The third highest grossing film of 1939 was Only Angels Have Wings (1939); director, Howard Hawks aviation adventure yarn about a motley crew of rough and ready fly boys, living and dying for their ‘by the seat of their pants’ creed in the all but forgotten and fictional tropical backwater of Barranca. The picture is exceptional; chiefly for its searing tension that runs like the attenuated thread of fate throughout Jules Furthman’s screenplay; also, for Cary Grant’s uncharacteristically dark and brooding performance as the emotionally detached bastard/stud, and, for an early appearance by Rita Hayworth, who positively sizzles as the sinfully sexy girl who knew him when – and would like to get to know him again, despite having married in the interim. Last, but certainly not least, we tip our hats to the proverbial ‘nice girl’ (every movie should have one), herein played with coquettish sincerity by the thirties favorite innocent – Jean Arthur. Only Angels Have Wings reeks of Howard Hawk’s trademarked rough-n-ready panache; a characteristic he shares with the likes of directors, William Wellman and Victor Fleming. Hawks is never afraid to let the pain show as he puts this heroic sect through the unapologetic, frank – if highly romanticized – exhibitions of life and death; the Victor Frankenstein of this high-flying entourage. Hawks also keeps a lot inside, bottled up in male-bonding machismo. Not bad for a movie whose competition of the day was David O. Selznick’s sprawling southern saga, Gone With the Wind and Victor Fleming’s mercurial fantasy for all ages, The Wizard of Oz; iconic monuments from this golden epoch that out-performed ‘Angels’ at the box office: even more remarkable when considering 1939’s other contenders - Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Of Mice and Men, Gunga Din, The Women, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Ninotchka, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Rains Came (to name but a handful of the praiseworthy) came after it. While box office alone should never be considered the barometer of greatness (revenue generated is often based on nothing better than the fickle ‘star gazing’ of sycophants), in the case of Only Angels Have Wings, it is, at least, a very impressive factor to what is essentially a very good show.
Decidedly that, in hindsight, Only Angels Have Wings is an extraordinary achievement. An intensely gritty, gutsy, brutally dark (figuratively and literally speaking) passionate and rain-soaked melodrama, it manages to rivet the audience’s attention from the start and almost exclusively on its star performances given by a celebrated triage of performers: Cary Grant, never better or more cynical (outside of a Hitchcock movie) as Geoff Carter, the owner/operator of a small mail delivery airline, making daily trips through a narrow and weather-plagued slit in the Andes Mountains; Jean Arthur, taming her usual giddy, cockeyed sarcasm as the bittersweet Bonnie Lee, and, Thomas Mitchell who, astonishingly, appeared in no less than five major classics produced in this single year; the aforementioned GWTW and Mr. Smith, John Ford’s trend-setting western, Stagecoach, and, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Now that is some pedigree! Mitchell’s chameleon skin is further tested in Only Angels Have Wings, as Kid Dabb, the steely-eyed aging flyer with an ax to grind, grounded by Geoff after it is discovered the Kid’s eyesight is failing.
Howard Hawks, who had been utterly impressed by the stoic aviation personnel he encountered while in Mexico scouting locations for Viva Villa! (1934) began the odyssey of bringing Only Angels Have Wings to the screen by hiring Anne Wigton to write a screenplay. Alas, Hawks disliked Wigton’s treatment, entitled ‘Plane No. 4’, so much, he eventually re-wrote the entire scenario himself, basing the new concept on his own 1938 published short story, ‘Plane from Barranca’. Even so, Hawks was discontented with the results, chronically reworking his scenarios and dialogue even as his shooting schedule progressed, with collaborator, Jules Furthman close at hand, and some minor assists by Eleanore Griffin and William Rankin. Hawks’ spur of the moment tinkering may have created an atmosphere of immediacy on the set, but it damn well frustrated Jean Arthur, already well known for being a temperamental star. On the set, Arthur and Hawks frequently quarreled. But there was never any lingering animosity, and, in hindsight, their heated exchanges seem only to have enriched Arthur’s performance.
