Only Angels Have Wings

Movie Information

In Brief: I first saw Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings (1939) at two o'clock in the morning on the second day of a marathon festival of films from Columbia Pictures in a packed theater at the University of South Florida about 40 years ago. It had never to my knowledge popped up on any TV station in my range, and I knew nothing about it except that Hawks had made it and that it starred Cary Grant and Jean Arthur, but that was enough to get me there. I was pretty completely blown away by the film's mixture of comedy, tragedy, romance and action. That might seem a not uncommon mix now, but it was then — and it was even more so in 1939. Stripped to its bare essentials, it can be assessed as a post-code (read: cleaned up) variant on Red Dust (1932) with airmail carriers in South America replacing people on a rubber plantation in French Indochina, and Grant, Arthur, Richard Barthelmess and Rita Hayworth taking over for Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Gene Raymond and Mary Astor. But the story is much more complex, the tone more serious and the melodrama toned down. Red Dust is fun, but this is a masterpiece — and quite possibly Hawks' best film. An essential if ever there was one..
Score:

Genre: Adventure Drama Comedy
Director: Howard Hawks
Starring: Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Richard Barthelmess, Rita Hayworth, Thomas Mitchell, Sig Ruman
Rated: NR

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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13 thoughts on “Only Angels Have Wings

  1. Dino

    Ken, you have my interest piqued about ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS. You bring up that the film is “an essential.” As a lover of lists, dare I ask, would you be able to show us the top ten essential films in your estimation?

    • Ken Hanke

      You ask me to undertake a very foolish task — name 10 essential movies out of 100+ years of them. Let me think about it.

      • Ken Hanke

        The more I think about this, the more impossible it seems. I could name 10 essential movies, but they wouldn’t be the essential movies. There are probably 200 movies I’d call essentials. But then there’s the question of “essential in what way?” For instance, I’d say it’s essential at some point to see Gone with the Wind, but I don’t think it’s all that great as a movie in its own right.

        • Dino

          Yes, it was a foolish task I set upon you. I agree. Thanks for considering!

          • Ken Hanke

            Maybe someday I will (almost as foolishly) undertake a list of 100 or 200.

  2. T.rex

    You sure are right about Gone With the Wind. An overrated snooze fest, a soap opera.

    • Ken Hanke

      That doesn’t mean it’s not an essential. I cannot adequately convey how un-charming I find The Wizard of Oz these days, but it’s still an essential.

      • T.rex

        The kid in me will always love Oz. Over the Rainbow always brings a tear to my eye and the Ray Charles version too.

        • Ken Hanke

          Then the kid in you (God that phrase!) has dubious taste. What I see is a movie with an amazingly ugly color scheme, cheesy sets, lousy songs (“Over the Rainbow” excepted), a trio of overstuffed vaudevillians, an overaged Dorothy, zero charm, and — in the plus column — Frank Morgan, Margaret Hamilton, and winged monkeys. Sure, it was an Easter ritual on TV when I was a kid — even into early adulthood — but so what? I look at it now and it mostly seems — like GWTW, with which it shares a director — to me to be the ultimate in corporate-minded filmmaking — more a product than anything else.

          • Brian Paige

            I had a VHS of Only Angels Have Wings a long while ago, though where it is now I don’t know. It was from when I got on a massive Grant kick and wanted all of his major stuff. I probably need to watch it again since it’s been probably 18 years ago, but at the time I thought it was a nice solid film, but not quite the masterpiece Ken’s making it out to be. Interestingly enough another film buff friend of mine, Allan Fish, also thinks the world of OAHW and had it #1 for 1939.

            If you asked me to name the best movies from 1939 beyond the obvious picks (GWTW, Oz) I might go with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and maybe Of Mice and Men. Oh and Gunga Din of course (Grant had quite the year, huh?).

          • Ken Hanke

            You overlook When Tomorrow Comes, Love Affair, Midnight, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, and Drums Along the Mohawk. And I’ll still take 1932.

  3. Richard

    Excellent perceptive review of a terrific, overlooked classic!

    • Ken Hanke

      Thank you. I was startled by the turnout for it. I expected maybe 50 and had about 100 show up.

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