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August 29, 2003

North Bay's Big Movie - Captains of the Clouds 1941

On this 100th Anniversary of flight the use of planes in WWII should be remembered. The use of planes prevented the excessive death of WWI. One of the keys to the success of the allied air force was a remarkable training plan based in Canada that trained 130,000 pilots, navigators, gunners, engineers, etc. to man these planes. Called the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) it had 107 training schools across the country. Trainees came from Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. The plan weeded out unsuitable candidates and some were injured or killed.

I recall as a school child in Port Colborne the many training planes that flew overhead from the nearby BCATP centres at Jarvis, Hagersville and Dunville. I have a photo from the Globe and Mail from February 1941 showing several WWI pilots who had volunteered to enlist to train students in the BCATP. One of the pilots in the photo was an uncle who made a major contribution.

To gain the cooperation of the local people and to encourage men from the Commonwealth, the United States and elsewhere to join, a public relations man was appointed. One of his ideas was to get a big Hollywood movie made that would publicize the program. This led to one of the most exciting summers in North Bay history as Hollywood descended on Trout Lake and environs in 1941. The crew of eighty included Academy Award winning director Michael Curtiz and Hollywood's highest paid actor James Cagney who was making his first colour movie.

James Cagney's Norseman in the moving Captains of the Clouds. Warners V/A Museum of Modern Art.

Rudy Mauro, the North Bay resident mentioned last week has researched the event in minute detail for the prestigious Canadian Aviation Historical Society. His articles appeared in their Journal and won the Association's research award in 1991. 

Some excellent photos, a large poster and samples of some of his writing are featured in the current exhibition in the Alex Dufresne Gallery at the Callander Bay Heritage Museum. A copy of the 3 articles he wrote for the Aviation Journal is available in the research section of the North Bay Public Library. 

A couple of later books have been written about the film and much of the material is based on Rudy's research which came from RCAF files and station resources held by the National Archives of Canada and National Defense Department directorate of History, Warner Brothers, various aviation museums and many interviews including key people in North Bay.

The film was called Captains of the Clouds after a phrase used by Air Marshall "Billy" Bishop, the WWI air ace who played a role in the film. The female lead was Brenda Marshall who had recently married Hollywood star William Holden. Various character actors including Dennis Morgan and Alan Hale played roles as Canadian bush pilots and many local people were directly or indirectly involved.

The movie is the story of three Northern Ontario bush pilots who were one-upped by James Cagney who is not only aggressive and cocky but very fast with the female lead who lives at an outpost with her father and is engaged to one of the other pilots. Cagney eventually joins the other pilots in a joint work venture and when war pilots are needed they decide to join the RCAF and the BCATP. 

Space does not allow for details here but in simple terms they have a hard time especially Cagney who however becomes a hero at the end. Much of the early part of the film was shot on four Mile Bay on Trout Lake and at Woodcliffe Camp and Croskery's on the south shore and possibly at other locations on the lake. 

Many of the flying scenes were shot at Jumping Caribou Lake north of North Bay.

Much of the crew stayed at the Empire Hotel and at Len Hughes Camp Champlain during their stay here. The big stars spent very little time here but some of the crew remained for several weeks shooting the bush plane scenes. Cagney hated flying and did not fly as was the case with the other actor pilots. Hollywood stunt flyers were brought in. The close-ups of the cabins of the planes were shot later in Hollywood in mock up cockpits.

Of local interest is the fact that well known North Bay businessman Harry Mulligan, who had some Hollywood connections was instrumental in bringing the movie to North Bay. He loaned his carrier pigeons to the director to send messages to North Bay for transmission to Hollywood and elsewhere. Trout Lake was just in the early stages of its development and there were no phones and the roads were very rough.

Yvette Gravelle Boyce who lives on Nipissing's south shore and her sister Jeanette worked as cooks at Len Hughes Camp Champlain in 1941 and fed the staff and crew of the film on several occasions. Cagney and others had cabins there for convenience. The sisters and a brother were asked to be a part of a scene where people were needed in the background and their brother caught a rope thrown from a docking plane in one scene. Stand ins were often used until a scene was actually shot and before the stars stepped in and sometimes a double that looked like the star was used where a close up was not required. Mildred "Middy" Morland, daughter of the owner of North Bay's Morland real estate company was chosen to be a double for Brenda Marshall. In one scene she stands on a wagonload of hay while Cagney's bush plane buzzes the wagon. (see photo). 

The scene was shot several times and the star was nowhere in sight until she comes down off the wagon and is seen in a close up. Mildred married Jack Gorman, a young reporter at the Nugget who covered the shooting of the film. They live in North Bay. She recalls the good pay and the trips to work in a Deluxe taxi.

James Cagney and Denis Morgan visit with Doctor Dafoe the Quint Doctor in Callander in 1941, during the shooting of the film. DND/RCAF Photo

Many other people had connections with the movie or were part of the crowds that gathered at the Empire Hotel or at shooting sites. Some remember James Cagney and Dennis Morgan's visit to the Quint doctor Dr. Dafoe at his office where the current show is currently located some 60 years later. A quality video of Captains of the Clouds was released in 1993 and is available through Blockbuster or the internet and there are 2 copies in North Bay Public Library. The Museum also has a copy, which may be shown by appointment. It should be mentioned that the second half of the movie showing the BCATP was shot in Ottawa at Uplands Air Base and the Chateau Laurier and at other BCATP bases.

The film did well at the box office becoming Cagney's second highest grossing film after Yankee Doodle Dandy, which he shot the same year and for which he received the Best Actor Academy Award for 1942.

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