Run Time: 121 minutes
When the Criterion Collection announced that Only Angels Have Wings, featuring Cary Grant and directed by Howard Hawks, was going to be their 806th title, I wondered what movie this was. Cary Grant is a favorite of mine ranging from everything from Bringing up Baby to North by Northwest. Hawks is another favorite, who belongs in the same breath as Frank Capra, Billy Wilder, and John Ford. So what was this film and how come I never heard it mentioned with the other great films of 1939? If you don’t know, 1939 is considered one of, if not the best, year of movies ever. It includes Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gunga Din and Wuthering Heights, to name but a few. Oddly enough Only Angels Have Wings features not only Cary Grant, but Thomas Mitchell, who also starred in another one of those 1939 films I just mentioned. I figured I was in for a real treat, a film I have never seen before from a great director with a stellar cast. What I got was Only Angels Have Wings.
That might sound harsh, but the toughest thing for any critic is to separate yourself from the legends who are on screen. Depending on where a film falls in their careers, they might not have mastered their craft yet. This can be said of the director. After Only Angels Have Wings, Hawks would go on to direct His Girl Friday, Sergeant York, The Big Sleep and Red River. So did I unfairly hold this film to the director’s work he hadn’t made yet? Yes, but such is the problem with discovering films. If not for actors and directors, we would never go looking for a film about an airmail delivery group in South America and its death defying pilots. I simply saw Grant and Hawks on the poster and I was in.
The trailer for this film is incredibly misleading (seen below). What you think you are going to get is a His Girl Friday type of picture with smooth talking pilots and ballsy talking women who love each other, but just can’t find a way to tell each other properly. This is partially true. Before we get in too deep, let me tell you about what the film is about. Only Angels Have Wings is about an airmail delivery service in a South American town call Barranca. The pilots have to fly over the Andes to get the mail through. The adverse weather conditions make this extremely dangerous. Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) and Dutchy (Sig Ruman) need to get as many deliveries in by a set date and they will land a huge contract. This contract will enable them to buy better planes and pay their pilots a decent salary. Right now, the pilots do it for the love of flying and know nothing about what Geoff and Dutchy have in the works. If they did, these two men feel as if the Pilots would take additional risks, ones they can’t live with.
This took over 30 minutes to be revealed. The film opens with two hot shot pilots meeting a nightclub singer named Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur). After talking her for dinner and drinks we learn that one of the men has to take the dangerous flight over the Andes. This is good 15 minutes into the film. As we settle in with these two characters, we know that neither one of them is the lead, so we have very little investment in them. We just keep waiting for Grant’s Geoff to walk in the door. When he does, in the confines of the story, we see him as more of a heal as he hits on Bonnie. We know that one of these other guys is going to die, because we have to establish how dangerous this job is. A coin toss decides, basically, who gets to be in the picture and who gets to supply Jean Arthur with a lot of hate for Cary Grant.
After the young pilot dies and a strange wake is held, Bonnie is practically jumping into Geoff’s arms. If your suspension of disbelief is starting to waiver, fear not, because Bonnie practically disappears from the film, for a while, and its main plot, getting the mail through, takes over. The real plot involves Bat Mac Pherson (Richard Barthelmess) as a blacklisted pilot who arrives in Barranca with his young wife, Judy (Rita Hayworth). We quickly learn that Judy is the one who got away from Geoff. Yes, there are some twists here. To add one more layer to the film, Bat Mac Pherson is responsible for the death of Kid Dabb’s (Thomas Mitchell) brother. Kid is the most seasoned pilot and Geoff’s most trusted friend next to Dutchy.
While this is all unfolding, I was constantly asking, who is the main character, where is this going, and has everyone been introduced? It’s as if we walk into Rick’s Cafe Americana in Casablanca and two Elsas walk in and one of them disappears only long enough for you to forget she is part of the story, only to appear again. To trim away Jean Arthur’s part is essentially how you have to watch Only Angels Have Wings. Once the plot of meeting their deadline for mail deliveries takes hold, the film really flies. An added bonus is the tension between Bat Mac Pherson and Kid Dabb which divides the pilots. Can Geoff trust Mac Pherson or will he let down his fellow flyers again? The film is a character piece, but it seemed as if Grant and Hawks weren’t sure how to portray Geoff. Should he be the man with everything to lose, including love, or be the fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants pilot who will risk everything for his dream. Only Angels Have Wings is a film that marks a turning point for Hawks’ future endeavors because those mistakes were not evident in his next pictures with Grant, His Girl Friday.
This is one to watch for the director and perhaps even the star that had to learn a thing or two about making movies. Not a complete loss, just over convoluted with characters that supplied nothing to the actual story at hand.
New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
Audio excerpts from a 1972 conversation between filmmakers Howard Hawks and Peter Bogdanovich
New interview with film critic David Thomson
Howard Hawks and His Aviation Movies, a new program featuring film scholars Craig Barron and Ben Burtt
Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film from 1939, starring Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Rita Hayworth, Richard Barthelmess, and Thomas Mitchell, and hosted by filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille
PLUS: An essay by critic Michael Sragow
New cover by Francesco Francavilla