Honor. Loyalty. Bravery. These words are never explicitly spoken in Howard Hawks’ “Only Angels Have Wings,” but they make up the driving ideology that defines the group of pilots who fly for the small, cash-strapped Barranca Airways. The pilots carry mail from Barranca, a fictional South American port town, through a dangerous high pass in the Andes mountains, constantly risking their lives by flying into dangerous weather conditions, but do it anyway out of a sense of duty. But the beauty of “Only Angels Have Wings” is that Hawks never sentimentalizes that notion for a second. The pilots do their job with an eager determination because they’re Professionals and it’s The Job. There’s no other reason more important than that one.
In fact, the most endearing, poignant quality of “Only Angels Have Wings” is its lack of saccharine sentimentality, which Hawks introduces in the very first sequence. We open on Joe (Noah Beery, Jr.) and Les (Allyn Joslyn) waiting by the port to see if there’s a new pilot that has disembarked. Instead, they find the beautiful blonde Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), a cheery entertainer who’s in town from Brooklyn. After Joe and Les each try to buy her a drink and a dinner, Joe is called up to the skies by hard-bitten manager Geoff Carter (Cary Grant). Once he’s in the air, Geoff gets word that there’s no visibility and that Joe should have never left Barranca. Geoff tries to tell Joe to stay in the air until the skies clear, but Joe tries to land anyway wanting to take up the dinner with Bonnie. On his way down, Joe hits a tree and crashes badly. Bonnie is guilt-ridden and sick with grief, while the rest of the pilots take a moment to collect themselves, and go back to singing and carousing. “Haven’t you any feelings?” Bonnie asks them. “Don’t you realize he’s dead?” “Who’s dead?” Geoff replies. “Joe!” she responds. “Who’s Joe?” the pilots shout back in unison. Both Hawks and screenwriter Jules Furthman aren’t reveling in cruelty or callousness, but simply illustrating the actions and traditions of the group in question. Hawks frames the pilots in tight shots to convey their closeness, but as Furthman demonstrates, once one gets lost in the field, there’s no sense in dwelling on it because one of them may be next. There’s an existential anxiety underneath the entire film that gets elided at every turn by the demands of The Job. When asked why he flies, old-timer “Kid” Dabb (Thomas Mitchell) shakes his head and says, “I’ve been in it 22 years… I couldn’t give you an answer that’d make any sense.”
Though “Only Angels Have Wings” feels decidedly plotless and meandering, it’s only because its humane, lived-in qualities obscure the subtle structure holding the entire film together. Hawks uses two outsiders, Bonnie and disgraced new pilot Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess), as twin lenses to understand the values and machinations of The Group. Though the other pilots warm up to Bonnie nicely, she has difficulty winning over Geoff, who shares in their mutual attraction but doesn’t want to get too attached because of a previously broken heart and the dangers of his profession. Though Geoff explicitly states he’d never ask a woman to do anything, Bonnie stays anyway in the hopes that Geoff will muster up the decency to ask her to stay. Meanwhile Bat shows up in Barranca to an initial warm welcome, until everyone realizes he’s the pilot who jumped out of a plane on its way down leaving his mechanic, Kid’s brother, to die alone. Geoff gives him the job but under the condition that he fly the most dangerous missions to prove his loyalty. “Only Angels Have Wings” is built upon the acceptance of these two outsiders into the stability of the group, and the narrative demands that Geoff eventually confess his allegiance to Bonnie and that Bat prove his mettle. Though these two outcomes are “predictable,” it’s the way that Hawks and Furthman draw out the emotional and narrative beats that allow them to feel vital and somehow unexpected.
The film also features some of the most dazzling flying sequences ever put on film. Hawks captures both the claustrophobia of the cockpit and the terror of the open air as the pilots go about their mission. The scene of Joe’s deadly crash landing plays out with the utmost tension as its shot from the perspective of those on the ground, with Joe’s disembodied voice coming from the intercom. When the plane eventually loses a wing and flips on its side like a piece of plastic, we only get a quick shot of Joe in the cockpit on its way down, as if Hawks was sparing both the audience and Joe of the harrowing nature of death from above. Hawks shoots all of the flight scenes almost documentary-style, drawing drama from the realism itself. In fact, Hawks uses real single engine monoplanes that were actually employed by pilots at the time of filming, providing a more realistic weight to the entire film.
But “Only Angels Have Wings” is a Hawks classic because of its warm, inviting qualities. There’s the camaraderie between the gang of pilots and the solemnity of their jobs coupled with the rousing, joyous fun they have on the ground. There’s Rita Hayworth in the small role of Judy, Bat’s wife and Geoff’s old flame, who steps onto the screen with the charisma of a movie star. There’s the small character details, like how Geoff never carries his own matches because he doesn’t want a supply of anything. But most importantly, its the sense of purpose that it gives the pilots. When Kid is slowly dying from a broken neck, he mentions with awe that he’s not scared because it’s just something new, like when he first flew solo. Flying is the raison d’etre for all of these guys, even if none of them can explain why they do it. But if you truly have a purpose in this life, even if it’s to risk your neck to deliver the mail, you never need to explain it. It comes through all on its own.
