Ottawa stars in little-known wartime film by Casablanca director

Casablanca might be director Michael Curtiz's most famous 1942 film, but it wasn't his only one. Captains of the Clouds, set in Ottawa, also made its debut that year.

RCAF tribute Captains of the Clouds, starring James Cagney, also shot in 1942

From left to right, Alan Hale, Dennis Morgan and James Cagney appeared in director Michael Curtiz's 1942 film Captains of the Clouds. The movie, released the same year as Casablanca, was shot largely in and around Ottawa. (Warner Bros.)

Sure, you know the film Casablanca, and you might even know it was directed by Michael Curtiz. 

What you might not know is that of all the towns in all the world, Curtiz chose Ottawa as the setting for another Second World War-era film, produced the same year as the Humphrey Bogart classic.

Captains of the Clouds stars James Cagney as a reluctant RCAF pilot who falls in love with a local woman, portrayed by Brenda Marshall. 

Associate professor Marc Furstenau is director of Carleton University's film studies program. (Roussakis Photography)

According to Marc Furstenau, associate professor and director of the film studies program at Carleton University, the 1942 movie was a unique co-production between the Canadian government, the Royal Canadian Air Force and the American studio that produced it.

"It is a Warner Bros. film, the one major Hollywood studio that had been willing to make pro-war and anti-Nazi films, which almost all the other studios had refused to do before the United States entered the war," Furstenau said.

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman star in Casablanca, shot the same year Michael Curtiz directed Captains of the Clouds. (Warner Brothers)

Ottawa landmarks

"And of course, it is a rare Hollywood film that is not only set in Canada but shot in actual locations, rather than on studio lots and sound stages standing in for Canada."

Those settings include CFB Uplands and some familiar Ottawa landmarks.

"We see the Châ​teau Laurier, we see the [National] War Memorial downtown, we see Wellington Street ... and we get at least one aerial view of downtown Ottawa, of the river, of the Parliament Buildings and Gatineau." 

James Cagney. Brenda Marshall. And... Ottawa? The story of how Carleton's film school discovered Captain of the Clouds. A movie that was set and shot mostly in Ottawa -- by the director of Casablanca. 13:48

Furstenau, who's also editor of the scholarly publication Canadian Journal of Film Studies, happened upon the movie while editing an article about it by Ryerson University post-doctoral fellow Jessica Whitehead. 

"It's a film that I had never heard about before, myself. This is a real historical curiosity," he said.

A promotional poster for Captain of the Clouds.

Billy Bishop as himself

The film even features a cameo by real First World War flying ace Billy Bishop, then Canada's Air Marshal.

"The title of the film is actually from a speech that Billy Bishop had given, trying to describe the heroic efforts of the Canadian fighters going over to help the British as 'captains of the clouds,'" Furstenau said.

Furstenau, who screened Casablanca last year to mark the 75th anniversary of its release, will present Captains of the Clouds Friday evening at Carleton.

The public is welcome to attend the screening, which will be followed by an informal discussion. 

Captains of the Clouds 
Richcraft Hall Theatre (Room 2200)
Carleton University
Friday, Nov. 30, 2018 
6:00 PM – 9:00 PM