Only Angels Have Wings is immeasurably blessed by its incredible assortment of ‘bit players’, each offered an indelible moment or two: the sadly forgotten silent matinee idol, Richard Barthelmess playing Bat McPherson (superb, as an emotionally tortured flyer who previously bailed on a plane that claimed the life of the Kid’s younger brother and has since been branded a bad lot and high risk), Rita Hayworth, pre-super-stardom and vetted as Geoff’s empathetic ex-flame, Judy - the present Mrs. McPherson: Sig Ruman – joyous as the easily flustered saloon keeper, Dutchy, Geoff’s business partner and owner of Barranca’s most colorful nightspot (where most of the film’s action takes place): Victor Kilian, as ‘Sparks’, the ham radio operator: John Carroll, a suave fly boy, Gent Shelton, and, Noah Beery Jr., as the ill-fated novice, Joe Souther. Only Angels Have Wings would not be half as memorable without these great faces.
Hawks handpicked his roster of talent, starting with Cary Grant, with whom he had worked the year before on Bringing Up Baby (1938); rightly considered a classic today, but then a major flop for RKO. Even then, Grant was one of Hollywood’s most enigmatic stars; a free agent at a time when few - if any - existed, who could effortlessly yield as the romantic lead or comedic fop as propriety demanded. But in Only Angels Have Wings, Grant reveals a much more brooding – even unflattering – side to his Teflon-coated persona, the corrosively abrupt loner. Geoff Carter is hardly a lady’s man. In fact, he really is something of a cad; rumored to use women like Kleenex. He’s hard too, emotionally barren and morally ambiguous. Hence, when the innocent, Joe Souther wins a playful coin toss to court new arrival/specialty act, Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), Geoff’s first inclination is to wreck their evening together by sending Joe back in the air, then teasing Bonnie with the prospect of spending her time with him instead before effectively thwarting this too with a deliberate tease. When Joe is unable to land his plane successfully through a dense fog and is killed as a result, Geoff casually tosses off his death by choosing to eat the steak Dutchy had prepared for Joe’s return; the one he ought to have shared with Bonnie. Bonnie’s brittle sadness over Joe’s loss leads to an even more callous moment: Geoff’s rather cruel and decidedly unsympathetic admonishment of her tears.
Geoff is the most infuriatingly unromantic of romantics; the love affair eventually blossoming between Bonnie and Geoff as unlikely as it remains wholly – and perplexedly – convincing. Only Cary Grant could play such a brute with such enigmatic and overriding charm. Given Geoff’s stern and dictatorial command of the air service and its workforce, his steamrolling over anyone who gets in the way of his edicts, and, his inability to connect with anybody – even the Kid – on an emotional level, what is there to attract Bonnie to Geoff? Well, the obvious answer is that it’s Cary Grant with whom Bonnie Lee (and the audience) has become enamored. Grant’s persona – or rather that which he meticulously crafted for himself out of the scrawny and insecure, acrobatic Britton known as Archibald Leach – is what is on display in this film; a presence so magnetic not even the imperious nature of the film’s alter ego can stand in its’ way. Cary Grant can make any woman’s heart flutter. Nevertheless, Grant does everything he can to avoid the clichés as the atypical hunk du jour in Only Angels Have Wings, utterly beguiling as this deceptively unscrupulous man of ulterior motives.
And then, of course, there is Grant’s chemistry with Jean Arthur to reconsider. Like Grant, Arthur’s screen appeal is not so easily definable. Mostly, it emanates from an intangible slyness that unexpectedly creeps to the surface from within. Although attractive, Arthur’s looks could hardly be considered conventional beauty. And Arthur’s Bonnie Lee is hardly hot to trot for Geoff Carter – at least, not at first. Even when she succumbs to Grant’s glycerin good looks and piercing stare near the end, Arthur does so on her own terms. Bonnie elects to stay behind in Barranca even when Geoff would have preferred she sailed with the next ship for America. Arthur’s sexy innocent is not above turning up uninvited on a rain-soaked eve in Geoff’s bedroom shower, playfully refusing to leave in nothing more modest than his oversized bathrobe after Mrs. McPherson deliberately arrives to ‘thank Geoff’ for setting her straight; the implication, of course, being an old flame has come to rekindle the embers anew.
