longtime commander—beloved, one would think—is suddenly tagged with the mocking nickname “Bail-Out Brannigan.” Maybe he is. He tries to bail out again by requesting a transfer to Quantico. It’s Betty, inside the newly dubbed “Happy Landing Café,” who convinces him to stay and fight. Given what happens, one wonders why she made the effort.
O’Toole finally gets an inkling he’s despised when the rookies, after their first solo flight, are hailed and paraded around the compound before a ceremonious toss into the ocean. Hoo-rah! None of this happens to him. He sticks a perfect three-point landing and gets the cold shoulder. “What gives?” he asks. “Figure it out for yourself,” says the mechanic dismissively.
But it’s just an inkling and it doesn’t stick as well as his landings. He makes more plays at Betty. Outside the dance, Brannigan and O’Toole almost fight, but a commanding officer arrives with his wife and two young beauties and asks the young men to escort them inside. All the while, ambulance driver Crash Kelly (Frank McHugh) follows them around hoping to be of use. It’s the movie’s not-particularly-funny running gag. Crash even tries to engineer injuries. Dude, wait seven years. You’ll see plenty.
It is interesting seeing a military movie from a time when there was no draft and no war. It reminds me of “Top Gun” this way. What do you make the climax about? You make it about war maneuvers, Blue vs. Brown, with “the enemy” trying to land “just south of La Jolla.” Some of these scenes, on the beaches amid smoke screens, seem an eerie prefiguring of future battles.
Of course, during maneuvers, O’Toole and Brannigan are in the same plane, and of course their plane is clipped and they lose part of a wing. O’Toole gets all panicky and is ready to bail but Brannigan insists they keep flying; then he wing-walks to repair the damage. One wonders if he’s doing all this to expunge his nickname or if it actually makes sense. The ground is certainly full of doubters: “A thousand to one they won’t make it,” says Ward Bond. They do, O’Toole is hailed again but for the first time he deflects credit.
O’Toole: Brannigan did it all, give it to him.
[They cheer Brannigan]
Brannigan: Forget it. Took two of us to bring it down.
Aw shucks, guys. At which point, Betty arrives and plants a hot kiss on Brannigan, and it suddenly dawns on O’Toole that he’s not the guy for her.
It just doesn’t dawn on Warner Bros. I guess the star was the star, and he got the girl even if the story has to tie itself in knots to make it happen. Here, days after the kiss, Brannigan is walking with Betty and asks her to marry him. She doesn’t exactly jump. She gets quiet and sad and gives the 1930s version of all of those “I like you as a friend” lines I heard 50 years later: “If you were my brother,” she says, “I couldn’t love your or admire you more than I do.”
Ouch. Then this:
She: Oh Bill, I haven’t hurt your feelings, have I?
He: Oh no, honey. I understand everything. ... Good luck, kid.
One moment he’s ready to spend the rest of his life with her, the next he’s bowing out gracefully. So Pat O’Brien.
This is the second of seven movies real-life pals Cagney and O’Brien made together between 1934 and 1940, and most are similar. They’re often childhood friends, in the military, with Cagney the hotshot and O’Brien the temperate/spiritual one. There was often an issue with a girl. In the first, “Here Comes the Navy,” Cagney is after O’Brien’s sister, while here, as in “The Irish In Us,” he steals O’Brien’s girl. Eventually, Warner Bros. just threw up its hands and said, “Screw it, we’ll make O’Brien a priest from now on.” Problem solved.
This, by the way, is IMDb’s synopsis of the movie: “A talented but brash stunt pilot enters the Marine Corps and becomes more disciplined.” So when does the discipline come? At the very end—kinda sorta not really. After the turndown from Betty, Brannigan again requests a Quantico transfer, but as he’s leaving he goes out of his way to tell O’Toole that he’s the one Betty really likes. “If you think that kiss the other day was anything but friendship,” he says, “you’re crazier than a Chinese kite.” Then he leaves, hail and hearty, while O’Toole chastises a private for not saluting—repeating the lines Brannigan drilled into him:
“The Marine Corps only asks for three things: willingness to learn; respect for a superior officer and the uniform he wears; and the ability to take orders so he can give them later on.”
Trouble is, O’Toole never really leaned to take orders without a smirk; he just got good at giving them. He's one of those types.
Anyway, he gets the girl.
The man behind ‘Wings’
A few things I liked. At one point, during maneuvers, there’s a dirigible in the air, reminding us that all of this was filmed pre-Hindenburg when dirigibles supposedly had military value. I also liked the pilot training/tests, which is like a pre-tech, budget version of what we’d see in “The Right Stuff.” Instead of this equilibrium chair from the 1950s, for example, it’s a swivel desk chair. The instructors spin it five turns one way, five turns the next. Then the pilot wobbles out. That’s it.
I liked Lowell as Ma Roberts. She’s got great comic timing in scenes like this:
Ma: Betty’s father was a Marine. Died in the Nicaraguan campaign.
Ma: No. Mumps.
The flight footage is surprisingly good. The story comes from John Monk Saunders, who was born in Hibbing, Minn., in 1895, moved to Seattle in 1907, and served in the Air Service, the forerunner to the Air Force, during World War I. He never saw combat— he was a flight instructor in Florida—which apparently disappointed and/or haunted him. Is that why he began to write about it? Because he couldn’t do it? Either way, in the 1920s, he wrote novels and short stories about WWI pilots, which he sold to Hollywood, and which became, among other movies, “Wings,” “Dawn Patrol,” “Ace of Aces,” and this. For most of the ’30s, Saunders was married to Fay Wray, the girl in King Kong’s palm, and got into an infamous fight with actor and WWI vet Herbert Marshall at a 1934 Ernst Lubitsch dinner party. He also suffered from alcoholism, which is why he committed suicide in 1940.
The main thing I didn’t like in the movie, as you can tell, is Cagney/O’Toole. They really do make him an asshole here. He’s much more likeable as a murderous gangster. Those guys have a code.
Where have you gone, Rocky Sullivan?