Film: Only Angels Have Wings
Format: DVD from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player.
I’ve never read a Harlequin Romance. It’s my understanding, though, that in most of these books, the guy in the romance tends to be dangerous in some way (like a pirate) or have a dangerous occupation (like bounty hunter). I have no proof that the idea for this came from Only Angels Have Wings, and it probably doesn’t, but the traditional Harlequin Romance and this film have this particular aspect in common.
Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) runs a small airline based in a remote South American village. He and his crew of pilots fly the mail, work emergency medical transport cases, and otherwise handle air traffic in the area. Much of this air traffic has to fly through a particularly difficult mountain pass, which leads me to think that we may be in Chile or Peru. As the movie begins, a large ship pulls into the port, and a young, attractive woman named Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) steps off and finds her way into the company of two of the pilots, Les Peters (Allyn Joslyn) and Joe Souther (Noah Beery, Jr.). The two compete with each other to see which one of them will get to buy Bonnie dinner.
As it turns out, there’s no real competition. Joe gets sent up to deliver the mail and Les gets sent off somewhere else while Geoff offers to buy the girl a steak…but she’s not taking, which means that you can bet these two will end up together. Of course, the fog rolls in, and Joe is forced to return to the ground, but he can’t see the runway or even the runway lights. Geoff tells him to stay up in the air, but Joe wants that dinner with Bonnie, so he brings the plane in and crashes, giving us proof that this is a dangerous occupation and creating some additional tension between Geoff and Bonnie. Why? Because Geoff and the other pilots seem to treat Joe’s death as just a thing—Joe suddenly becomes “Joe Who?” and it’s as if no one remembers him. Eventually, Bonnie figures out that this is the pilots’ way of dealing with the constant threat of death that hangs over them, even when the job is as mundane as transporting the mail.
A sort of romance blossoms between Bonnie and Geoff, but it’s one tempered by the reality that Bonnie won’t be staying long and that Geoff refuses entanglements with women since having his heart broken. We also learn that the airline, run by Geoff but financed by Dutchy (Sig Ruman) is in dire straits. They’ve agreed to a six-month test run of the mail route with the knowledge that they’ll earn a lucrative contract if they are always on time.
Now in need of a pilot, Geoff hires Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess), who is actually Bat Kilgallen. This is important for two reasons. First, Bat Kilgallen is known as a pilot who jumped out of his plane, causing the death of his mechanic. It happens that the dead mechanic is the brother of Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell), who happens to be Geoff’s best friend. Second, Bat’s wife is Judy MacPherson (Rita Hayworth), who happens to be the woman who broke Geoff’s heart. Geoff takes Kilgallen on, but as the man who will take the worst assignments. The rest of the movie, then, needs to somehow redeem or curse Kilgallen, resolve his conflict with Kid Dabb, deal with the failing airline, and also deal with Geoff and Bonnie.
What struck me most about this film was the presence of Thomas Mitchell. Had you asked me about him a couple of years ago, I probably wouldn’t have known who he was. If I had known, he would have been Uncle Billy from It’s a Wonderful Life exclusively. I knew I’d see the same actors over and over, but I had no idea how much I would see him, or how much I would come to respect his presence in a film. The same is true of Noah Beery, who was tragically underused in this film.
If the movie has a place where it obviously fails for a modern audience, it’s the flight sequences. They simply do not have any sort of realistic impact. They look, frankly, fake. It’s not always easy to overlook the obvious “studio-ness” of old special effects, and they’re pretty egregiously poor here. Fine for 1939, perhaps, but not so much in this day and age.
Fortunately, the film doesn’t really focus on the flight, but instead on the relationships between the characters. There is a sort of “boy’s-own” adventure quality to the proceedings that feels very typical of this style of film and films from Howard Hawks of this era in general. These are manly men doing a dangerous and manly job; they face death on a regular basis and live wildly on the ground because of it. Death is treated not as a tragedy, but a matter of course—Joe’s demise is certainly regretted, but treated as an inevitability. Geoff and everyone else knew he’d crash some day, but Geoff let him fly anyway, because he knew Joe would rather die than be grounded. This comes into clearer focus when Geoff is forced to ground Kid because of Kid’s rapidly deteriorating eyesight. It’s a touching scene, one that dips into the ideas of aging and male bonding without losing a forced (and effective) light tone and an essential masculinity.
Jean Arthur is a wonder in this film, adapting as quickly as possible to the devil-may-care attitude of Geoff and the men, but revealing frequently that this is merely on the surface. She’s a character of surprising depth for a female lead in 1939, even more surprising because of how she is treated and talked about by the male cast.
Only Angels Have Wings is not a film I would rank with the greats in terms of its overall story or technical prowess, but I would rank it as a film that is essential for understanding the history of the medium. This, like similar films of the era (Gunga Din and Stagecoach--both from the same year and one starring Grant and the other Mitchell) are very much the beginning of a path of the action film with romance elements. That there is less action here is not so important; the danger is implied throughout and extant in enough places that we remember it without being buried by it. Geoff Carter is a natural ancestor to characters like Indiana Jones and John McClane. To get to those, you have to go through here.
Why to watch Only Angels Have Wings: A surprisingly deep and effective cast.
Why not to watch: Audiences have become accustomed to things looking more realistic.