That, in the last act, Arthur is forced to submit to a few tearful episodes, pleading at the point of a pistol for her prospective lover not to fly a suicide mission during a heavy storm (in a scene so obviously plagiarized from Victor Fleming’s 1932 classic, Red Dust, Bonnie wounds Geoff in the shoulder by accident, thus ruining his chances for takeoff) is mildly lamentable. Arthur’s strengths are impressively aligned with the classic screwball heroine, herein represented as the proverbial fish out of water. And yet, and again, not unlike Cary Grant, she delivers the good with a sense of pride and air of stubborn determinism, her Bonnie Lee both flavorful and enriching in unanticipated ways. Only Angels Have Wings slightly falters when Hawks forces this winning team into bits of camp comedy; as in the aforementioned bedroom scene where Grant mugs for the camera as he repeatedly burns his fingers on a hot coffee pot, much to the usually stoic and often brutal Geoff’s chagrin and Bonnie’s – or is it Arthur’s? – mild amusement.
Only Angels Have Wings opens with an impressive sound stage recreation of the tropical port of Barranca; steamy, sweat-soaked and fog-laden as a medium-sized freighter coasts into port. The ship is met by Joe and Gent, who are mildly amused when Rafael (Rafael Storm), the purser inadvertently reveals his badly blackened eye and bruised cheek. While excuses abound, the pair already know the cause of the wound and are immediately introduced to it in the form of forthright, Bonnie Lee; a no-nonsense looker, smartly attired in plaid as she disembarks to explore this temporary port of call. Gent and Joe casually stalk Bonnie as she absorbs the local nightlife, including a Latin Apache performed inside a muggy and smoke-filled nightclub. Becoming aware of her male pursuers, Bonnie is relieved to discover they are Americans, far from home and in the employ of Geoff Carter as hotshot pilots. Joe and Gent flip a coin to see who will squire Bonnie to dinner. Joe wins the toss but loses to Geoff, who callously assigns both men tedious duties in order to have Bonnie to himself. When she shows little interest in being traded like a bag of meal, Geoff does Bonnie one better by dumping her. She can eat dinner alone. All the better, as far as the hotel’s owner, Dutchy is concerned. He knows Geoff much too well; his modus operandi for exploiting women with never a thought for the future.
Dutchy is the worrisome type – a real mother hen without a nest egg. He does not want Joe to fly the mail out in this pea soup. Besides, a storm is coming. But Geoff will hear none of Dutchy’s womanly nattering. Joe takes off without a glitch but is unable to breach the fog. After getting a report from the mountain lookout about nastier weather ahead, Geoff orders Joe to return to the landing strip at once. Unhappy circumstance, Joe’s mind is on Bonnie instead of his flying. He clips a tree on his descend, exploding into a hellish fireball on the runway. Bonnie’s shock and sadness at his immediate death quickly turns to disdain for Geoff after he elects, along with the Kid, Gent and some of the other flyers, to throw a seemingly celebratory wake. Geoff tells Bonnie she needs to get wise to herself. Weeping a million tears will never bring Joe back. It also does nothing for the rest of the men’s morale. Bonnie takes Geoff’s advice to heart, returning to the saloon to find him badly mangling a piano rendition of ‘Some of These Days You’re Gonna Miss Me Honey’. Instructing Geoff to move over, Bonnie proves she can rock the house like a pro; her stiff upper lip and fast fingers pounding the ivories, ingratiating her to Geoff.
Geoff and Bonnie share a drink at the bar, the implication - they’ll never see one another again. Bonnie is bound for America, the steamer leaving at midnight. Instead, on nothing more than a romantic whim Bonnie elects to remain behind in Barranca; incurring Geoff’s ire but also the Kid’s empathy. He tells her it’s no good; Geoff is not a noble guy but a loner who will not allow himself to be tied down. Bonnie rethinks her strategy and re-doubles her efforts. In the meantime, a new flyboy arrives in town; McPherson and his newlywed wife, Judy. The pair makes an impressive entrance. But soon, Geoff learns McPherson is travelling incognito to conceal his infamous reputation, rumored to have bailed on a previous mission, resulting in the death of the Kid’s younger brother. The Kid is understandably adversarial toward McPherson, informing him that if he had come to Baranca any sooner he – the Kid – would have surely shot him dead. As it stands, the Kid will thank McPherson to keep out of his way – or else.
