Monday, May 16, 2011
Only Angels Have Wings - 1939
“Only Angels Have Wings” (1939) is a quintessential film of 1939, I would suggest for two reasons. First, its “boys’ own adventure” type story of a band of mail flyers in South America would be the end of the Depression era adventures, the last bit of intrigue in a far away land before World War II, which would turn very young real-life fliers into men under horrific circumstances. The aimless flyers in “Only Angels Have Wings” haven’t any such worries. They are not responsible for a nation’s freedom. They can’t even be responsible for themselves.
Somewhere out there in the tropical mist, we are on the cusp of a more treacherous world, a more grown up world. One gets the feeling Cary Grant is trying to hold it off as long as possible.
For classic movie buffs, 1939 has always been regarded as the banner year, when the Hollywood movie factories churned out on their assembly lines a greater than usual number of excellent films. This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association “Classic Films of 1939 Blogathon” which runs from May 15th through the 17th. Have a look here at the website for a listing of bloggers and their 1939 films. Looks like a lot of great reading.
Most people alive in 1939 could remember a time when there were no airplanes.
A week or so after “Only Angels Have Wings” premiered in May 1939, an unusually large number of the original cast, including Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Richard Barthlemess, Rita Hayworth, and Thomas Mitchell, and even some original actors in very minor roles, appeared in a radio script version broadcast by the Lux Radio Theater. Have a listen to the show here, now in public domain, at the Internet Archive site. Scroll down the year 1939 until you get to May 29th.
Between the 2nd and 3rd acts, the show’s producer and host, Cecil B. DeMille, interviewed on radio hookup from New York City the captain of the “Yankee Clipper” that had just that week made headlines by inaugurating the first commercial airline service from the United States to Europe. This was not a movie stunt, this was real life. The four propeller engine plane held a crew of 14 and could carry 74 passengers, and the mail. The captain announced, “That means we have at last conquered the Atlantic.” The flight took 25 hours.
Here is a newsreel of the event (Remember to scroll down to the bottom of the page to mute the music so you can hear the video):
The world suddenly got smaller, and inter-continental travel got easier (if you consider a 25-hour flight in a propeller plane easy). “Only Angels Have Wings”, is a product of this world where pilots were regarded as daredevils and pioneers, not yet corporate executives or administrators.
Jean Arthur, sassy and street smart, is crushed by this tragedy, and finds herself equally exasperated with, and attracted to, flippant Cary Grant. In matters of everyday living she is in firm control and nobody’s fool, but in love…she is utterly helpless.
Mr. Grant plays the cynical, smart aleck leader. It would be interesting to have seen Humphrey Bogart in the role, to have his calm stoicism play against a jittery Jean Arthur. He would have given the character a soulfulness, a back story of pain and hard luck just in his glance. Bogie always walks in the door with his own back story, the way some actors might show up for auditions with their own costumes. Despite his facade of danger, he has a code of honor, while Cary Grant has no such nobility. He is really a condescending rogue. He sizes up Jean Arthur with the taunting remark, “Chorus girl?”
Some reviewers have suggested over the years that Grant was miscast in this role, but I disagree. It's true that he had not yet reached the maturity of his later roles where he was able to play a mysterious, cool man of action, as in "North by Northwest" (1959) or "Charade" (1963). It is also true that at times in "Only Angels Have Wngs" his character seems just a little too forced into the straightjacket of Howard Hawks' alpha male: his fastitious pseudo-macho shirt collar always buttoned at the neck to a half-standing position, the self-consciousness of his growling speech and movements. There is no back story to read in his face and his manner, the way we can with Richard Barthlemess and all the other minor characters. It is as if at times the handsome veneer is vacant.
At this stage of his career, he was much better suited to the charming scamp, con artist roles, such as with his other Hawks' film of the time, "His Girl Friday" (1940). Still, Grant in this role of the leader of this band of fliers is fun to watch, and he pulls off something that I don't think any other male star of his day could do as well.
There is an inkling of brittleness to his bravado that is intriguing. He talks a great game of fatalistic acceptance of risk and death, but he clings to Thomas Mitchell as his chief emotional burden and his greatest friendship, for whom he takes heartsick responsibility and from whom he receives love and understanding he gets from no one else…until Jean Arthur comes along.
