ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS flew in on the gale winds of 1939s hurricane of classics, its fast-moving tale of aviation heroics and the fatalistic breed who perform them laying down director Howard Hawks’ template for the dominate theme that runs through his work: grace under pressure, teamwork, camaraderie, professionalism. His people can have all manner of assorted problems but loyalty to one another isn’t one of them. Stoic dependability, the ability to make and take a joke (or punch) and a scuffed but solid anchor of decency get Hawksian heroes through WW2 (Air Force, To Have And Have Not), wild frontiers (The Big Sky, Hatari), bad odds (Rio Bravo, El Dorado) and worse (The Thing From Another World).
‘Barranca’, a port somewhere in South America. Its muddy airfield (complete with handy bar) is the base for a do-and-die outfit of collegial rowdies who fly mail, medicine and nitroglycerin through the Andes; torrential rain, blinding fog and flocks of giant condors notwithstanding. Fatalistic honcho ‘Geoff’ (Cary Grant, swaggering with a white planter’s hat) runs a testosterone-primed outfit that includes ‘Kid’ (Thomas Mitchell), who’s losing his sight but not his guts, and ‘Bat MacPherson’ (Richard Barthelmess), who has to re-prove himself and erase a stain on his honor. Bat shows up with ‘Judy’, his va-voom trophy wife (Rita Hayworth), who used to be Geoff’s girlfriend, which further complicates things for game but flustered new arrival ‘Bonnie Lee’ (Jean Arthur), a piano-player who walked off a banana boat into this closed and heady mini-society where rules and regulations take a back seat to a code of conduct for living and dying. Will she earn her stripes with these cheerful, fate-defying lunatics?
The renowned daring of old-time pilots a given, the enterprise doesn’t much comport to reality, but Hawks’ essentially invisible direction and the engaging cast make it class entertainment.
Grant, 35, had scored four comedy bulls-eyes in a row—Topper, The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby (for Hawks) and Holiday; he aced another rowdy adventure in ’39 with Gunga Din. Mitchell had his grandest year with Gone With The Wind, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, Mr.Smith Goes To Washington and Stagecoach (cinching an Oscar). Once a major star in silents, Barthelmess is effective in one of his late-career appearances. The men were a cinch, but the ladies were both vexing. The director had problems getting Arthur to deliver in the manner he wanted (sexy) and she seems out-of-place. He also was fit to be tied with Hayworth, but the 20-year-old came across on-screen (even with an unflattering hairdo, her signature mane not yet employed) and this pushed her into position for the big time.
A number of people had a hand in the screenplay, with Jules Furthman doing the lions share and receiving the credit. The huge and busy set for the port area (somehow the airfield is right next to it) is really impressive. The model-plane mock-ups of the aircraft are phony as heck but there is an interlude of some actual flying that is quite thrilling. This was done by legendary Paul Mantz in a Boeing Model 100 biplane, with the Rockies standing in for their South American brothers.
Academy Award nominations went to Cinematography and Special Effects. Airborne for $2,180,000, Hawks’ salute to nerve and verve made a 3-point landing onto 34th place for the year, grossing $4,800,000. With Sig Ruman, Allyn Joslyn, Victor Killian, John Carroll, Noah Beery, Jr., Donald Barry. 121 minutes.
* Hawks had been in love with flying for a good while, having instructed aviators during WW1. He directed the hit 1930 version of The Dawn Patrol (starring Richard Barthelmess) and Ceiling Zero, a popular 1936 outing with James Cagney. Similar pictures from the period included the star-studded Night Flight, John Ford’s Air Mail and 1937s Flight From Glory, also set in the Andes. Hawks credited the idea for his story coming from his scouting Mexican locations for Viva Villa! He spent time with a wild bunch he called “collectively and individually the finest pilots I’ve ever seen but they had been grounded because of accidents, drinking, stunting, smuggling—each man’s existence almost a story in itself”. Hawks aviator brother Kenneth was killed in a crash in 1930, filming aerial scenes over the Pacific for a picture with the ironic title Such Men Are Dangerous. More than 300 aviation-related films have tackled the perils of flight.