Only Angels Have Wings (1939)


  • directed by Howard Hawks
  • starring Cary Grant, Thomas Mitchell, Jean Arthur, Rita Hayworth, Richard Barthelmess
  • At a remote South American trading port, the manager of an air freight company is forced to risk his pilots’ lives in order to win an important contract.

“Say, things happen awful fast around here.”

This was a strange experience for me at first because I had to finally get accustomed to the fact that a strong love that people have for flying as a profession or a hobby is something that actually exists in this world. As a person who can classify their feelings on flying as at best hesitant and for all my fellow aviophobes out there, parts of Only Angels Have Wings could easily be viewed as a horror movie. This particular band of pilots battles weather, condors, a treacherous South American mountain landscape, and shaky mechanics to…deliver mail. It was kind of like the 1939 fictionalized version of today’s Ice Road Truckers or Deadliest Catch, but these guys were risking their lives for, in addition to pride and to uphold a macho sort of code amongst themselves, the delivery of mail. They weren’t rolling the dice on their lives every time they launched through the Andes, it was more like a coin toss.

It was interesting to see the nonchalance–no doubt a lesson learned after many difficult years–of Cary Grant’s Geoff Carter during the first fatal mission of the film especially in contrast to the horror that was displayed by Jean Arthur’s Bonnie Lee who was up until then unaware of Barranca Airways and the nature of their missions. Heightening the dangerous vibe of it all was director Howard Hawks who constructed thrilling and unpredictable flight sequences, especially the final one with The Kid and Bat. Even when some of the effects were not up to snuff, the overall end product of the flying scenes will stick with me for quite a while.

There’s really no other way to say that Jean Arthur, who I’ve loved in the past, was much too “Jean Arthur” for the role of Bonnie. There are many things that Arthur can do better than anybody in film, she was pitch perfect in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for instance, and she wasn’t terrible here by any measure, but her clash with Hawks as to how to play the woman who finally breaks through the playboy barrier of Geoff was evident and that unevenness was just one strike against the flow of the film. It didn’t help to have Rita Hayworth as the only other woman in the film for direct comparison, and the feeling came more than once that these actresses could have switched roles to better serve the story. One other strike against, and it actually brought out a huge audible guffaw from me not that it was funny at all, was the one random black man that showed up for two seconds the entire film to literally pop his head into frame, say something foolish and then disappear forever. Can’t quite wrap my head around that racist choice.

But then there’s the scene that punched me right in the gut. I’m not comfortable saying it’s the most meaningful view of death of that I’ve ever heard. I wouldn’t even know how to quantify such a deeply personal process and viewpoint. As The Kid lay dying, though, he talks about his experience in a way that had a profound impact on me. With the guy he looks up to the most right by his side there’s a quiet and emotional back and forth going on when he comes to, “I’m not scared Geoff. It’s just that…it’s like doing something new. Like when I made my first solo. I didn’t want anybody watching then either. I don’t know how good I’m going to be at this.” It was dialogue at it’s most subtle and evocative and was sold all the more by Thomas Mitchell, a guy that I’ve been delighted to see up until now in a series of small, color-contributing character roles. I’m not saying it’s the best scene in film history or anything, but Hawks put in the work to develop such a dynamic between these two characters and all movies should strive to arrive at such a raw truth at the end of it all.

I think a case could be made, mainly due to the lack of chemistry between Grant and Arthur, that it was the relationship between Geoff and The Kid that was the main thread of the movie. For that one powerful scene and for the prominent presence of Thomas Mitchell, I’m thankful the chips fell where they did.


About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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