You can keep your Gone with the Wind and your Wizard of Oz. If there’s one single film from the overrated year of 1939 that completely holds up to scrutiny, it’s Only Angels Have Wings — a wholly personal piece of work by Hollywood maestro Howard Hawks. Hawks was both a consummate professional and a stubbornly individual voice. He was adept at blending his own vision (something he’d probably deny he had) with a keen sense of what the moviegoing public wanted. His secret was simple — Hawks’ films never forgot to be movies. (As an idea, it’s simple enough. Pulling it off is something else.) And certainly no Hawks film was ever more a movie than this one — a totally studio-fabricated bit of adventure exotica that never left North Hollywood.
The movie is set in what is called “Barranca, South America.” Its exact location — other than being a seaport in the Andes — is never made clear. The location probably wasn’t clear in Hawks’ or screenwriter Jules Furthman’s mind either. All that matters is that it’s some banana republic — existing only within the confines of a wholly art-directed soundstage –that’s suitable for a drama about the perils of a fledgling air mail service made up of a tightly-knit, all-male (this is Hawks after all) group of ex-patriate flyers. Though the service — perpetually on the verge of going broke — is owned by a displaced Dutchman — named Dutchy (Sig Ruman), of course — the real boss of the outfit is Geoff Carter (Grant), as cool a customer as Grant ever played. It is Geoff who makes all the decisions and keeps things running — evidencing a combination of ruthlessness and a kind of paternal concern. In the world of Only Angels Have Wings authority is always earned, it’s never just a given based on age or seniority. It’s based on merit.
It is into this group that showgirl Bonnie Lee (Arthur) unwittingly is initiated when she is relieved to run into two American flyers — Les Peters (Allyn Joslyn) and Joe Souther (Noah Beery, Jr.). It isn’t that they’re flyers, but that they’re Americans that draws her to them — nationalist bonding by people out of their element is a primary component of the film. Her baptism into the group is sudden and tragic. No sooner has she accepted a dinner date with Joe than he’s sent on a flight from which he never returns — in part because he’s so anxious to have that promised date. It’s then that she encounters the group’s coping mechanism of denying the very existence of the dead man — a process that at first horrifies her, but one she quickly comes to understand. It is this that makes her a viable member of this fraternity — even possibly a romantic partner for Geoff, despite the fact that he’s still nursing a grudge against an old flame.
Now bear in mind that all of this is just set-up, taking place in the first 40 minutes of the movie. Only Angels Have Wings is no snack. It’s a grand banquet of a film that never lets up for a single moment of its 121 minute running time. This is a movie of many incidents and with an emotional complexity that’s surprising in a film that appears to exist purely as entertainment. That, of course, is the genius of Hawks — he gives you something of much greater depth than you anticipate, and he slips it in so deftly that you don’t even notice it — at first. Hawks isn’t selling you a movie about life, death, and redemption. He’s selling you a romantic adventure with comedy trimmings. Those other things just happen to be in there. By the time the film pulls all its threads together in a satisfactory manner, it briefly looks like Hawks is heading for a tidy traditional ending. But this is not a Hawks’ trait — think of the endings of Twentieth Century (1934) and His Girl Friday (1940). Everything seems resolved, but it’s not that simple. Hawks’ characters are so vibrant that they tend to be left in a position that’s deliberately a little inconclusive. It’s as if these people are simply too big to be contained by the movie — and maybe they are.