A Greatest Films book I own (it's title and current location escape me at the moment) had listed director Howard Hawks film ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939) starring Cary Grant and Jean Arthur as one of the 100 top films of all times. I had tried to watch the film a few years ago and just couldn't get into it but when it came on a few months ago on Turner Movie Classics, this CrazyFilmGuy (shameless plug) had to give it another chance.
ANGELS is about a group of pilots flying dangerous postal routes in South America. Personally, I am not fond of flying. One could say I have a slight fear of flying. A friend of mine named Heinz took flying lessons several years ago. He kept asking my wife and I to go flying with him. For awhile, I kept making up excuses but I knew to conquer my fear of flying in small planes and to maintain my friendship, we would have to go flying with him. We did. And it was a beautiful flight, safe and relaxing. Heinz did a great job flying. He's now a commercial airline pilot. And I have only flown in a small plane one other time since. I guess I haven't quite gotten over my fear of flying.
ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS takes place in the port city of Barranca, South America. A boat arrives unloading bananas and passengers including Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), an American on her way back to the U.S. She disembarks to stretch her legs and meets up with two ex-patriate pilots Les Peters (Allyn Joslyn) and Joe Souther (Noah Beery, Jr). They take her back to a bar/hotel owned by Dutchy (Sig Rumann), the local postmaster and hotel proprietor, for a drink. Bonnie is introduced to their boss Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) who runs the small airline Barranca Airways that delivers mail, food, and even nitroglycerin over dangerous mountain passes to desolate mining camps. The danger these pilots endure becomes apparent very quickly when Carter sends Joe off to make his mail delivery in some bad fog. Forced to turn around, Joe clips some trees trying to land and dies in a plane crash, bringing a pall over the previously giddy group.
Such is life as a postal pilot in Barranca. They drink, gamble, fight, and chase girls because they never know when their time may be up. Bonnie learns that a pilot's life is but a short memory. She blames Carter for sending Joe out in dangerous conditions. Carter blames Bonnie for distracting Joe. Carter and Bonnie are the same double sided coin that Carter's best friend and pilot Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell) carries around. Both have been wounded by the opposite sex. Naturally, they're going to fall in love. When Bonnie asks the Kid what Carter's like, the Kid says, "He's a good guy for gals to stay away from." Spoken like a true friend.
But things get complicated when a new pilot named Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess) arrives on the next boat. Bat's a disgraced flyer who once bailed out of a plane that killed Kid's mechanic brother. Bat's also married to Carter's ex-wife Judy (Rita Hayworth). None of the pilots want anything to do with Bat but when Les breaks his arm and the Kid gets grounded by Carter for poor vision, Bat is the only pilot available to fly some risky missions to help keep the airline from going broke.
Carter keeps pushing the envelope, trying to get the mail out twice a week for six months in order to win a new mail contract for Dutchy and a new subsidy to purchase better planes. Time is running out. Carter and the Kid prepare to make the final flight that will keep their business afloat but Bonnie accidentally shoots Carter in the shoulder during an argument. It's up to Bat to step up again, this time flying with the man who's brother died because of Bat, the man who despises him: the nearly blind Kid Dabb.
Director Howard Hawks may be one of the best directors that people don't know. Like Alfred Hitchcock, the name Howard Hawks just sounds like a movie director. Hawks moved effortlessly between film genres and almost every one he made became a classic. Whether it be a screwball comedy like BRINGING UP BABY (1938) or a film noir mystery like THE BIG SLEEP (1946) or a western such as RED RIVER (1948) or even a musical like GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953), Hawks could do it all. Only Michael Curtiz comes to mind as another director who could make a good film in any genre. ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS is one of Hawks few straight-forward adventure films but it contains many Hawks themes that he would repeat throughout his career.