More thoughts from the web:
Jonathan Rosenbaum, DVD Beaver
Honest and profound hokum may sound like a contradiction in terms, but I can’t think of a better way to describe Howard Hawks’ unlikely yet beautiful and thrilling masterpiece (1939) about daredevil pilots in a remote South American port who risk their lives delivering the mail across a threatening mountain pass. The sense of void and impending, meaningless death that surrounds and encloses all the banter, braggadocio, and risk-taking makes this seem like the most existential of Hawks’ adventures. Cary Grant — once described by Dave Kehr in this film as “the high priest of some Sartrean temple” — is the group’s fatherly boss, Thomas Mitchell his best friend, Jean Arthur the showgirl who sticks around because of her love-struck devotion, and Sig Ruman plays Dutchy, the uncle type who runs the bar connected to the small airport. The uncannily expressive silent star Richard Barthelmess plays the returning pilot who once caused the death of a copilot due to cowardice, and Rita Hayworth plays his newlywed wife, an old flame of Grant’s. The precise sense of ethics governing all the interactions between this motley crew is as striking as the artificiality of the settings. Read more.
Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader
Howard Hawks’s 1939 film represents the equilibrium point of his career: the themes he was developing throughout the 30s here reach a perfect clarity and confidence of expression, without yet confronting the darker intimations that would haunt his films of the 40s and 50s. The setting is a South American port where a group of fliers, led by Cary Grant, challenges the elements nightly by piloting mail across a treacherous mountain range. This all-male existential ritual (Grant almost seems the high priest of some Sartrean temple) is invaded by an American showgirl (Jean Arthur) who stops off for a steak and remains, fascinated by the heightened, heady atmosphere of primal struggle. The film’s moral seriousness (which sometimes approaches overt didacticism) is balanced by the usual Hawks humor and warmth, and as Grant and Arthur are drawn into a romance, the film moves toward a humanistic softening of its stark premises. Read more.
Peter Labuza, Cinephiliacs/Letterboxd
Along with “Rio Bravo,” the quintessential Hawks movie for not only its rhythmic patterns, attention to a very subtle structure in its mise-en-scene, but always carrying a certain existential weight to why the hell are we doing this? that always remains unanswered, unchecked, and unwritten. But as in all the great Hawks, there is the group, a certain social democracy that remains a base ideology that could never be challenged. It’s both the tragedy and the greatness of the American ethos. Read more.
Michael Sragow, The New Yorker
Howard Hawks’s stirring tale of a fledgling airmail service that traverses the Andes from a strip in a South American banana port is the ultimate workplace dramedy. Hawks weaves brawny romance and humor and a man’s-man sort of heartbreak into his tribute to the ideal of vocation. The risky job of lifting mail over and through the mountains becomes a crucible of character, group feeling, and sexual loyalty. Cary Grant delivers a robust, carnal performance as the flyboys’ boss, and Jean Arthur is skittishly charming as an entertainer waiting for a boat out of town; Grant emits an electric charge when he starts to take her seriously. Read more.
Tom Huddleston, Time Out
Like much of Hawks’s finest “serious” work, “Only Angels Have Wings” uses its paper-thin plot as an excuse to mount a scalpel-sharp analysis of men under pressure: bitching, blaming and refusing to back down. First and foremost it’s a film about professionalism and dedication, and how those admirable qualities can be used as an emotional smokescreen. Landing somewhere between the macho grit of “The Big Sleep” and “Red River” and the pistol-crack rom-com repartee of “His Girl Friday” and “Bringing Up Baby,” this isn’t quite tense or funny enough to become the masterpiece some Hawks lovers claim. But it is smart, incisive and often very funny – and was there ever a better character name than Bat MacPherson? Read more.
Frank S. Nugent, The New York Times
The brew stirs slowly, as is the way with two-hour shows, tending toward silly romanticism in its dialogue, but moving splendidly whenever the plot’s wheels leave the ground and take off over the Andes. Few things, after all, are as exciting as a plane in flames, or the metallic voices of a pilot in a fog-shrouded plane and the chap in the radio room, or a screaming power dive, or the wild downward swoop of a plane taking off from a canyon’s rim. Mr. Hawks has staged his flying sequences brilliantly. He has caught the drama in the meeting of a flier and the brother of the man he killed. He has made proper use of the amiable performing talents of Mr. Grant, Miss Arthur, Thomas Mitchell, Mr. Barthelmess, Sig Rumann and the rest. But when you add it all up, “Only Angels Have Wings” comes to an overly familiar total. It’s a fairly good melodrama, nothing more. Read more.