Howard Hawks: Only Angels Have Wings

Only Angels Have Wings
d. Howard Hawks (1939)
The Criterion Collection Spine: #806
Blu-ray Release Date: April 12, 2016 

Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc.

Often called the greatest year in Hollywood history — both because of the ground-breaking films produced and because the studio system was running at peak efficiency and momentum — 1939 brought us may of the films we think of when we think of the Hollywood Golden Age: Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Gunga Din, Goodbye Mr. Chips, etc. Actors and directors were churning out work with seeming gusto and imagination.

Only Angels Have Wings

That was the year Howard Hawks teamed with Cary Grant for Only Angels Have Wings, the second in a string of three masterpieces they’d make together that also included 1938’s Bringing Up Baby and 1940’s His Girl Friday. I had not seen Only Angels Have Wings before watching the new Criterion Collection edition that is available today, and didn’t know what to expect. Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday perfectly utilized Grant’s penchant for screwball comedy romances, and I sat down expecting something similar in Only Angels Have Wings, especially as Grant’s co-star and romantic interest was the very funny screwball actress Jean Arthur. Yet Only Angels Have Wings presents a more threatened romance, one that must always be wary of crashing back to earth.

The film takes place in the fictional South American port town Barranca. There, Geoff Carter (played by Cary Grant) manages a startup airline that carries mail through the dangerous high passes in the Andes. The airline is making a go at a lucrative government contract, which they should secure if they can demonstrate that they can reliably deliver the mail, even in bad weather.

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It’s obviously a dangerous job, but perhaps, much like Bonnie Lee (played by Jean Arthur), we don’t appreciate all that entails at first. When Bonnie’s ship ports in Barranca, she steps off to explore the town a bit, eventually running into Geoff and his pilots. The young pilots hit on her, anxious to get their work done so they can enjoy some time with her before her ship leaves again the next morning. Geoff, meanwhile, is gruff and practical. When one of the men, flying dangerously in order to make good on his promise to take Bonnie to dinner, dies in a plane crash, Geoff, to Bonnie’s eyes, moves on quickly and coldly and cruelly, prepping for the next flight.

“Kid” (played by Thomas Mitchell, who that year also played in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gone with the Wind, and Stagecoach, in a role that won him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor) helps Bonnie understand the situation a bit better. Just because they move on doesn’t mean they don’t care deeply. The dangerous job and their lives in Barranca require them to stay focused, hoping to avoid the next catastrophe.

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Catastrophe is a fact of life for people like Geoff and Kid, and the reminder of past catastrophes arrives with the next pilot, Bat MacPherson (played by Richard Barthelmess). Bat is looking for work. He’s had a hard time securing work since, years before, he was the pilot of a plane going down. He bailed out without his co-pilot, who happened to be Kid’s younger brother of Kid. Bat is desperate for work, though, so Geoff assigns him the most dangerous missions. If he dies, no one will really care.

Only that’s not true. The catastrophe from Geoff’s past that returns with Bat is Bat’s wife, Judy (played by Rita Hayworth). They were once together, but Judy said she could not be with a pilot. It was too stressful always wondering if he’d come home. Obviously, she ended up with a pilot anyway, but this is no consolation to Geoff.

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And so Geoff, when it comes to life and love, plays it safe and stoic now. We, like Bonnie, come to understand why this is so. We can sympathize with it, see the sense in it.

For me, this is why Only Angels Have Wings is a great film, worthy in every way of the year of its birth. Hawks perfectly choreographs a romance within an adventure — the flying sequences are tense and unshowy, just like the actors — and we watch characters navigate the walls they’ve built for good reason, trying to find out if it’s worth opening a door.


The Criterion Collection edition:

  • Hawks and Bogdanovich: This is a 19:31-minute series of audio excerpts from a 1972 conversation between Hawks and Peter Bogdanovich. This is an important supplement, giving Hawks’ insights into the story, which he wrote, and the casting. At the time, Grant and Arthur were stars but still on the ascent. Hayworth was not a star yet, though this film would boost her tremendously.
  • David Thompson on Only Angels Have Wings: This is a new, 17:04-minute interview with critic David Thompson. This might have been my favorite supplement as Thompson digs into Hawks’ style. I sometimes watch a movie by an acclaimed director and wonder what they’re doing that’s so special; supplements like this help me see a lot clearer.
  • Howard Hawks and His Aviation Movies: This is a new 20:51-minute feature in which film scholars Craig Barron and Ben Burtt look at the way Hawks created his aviation sequences in this and other films. This is another strong supplement, with Barron and Burtt talking about the evolution of aviation films and techniques.
  • Lux Radio Theatre: This is the original May 29, 1939, radio adaptation of the film, starring all of the same stars. It runs for 56:37 minutes, and I think it’s time wonderfully well spent, if not for the story itself. For me, these radio adaptations are fantastic looks back to a different time in film promotion and media consumption.
  • Aside from the trailer, the disc comes with a fold-out insert featuring an essay, “Only Angels Have Wings: Hawks’s Genius Takes Flight,” by Michael Sragow.

One thought on “Howard Hawks: Only Angels Have Wings

  1. I’m eager to see this, as it’s the Hawks film I haven’t yet seen that I most want to see. Is there any mention of St.-Exupery in the supplemental material? This seems to echo the setting of his Vol de Nuit (which I know was made into a film some years before the Hawks movie).

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