Oh, 1939- perhaps the greatest year in film. The studio system cranked out high level pictures like The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Gone With the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, etc. Pretty much every studio was represented with a classic and these pictures were spread out over several genres.
While Columbia was probably best remembered as being represented with Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, one of my other favorite films also came out of Columbia that year. Directed by Howard Hawks, Only Angels Have Wings is usually categorized as an action/adventure film, but I think at its heart it is a drama. It features Cary Grant, Thomas Mitchell, Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth.
The action takes place in the South American banana port of Barranca. Bonnie Lee (Arthur) is an entertainer on her way back to America, stopping in town to change ships. While spending her layover time wandering about the port-town, she meets two pilots trying to catch her attention. Realizing that they are Americans as well, she follows them back to the hotel/bar run by their employer, “Dutchy.” Well, actually, the pilots answer to Cary Grant’s Geoff Carter, who runs his air mail service out of Dutchy’s property.
Lee becomes smitten with Carter (and who wouldn’t?) despite the fact that she finds his leadership methods questionable. He seems to have little concern for the dangers of flying the mail over the Andes, and a backhand attitude when his pilots perish. However, he is the no-questions-asked leader of this group, going by the nickname of “Papa” to many of his fellow pilots. Among this group is Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell in a great performance), Carter’s best friend. Their relationship is interesting to me because even though Kid is older, he almost looks at Geoff as a father figure at times, while in other instances they interact more as brothers.
Bonnie purposely misses her next boat, and things become more complicated by the arrival of a new man, Bat Kilgallen/MacPherson, who turns out to be a shunned pilot who jumped out of his plane leaving his mechanic to perish. The mechanic just happened to be the Kid’s younger bother. Kid, meanwhile, is grounded by Geoff due to the fact that he has basically been flying blind for some time now. Forced into making this tough decision, Geoff also has to deal with the return of the girl who burned him in the past, Judy (Hayworth).
Needless to say, throwing in all these plot points starts the conflict. Geoff makes a deal with MacPherson that he can stay and fly provided he understands that the most risky jobs will fall to him. Bonnie, trying to pretend that she can be the girl who won’t fuss over the fact that Geoff risks his life daily works to convince Geoff of this as well. Throw in the ticking time-clock device of Geoff braving all conditions to deliver the mail over the mountains each day in order for Dutchy to fulfill the promises of a lucrative contract, and the film really starts to pick up.
Overall, the movie is well-crafted in it’s characters, story and in its execution of the plot. The flying scenes were top notch special effects for the time, but to me the thing that rings true for the picture is the story. The acting performances are superb.
The film functions as a great example of Hawks’ trademarks, and many of his themes are on display. The movie in itself is about a group of men, so in many ways it ties into the male-bonding/”hanging out” idea that can be seen in other Hawks films, like Rio Bravo. In this sense too, the Hawksian woman is seen in the form of Jean Arthur’s character. She is strong-willed and assertive, and, as many Hawksian women do, tries to insert herself into a male-dominated world and become “one of the boys.” I would venture to say that this might be one of the stronger examples of the Hawksian woman for me, trumped only by Lauren Bacall later.
All in all, Only Angels Have Wings is a great film from a great year. I think because it came out in 1939, it is sometimes less known, and perhaps it is not as mentioned as other Hawks classics like His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby and Red River. And if that is true, then it’s a crying shame, because I believe it deserves to be right up there with those other films.