Sometime later, Geoff learns the Kid has macular degeneration. He’s nearly blind and of no use in the air. So Geoff retires his best friend from active duty, putting a real strain on the fleet. The company is now two shy of the prerequisite to get the mail out on time and keep the business afloat. The Kid is hardly bitter, handling all repairs to the planes on the ground. Geoff takes his stress out on McPherson, ordering him on every mission where the element of danger is anted up; including a perilous assignment to deliver a crate of highly volatile nitroglycerin to an oil field on the other side of the mountains. McPherson never once shies away from Geoff’s insane itinerary. His chutzpah and professionalism gradually win McPherson the respect of his peers, including Geoff and the Kid. Thus, when Bonnie accidentally shoots Geoff in the shoulder – preventing him from flying another hazardous errand – the Kid offers to copilot the plane with McPherson.
The two encounter some patchy fog and then a flock of albatross. The birds fly into the cockpit and engines, knocking the Kid unconscious and starting a fire that severely burns McPherson’s hands. Nevertheless, McPherson manages to land his crippled aircraft safely. He and the Kid are rescued by Geoff, but not long thereafter the Kid dies from his wounds; alas, not before he manages to sing McPherson’s praises. As a result, McPherson’s reputation is restored and he is embraced by the flyers as one of them. Meanwhile, the time is drawing nearer for Bonnie to leave Barranca aboard the next freighter. Geoff refuses to give her any good reason to stay, instead tossing her a coin from the Kid’s belongings. He tells her to flip it, calling heads prematurely. “I’m hard to get, Geoff”, Bonnie informs him, “…all you have to do is ask me.” Believing she means no more to Geoff than the coin, Bonnie is elated to discover both sides are labeled ‘heads’. Bonnie and Geoff are reconciled, the two well on their way to becoming more than casual lovers.
Only Angels Have Wings is perhaps the quintessential example of Howard Hawks’ elemental comraderies between men of action; a company of staunchly committed, stoic men, bent in their communal pursuit to perform daring dos that test their chest-thumping machismo. Hawks adored such exercises in male bonding; Hawks seemingly at home amidst guys who know the score and aren’t afraid to lay everything on the line. But the film also has Jean Arthur as the prototypical Hawksian heroine; hard-nosed and sassy on the outside, but with a softer than expected core; in short, the perfect mate for the solitary guy she has already chosen for her mate. Viewing Arthur’s effortless performance today, it is much too easy to forget how unpleasant things were between her and Hawks on the set. Frequently, Arthur clashed with her director over the reading of even a single line. Years later, after observing Lauren Bacall uttering the famous line “I’m hard to get…” in Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944), Arthur offered Hawks an apology, at last, understanding what he had expected of her in this film.
While Arthur is certainly no Bacall, she definitely holds her own with an air of comedic class and distinction. Arthur is subtler in her sly scorn/yet simultaneous attraction to men who think they don’t need women in their lives; brassier in her wit and broader in interpreting a gal under the auto-piloted influence of love for a deliciously unlovable bastard. It all comes together so neatly in Only Angels Have Wings one can sincerely forget just how byzantine this character study is; the movie too: expertly paced and perfectly timed right down to the loaded pauses between peppered dialogue, magnificently interspersed and parceled off with harrowing action sequences. In hindsight, the special effects do not hold up nearly as well; the obvious models adding to the artifice, if not the believability of the story. It doesn’t matter, because Hawks’ is an imperious perfectionist when it comes to staging drama.