She is the lone woman who infiltrates the boys’ clubhouse. She says “Down the hatch” when she drinks her bourbon with Noah Beery, Jr. and Allyn Joslyn (for more on Allyn Joslyn, have a look at Caftan Woman’s recent post here), but she’s still a lady. She bristles at being passed along, and at being taken for granted. Eventually, she starts to blend in with the boys, after Cary Grant has shaken her, physically as well as emotionally, bawling her out for bawling the boys out when they display no mourning over the death of the flyer Joe Souther.
“Who’s Joe?” they scoff.
“You know, all my life I’ve hated funerals. The fuss and bother never brings anybody back and it just spoils remembering them as they really are. And when I see people actually facing it that way, I act like a sap.”
She remembers the pain of her father’s sudden, violent death. She is alone in the world and so she grabs onto life with both hands, traveling by herself, not fearing to explore, or expose herself to emotional commitment. She is braver than Mr. Grant in this respect.
To make amends for her “unmanly” outburst of grief at Joe’s death, she wanders back into the bar and interrupts a jam session at the piano, taking over the keys herself, and banging out Sophie Tucker’s old theme song “Some of These Days”. Jean Arthur actually looks like she’s playing the piano here; she fakes it well. Most stars tinkling the ivories for a film role usually looked like they are mixing meatloaf with their hands.
Here’s the clip:
“Who’s Joe?” Grant tests her.
“Never heard of him.”
Later, alone at the piano as the bar empties out, she begins the leaden strains of “Lebestraum”, but catches herself before she gets too maudlin. Joe’s personal effects are brought in, only a handful of trinkets, and Cary Grant, per their ritual, allows anyone to take what they want. He offers the trinkets to Jean, and she takes a watch, the most expensive thing.
“You’ve got a good eye,” Grant sneers at her, insinuating that she is just a gold-digging chorus girl after all.
Miss Arthur is not far from the mark when she suggests someone has treated him badly. We get his version of a former love who tried to ground him with her possessiveness. It is also a warning to Jean not to try to do the same. He invites her to his room, and she accepts, but then he steers her out the door back to the boat. It’s a teasing game, and he blinks first. But when the fog clears and he must take the next mail plane out, he grabs her in a hasty kiss, and she is hooked. We know this, because she’s still there when he returns in the morning.
Only Jean Arthur could say a line like that and be believed, just like she’s probably the only actress who can use interjections like “Hey!” “Say!”, “Gee whiz!” and “Jeepers” and have it sound profound.
There’s nobody that does that uncomfortable, “caught in the act” look quite like Jean.
But Grant is chafing over this clingy female, and the fear of commitment, and he demands she take the next boat, which won’t come until next week because, “Yes, they have no bananas” as Thomas Mitchell points out. Grant stomps away, and Jean is embarrassed and crestfallen.
“I’ve never quite made such a chump of myself.” Fortunately, Grant’s buddy becomes her buddy and he comforts her. Too bad she didn’t fall in love with Thomas Mitchell. (During the Lux Radio Theater broadcast of “Only Angels Have Wings”, Mr. DeMille thanked Jean Arthur and Thomas Mitchell for taking a week off from their current filming of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” to do the radio show.)
“Heroes for Sale” (1933), as a new flier with a fake name and a mysterious past. Rita Hayworth is his pretty young wife. She doesn’t know that years before he piloted a plane that was going down in flames, and he bailed out, leaving his mechanic on board to die. Ever since then he has been shunned by other fliers.
He doesn’t know that she is Cary Grant’s former lover.
The subplots of this movie keep the pace moving nicely. Another subplot is Thomas Mitchell’s fading eyesight, which prompts Cary Grant to ground him. Mitchell is noble about it, accepting. Gut-wrenching tension between one who has to give bad news, and another who has to hear it. When Mitchell leaves, Grant boots a chair across the room in an explosive gesture, demonstrating only to us how badly he feels.
