Stars: Jean Arthur, Cary Grant, Richard Barthelmess, Rita Hayworth, Thomas Mitchell, Allyn Joslyn, Sig Ruman, Victor Kilian | Screenplay by Jules Furthman | Directed by Howard Hawks
When thinking about the great flying pictures of Hollywood’s Golden Age, many would immediately turn to war films containing dogfights, high political drama and the sense that all the death we see onscreen is somehow noble because it’s for the causes of peace and freedom. But perhaps the greatest of these pictures, Only Angels Have Wings, isn’t a war movie and doesn’t contain a single dogfight. It’s an altogether smaller story than those sweeping dramas, and all the more powerful for it.
When Jean Arthur’s chorus girl, Bonnie, gets off a steamer at the fictional South American port of Barranca, she expects to see the sights (comprising a bustling market, a couple of dive bars and a rickety open-topped car that serves as the town’s main bus route) for a few hours before hopping back on her boat and heading back to the States. When she encounters a couple of American pilots working for the local mail-delivery service, she agrees to a drink with them at their charmingly ramshackle headquarters run by a gregarious Dutchman named, er, Dutchy. Her plans to have dinner with one of the men are scuppered when the head of the airline, Geoff (Cary Grant), asks him to make a delivery in poor weather conditions. While the plane makes it back onto the ground the pilot’s not so lucky, and Bonnie is horrified by the callousness with which his death is treated.
This is nothing new for this ragtag group. Based on actual pilots director Howard Hawks met during his flying days, the men risk their lives to transport mail (and, in one hair-raising scene, nitroglycerine) to places far from their homes because they cannot find work elsewhere or have been banned from flying in other countries. They live on the fringes, strangers in a town where most of them don’t even speak the local town but itching for any chance to get up in a plane, even if they might not come down again.
The drama moves from up in the air, where the stakes are at their literal highest, to down in the airline’s office-cum-bar, where old grudges and doomed romances threaten to surface. Bonnie is drawn to Geoff despite his romantic fatalism, and takes a room at the office in order to woo him – or perhaps just to enjoy the thrill of being around people who won’t let a little thing like the possibility of a violent death get in the way of doing their jobs.
Grant and Arthur shine as the leads, flitting from near-screwball comedy (an especially charming scene sees Geoff discover a half-clothed Bonnie using his bath, the only one in the building) to electric romantic tension and the tug of war that comes with putting another pilot’s life in danger. His motivation for this devil-may-care attitude is not profit but simply survival; the airline needs to make two deliveries a week for six months in order to secure a contract that will ensure its continued existence.
Whether that goal is worth the heavy cost is a question ignored by the men and continually asked by the women in their lives, including Bonnie and Judy, a new pilot’s wife played by Rita Hayworth in an early role. She has maybe the most to worry about, as her husband is punished for past misdeeds (bailing on a plane, leaving the brother of Geoff’s best friend, Kid, to plummet to his death) by being given only the most dangerous jobs. He keeps this a secret from her, as the men do all of their darkest and most fearful moments, trying to focus on the here and now, the small amount of good they can find in this distant corner of the world. In Geoff’s case he allows himself only the briefest pleasures, stealing a kiss from Bonnie before take-off but reluctant to move their relationship further because he knows the risks all too well and – in his own words – “would never ask a woman for anything,” even if it’s exactly what he wants.
Their efforts to ward off melancholy are helped immeasurably by the ramshackle but homely design of the office and a near-constant presence of locals in the bar, which makes the flying scenes that much lonelier. The flight photography sees planes passing between mountains and dodging rain, occasionally while aflame, bringing a tension and technical flair that impresses to this day. That heroism and nobility can be found in what is essentially an airborne paper route is testament to both the screenplay and Hawks’ direction, and the empathy for all of their characters – no matter how flawed or complex – they both bring. Would that modern Hollywood dramas had half the feeling, wit and visual style of Only Angels Have Wings.
Only Angels Have Wings is out now from the recently-released UK Criterion Collection.