Thursday, August 11, 2011

Up in the Air, Junior Birdmen

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.


  1. I initially saw this film on late night TV many years ago - and came to it about 1/2 way through wondering what the heck I was watching. I didn't see it again until a few years later but was then able to watch it in its entirety. Pretty neat movie, despite the unrealistic special effects, it's one of my favorite early science fiction movies.

  2. I just watched this. It should be called Calling Barranca. I would have watched it years ago if it was called Calling Barranca instead of Only Angels Have Wings. They say "Calling Barranca" about a hundred times, plus the phrase was used in a Warner Brothers cartoon that we probably all remember vaguely in some lost corner of out lizard brains.

    This is also where the use of "Jeudy! Jeudy! Jeudy!" as an imitation of Cary Grant comes from. You see, Rita Hayworth plays Judy and she's an old flame of Cary Grant's character. Of course, he never says her name three times in a row, so it's not quite like the way Gomer Pyle said it on The Andy Griffith Show.

    I liked this a lot! I love Cary Grant and he's usually a name you can depend on for quality classic movies, so I don't know why I never got around to seeing this before.

    Grant and Thomas Mitchell are both really amazing in this, and the rest of the cast does a great job of backing them up in this airplane-adventure-romance movie.

    Highlights include:

    Rita Hayworth raiding the bar when she's already a little tipsy.

    Richard Barthlemess as the pilot living under a cloud because of his questionable past. He's sullen and moody and he's great. A very underappreciated actor. Watch The Last Flight from 1931 for a little known gem of a film about a bunch of guys who used to be WWI pilots.

    Jean Arthur and Cary Grant at the piano for a rousing version of "The Peanut Vendor."

    Sig Ruman as the guy who owns the bar, hotel, restaurant and the airplane service.

    Trivia: The first pilot to die is Noah Beery Jr., who played Jim Rockford's father on The Rockford Files.

    There are a lot of reasons to give this a try.

    1. I like this movie quite a bit. Grant is a personal favorite of mine. Even if I decide I don't like the movie he's in, I pretty much always like him. I feel the same about Thomas Mitchell, who people tend to remember specifically as Uncle Billy from It's a Wonderful Life, which is a shame, since he was a very versatile character actor.

      This is a good Rita Hayworth role, but she really comes into her own in Gilda, which is really special.

    2. I know your favorite Cary Grant movie is North by Northwest. (I believe it's also your favorite Hitchcock movie AND your favorite movie as well.)

      My favorite Cary Grant is either The Awful Truth or Suspicion. It feels kind of weird putting The Awful Truth over Suspicion because Suspicion is my favorite Hitchcock film. And then I remember who directed The Awful Truth and it doesn't seem weird at all.

      Cary Grant is the star of the month on TCM and I've been watching a lot of Cary Grant movies I'd never seen before. Topper is another great Cary Grant movie. I love the scene where the Kerbys crash their car and slowly realize that they are dead.

      The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer was much better than I thought it would be. Grant and Myrna Loy are very good but the real surprise is Shirley Temple. It's too bad she didn't have much of a movie career as an adult.

      I liked I'm No Angel a lot. Mae West is a lion tamer! Come on! That's great.

      I can't believe I never saw Only Angels Have Wings or Gunga Din before! I saw them both yesterday and I was very impressed. Almost every time I see a movie from 1939, I understand why it's called one of the greatest years for Hollywood.

      I also saw Crisis where Cary Grant is a brain surgeon vacationing in a South American country where the dictator (Jose Ferrer) has a brain tumor, so the military kidnaps Grant and his wife to force him to operate. The plot is frequently complicated by complications. Pretty silly, really, but I enjoyed it. It's probably not for everyone.

      Today, I watched The Pride and the Passion. Cary Grant is a British naval officer sent to Spain during Napoleon's invasion to retrieve a huge cannon abandoned by the Spanish military. But the peasant rebels (led by Frank Sinatra and his terrible accent) want the cannon for their own fight against the French. Sophia Loren is also in it, so the movie gets some extra points for that. I liked The Pride and the Passion at first because it is entertainingly silly. There are several scenes where the French army is marching by and the cannon and hundreds of peasants are just a few feet off the road, hiding behind a few sprigs of foliage. That made me laugh. But the film is too long and I had trouble getting through the middle of the movie to get the payoff, the attack on the French HQ at the walled city of Avila. But it has its moments.

      Next week: I'm looking forward to Penny Serenade and Holiday.

    3. I was lucky enough to see The Shadow, an early Rita Hayworth film, on a big screen! (It was part of a Dwight Frye double feature.) IMDB says it was the first film where she was billed as "Rita Hayworth."

      It's not about the Lamont Cranston Shadow. It's a circus movie, and Rita Hayworth is the circus owner and she's trying to keep it running despite a series of mysterious murders! I'm a sucker for circus movies. Especially when Rita Hayworth is the owner. And there's a bunch of murders! And it's only 70 minutes long!

      I don't remember if it's any good or not. How bad could it be at only 70 minutes?

    4. Grant is an actor I'll watch in pretty much everything. He has an aura to him; there's a sense of him being completely aware of exactly who he is and what he represents at all times. He also had fantastic comic timing, a skill that was generally underrated in him.

      As for The Shadow, considering that Vinyl is shorter than 70 minutes and is the single worst movie I have ever seen, the possibilities for The Shadow are endless. Still, Rita Hayworth cures a lot of ills.