The first Hawks theme is a group of men who live by a code of honor. The pilots revere Geoff and the Dutchman for their loyalty to them. Their honest with each other, a brotherhood, and not even a good woman can break them apart. None of the pilots want to be around the disgraced Bat but when Bat's wife Judy wants to know why no one will hire her husband, the pilots stick together and protect Bat's image with his wife. Bat had broken that code by jumping out of a plane he was piloting causing another man's death but through the course of the film, he's given another chance to redeem his honor. Although Cary Grant is the star of the film, the real focus is on Bat's fall and and subsequent redemption.
ONLY ANGELS has the tough, wise-cracking female lead, sometimes known as a "Hawksian woman." She can drink and shoot and talk back and play a mean piano just as good as the men can. In ANGLES, Jean Arthur plays that archetype but you'll find the strong Hawksian female leads in other Hawks films like Katherine Hepburn in BRINGING UP BABY or Lauren Bacall in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1945). They're almost like one of the boys, only better looking.
The last Hawks theme that emerges in ANGELS is giving a down on his luck or disgraced character a second chance. In RIO BRAVO (1959), it's the drunken gunslinger Dean Martin overcoming his demons to fight the bad guys. In EL DORADO (1967), it's drunk sheriff Robert Mitchum who John Wayne forces to sober up to defeat some cattle rustlers. Bat MacPherson is that character in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS. Bat can't get a job in the states. The other pilots treat him like a pariah. But Carter gives him a second chance when no one else would. When Bat and the Kid have to turn back on their flight and the plane's engines are on fire, the Kid tells Bat to jump out. But this time, Bat stays in the plane and lands back at the airport, saving the Kid and his honor.
One of the strengths of ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS is the supporting cast. Thomas Mitchell who plays Kid Dabb was great at playing tragic, flawed characters. Mitchell would have an incredible string of supporting roles in a short period of time including STAGECOACH (1939), MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939), GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) to name a few. And film fans will recognize the accent of German actor Sig Rumann who plays Dutchy in ANGELS. Rumann starred in the great war film STALAG 17 (1953) as the friendly German Prison camp guard Sergeant Schulz. In ANGELS, Dutchy is the mother hen to the pilots, worrying about them during each flight.
A film about dangerous flying should have some actual flying scenes and Hawks uses some great aerial footage of these single engine planes flying precariously through and around snow capped mountains to mix in with some obvious model plane shots. Bat's hair raising trip to pick up an injured miner on a cliff or Carter's testing out of a new prototype plane that stalls out provide some excellent suspenseful moments in the film and give ANGELS some needed realism. Aviation fans will enjoy the film's depiction of the hazards of single and twin engine flying in 1939 with a spotter up in the mountain pass acting as their radar or the Kid bringing oxygen tanks into the plane and sucking on an air tube when his plane gets over sixteen thousand feet.
Jules Furthman, one of Hawks' favorite screenwriters, provided the screenplay for ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS which was based on a real life couple that Hawks had met while scouting for a film in Mexico. Furthman's script reminds me a lot of CASABLANA as little moments in the film come up later to be important plot points and every character no matter how small has some importance. Hawks and Furthman take a chance killing a likable character like Joe early in the film but it sets the somewhat gallows tone that the life of a pilot was dangerous. The film jumps easily from comedy to romance to suspense which makes it so enjoyable. Hawks and Furthman also add some nice touches like another character named Tex (Don "Red" Berry) who lives in a cabin up in the pass with his burro Napoleon and acts as the pilots radar and weatherman because back in 1939, they didn't have radar and weather satellites.
ONLY ANGELS also has some movie quotes that have worked their way into other mediums and visa versa. "Calling Barranca, calling Barranca" which the pilots say when calling the control tower would find it's way into several Looney Tune cartoons. The Kid tells Carter that "they have no bananas" which is a quip at the song, "Yes, We Have No Bananas."
From start to finish, ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS is a wonderful film that is exciting, romantic, and thoughtful. Whether it makes your Top 100 films of all time remains to be seen but pick a rainy Barranca like afternoon and sit down and see what you think of this underrated treasure.