The mechanic who died in Richard Barthlemess’ plane was Thomas Mitchell’s younger brother. When Mr. Barthlemess is found out, he is shunned here, again, by these pilots, as he always is wherever he goes from job to job. He withstands Cary Grant’s barbs with stoic, self deprecating sarcasm, but Grant offers him a few dangerous jobs one else will take to earn his boat passage out of here. Including flying nitroglycerin, which he drops on condors.
It would have been more interesting, I think, to have Grant and Hayworth still attracted to each other, then the foursome would really be caught in a dilemma; each would be forced into making decisions about their lives instead of just letting things happen. Perhaps Howard Hawks felt he had enought subplots.
“I know I’m a fool, but I can’t do anything about it,” she whimpers. She recognizes, and envies, Mitchell’s close relationship with Grant.
“You love him, don’t you, Kid?”
“Yes, I guess I do.”
Mitchell’s tortured expression and body English tells us there’s been many a time he got sick with worry over Grant. “I go nuts.”
“Maybe I’d better go,” Jean offers.
“No, please don’t,” Rita replies, with raised eyebrows and an arch expression.
“I really didn’t intend to.”
But Rita is not really jealous, she’s affirmed that she loves her husband and will let the past go.
“Imagine,” she says, “Losing one heel right after another.” They kiss, and she promises there will be no tying him down or asking him to give up flying.
“You don’t have to be afraid of me anymore.” What a line, as comforting as it is accusing. The screenwriter gives her more gold,
“There’s nothing I can do about it, I just love you. That’s all. I feel the same way about you the Kid does.”
He’s still not a committing kind of guy, but something happens to open up a place on Grant’s dance card.
Yeah, a great big old cast iron spoiler here. Read on at your peril.
The plane runs into trouble, a fire on board, and they crash, but Barthlemess will not bail out this time. With superb flying, he brings the plane to the ground. He is badly burned, but Thomas Mitchell is fatally injured.
It’s different with Mitchell. Nobody’s going to say, “Who’s the Kid?” at his death. Mr. Grant’s manly code of élan in the face of death does not extend to his dearest friend. Maybe he’s a hypocrite. Maybe he’s human. The men who call him “Papa” because he is their leader in their tight-knit male hierarchy will not see him cry, but Jean does.
Another smoothly comic bit when Jean, antsy and pacing outside Grant’s office just before she leaves for the boat meets with Victor Kilian again, who whispers to her,
Jean, surprised, clinging to hope, “You do?”
“I think he’d want you to.”
“You sure? I don’t mind doing it if you say so.”
“I do say so.”
With Kilian’s blessing, she enters Grant’s office, mumbling defensively that Kilian wanted her to.
It runs that knife edge between silliness and deeply touching.
She practically begs Grant to ask her to stay, but he vacillates. He wants her to stay, because he needs somebody. He’s just about to say something, when we hear from the radio once more:
“Calling Barranca! Calling Barranca!”
The weather clears, and there is one last chance to make their contract, so Grant scrambles to his plane. This time Jean’s plea has a disgusted, angry tone.
“I’m hard to get Geoff. All you have to do is ask me.”
He can’t, but he suggests they flip a coin, and it is not until after he leaves that she realizes it is Thomas Mitchell’s two-headed coin.
It’s the closest he can come to asking her to stay, and she does. We may wonder if she’s getting the short end of the stick staying with a man so emotionally close, or so proud, or so hurt, or so juvenile he cannot comfort her with a simple “I love you”. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t. If he’s inscrutable to Jean, he is to us as well.
“Only Angels Have Wings” made such an impression of movie audiences of the day that “Calling Barranca!” was a punch line for a while. A few cartoons used the gag, including this one from Tex Avery’s “Ceiling Hero” (1940) and “Saddle Silly” (1941).
Perhaps some of you will remember the early 1980s TV show “Tales of the Gold Monkey” starring Stephen Collins. That was inspired by “Only Angels Have Wings”.
The banner year of 1939 gave us movies that were escapist in many ways, but inevitably truthful about who we were, and what we imagined about the world. Please have a look at the many other blogs participating in this blogathon. Special thanks to Becky of “Classic Becky’s Brain Food” and Page of “My Love of Old Hollywood” for organizing the fun.