It is in the interplay between these characters that Only Angels Have Wings continues to sparkle like diamonds. There is an intuition – nee, aliveness – to the story; an arrogance too; Hawks almost as ballsy as his proto-masculine hell raiser; a mirror-image for the sort of guy’s guy Hawks believes himself to be. The screenplay is so perfectly pitched to the strengths of its cast that whoever is immediately in front of the camera becomes the star of the moment; Hawks never allowing our attention span to lapse for a second. He hits all the dramatic high points and even gets the occasional spontaneous laugh. Only Angels Have Wings hails 1939 as a year unparalleled in its movie-making prowess, still the exemplar by which the definition of Hollywood’s greatest achievements gone after it must take their cue.
Okay, Criterion’s release of Only Angels Have Wings appears to be culled from the same 4K transfer previously available from TCM as part of their short-lived and now very much defunct Blu-ray ‘exclusives’ line. TCM’s mismanagement of their ‘Vault Series’ is Criterion’s gain; also, a plus for fans who missed out on their first bite at the proverbial apple. Criterion already bests the TCM release by adding chapter stops. TCM’s bare-bones affair had none; rather, an arbitrary index accessible only by hitting the ‘advance’ button on one’s remote control, jumping ahead at ten minute intervals. Dumb! Really dumb!!! I am going to depart a moment to vocalize my own two cents about Criterion’s recent acquisition of a number of Sony/Columbia/Tri-Star releases coming soon – or rather – again in 1080p. While I cannot rightly disapprove of these re-issues, I can honestly wish Criterion had pursued ‘other’ deep catalog titles from Sony yet to see the light of day in hi-def once; Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon, George Cukor’s Holiday, George Steven’s The Talk of the Town, among them; particularly since Sony has made titles like Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider (both getting reissues via Criterion) already available. I hate double-dipping; a pet peeve of mine. But I digress.
Only Angels Have Wings looks great on Blu-ray from Criterion – no surprise given the retired TCM transfer was flawless too. The formidable efforts of Grover Crisp at Sony are responsible for yet another pristine hi-def classic come to Blu-ray. Joseph Walker’s stunning cinematography is luminously represented herein. Blacks are deep and fully saturated; whites, crisp though never blooming. The early sequences shot with heavy diffusion filters to mimic this steamy tropical backwater look stifling hot, sweaty and gorgeous. Film grain is naturally represented and fine detail is revealed with a startling amount of clarity throughout. Also, age-related artifacts are practically nonexistent for a smooth and highly pleasing transfer. For the most part, this image is crisp, solid and expertly contrasted. So was the TCM’s Blu-ray. So, while everything looks fantastic, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Criterion’s release contains a PCM mono audio. The TCM was advertised as 2.0 Dolby Digital. Honestly, I really cannot tell the difference between the two. Unlike the TCM release, Criterion’s reissue is region ‘A’ locked. Good news for North America. Not so good for everybody else.
Criterion’s big bonus? Extras!!! For starters, we get almost 20 min. of audio from a 1972 conversation between filmmakers, Howard Hawks and Peter Bogdanovich. Critic, David Thomson waxes affectionately for 18 additional minutes. Thomson really needs to be given the opportunity to do feature-length commentaries for Criterion. He is a fascinating orator with copious knowledge to impart. These ‘puff pieces’ from Criterion are nice, but they barely scratch the surface of his vast storehouse of information. Howard Hawks and His Aviation Movies is another 20 min. puff piece, featuring film scholars, Craig Barron and Ben Burtt – actually a carryover from the TCM release. I confess, I have never listened to any of the Lux Radio Theatre adaptations that Criterion loves to include with these deep catalog releases. Finally, Criterion whips out a careworn trailer in 1080i and a great essay by critic, Michael Sragow, featured in the liner notes. Sure as hell beats the ole TCM Blu-ray that referred to ‘posters’ and ‘lobby cards’ as ‘extras’. Why not ‘full color artwork on disc’ like Disney used to do? Let’s cut to the chase. Bottom line: it’s the quality of the transfer you should care about and on this score, Criterion’s reissue of Only Angels Have Wings is a winner through and through. You are going to love this disc. It’s that simple. For those who never bothered to pick up the retired TCM release – this one comes very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)