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.

The second element that makes this movie such a prime example of 1939 is the presence of character actor Thomas Mitchell, who played in five of the top movies that golden year, all winners. Besides this one, he was in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, “Gone with the Wind”, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, and “Stagecoach”, for which he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. It’s not a 1939 film without Thomas Mitchell.

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.

In this essay, I’d like to look at “Only Angels Have Wings” through the prism of 1939 and not so much about what we know about that year, but what we may have forgotten about it. The biggest thing we often forget is that we’re watching current events. This film marks the end of a timeline in an era, though I rather imagine director Howard Hawks, himself a former flier, would not have recognized that when he made it. It had only been some 12 years previous to the making of this movie that Charles A. Lindbergh, “Lucky Lindy” flew the first non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. That generation of seat-of-the-pants fliers like Lindy and Amelia Earhart, the Granville Brothers, and Bessie Coleman, were still part of the American popular culture; though some of them had already been killed in their daring exploits. These were still the days when airplane flight brought out the press and the newsreels cameras, where records made for huge headlines and parades.

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.

There is an inherent comic book feel to this movie, though again, I’m sure Mr. Hawks did not intend that. Consider how the pilots wear their holstered side arms below the belts of their high-waisted pants, their cuffs rolled up to show their boots. Black leather jackets with faded World War I insignia, and broad-brimmed straw hats to suggest a rakishness that is permissible in a area of law by mutual consent, opportunities built on enormous risks, too much liquor and a few carefully chosen (by the director, at least) women. Except for these last two points, we might be watching a film version of the popular comic strips “Terry and the Pirates” or “Smilin’ Jack”.

Here in this world of rattan shades and bamboo furniture, tropical birds and strumming guitars, Cary Grant is boss of a fledging airline running mail from a small port city of Barranca (you know you want to say it. Go ahead: “Calling Barranca, calling Barranca!”) to villages and mining camps far up the Andes. We are in South America, and the only premonition we get of the war to come is the Latin American music, which will have a huge impact beginning in the next year when after war broke out in Europe, we strengthened military and commercial ties with Latin America. The samba and the rumba were not far behind.

Jean Arthur stumbles into Barranca off a tramp steamer one tropical night that delivers a handful of passengers, and cargo, and mail for the plane. She is a piano player, who has left her last troupe of entertainers in Panama. She’s on her own, as free, or as lost, as the men she encounters in the base camp run by Dutchy, played by Sig Ruman. Most of the action of the film takes place in his bar/restaurant/hotel/air field. It is almost like Rick’s Café Americain in “Casablanca” only without the Nazis, or the refugees.

“Casablanca”, despite being almost entirely confined to Rick’s, gives us a closer look, and better acquaintance with the local setting and people. “Only Angels Have Wings” gives us only a brief look at the locals, when Jean Arthur enters another saloon that seems to cater only to them, and enjoys, and sings along with, vibrant Spanish music and dance. She is courageous enough to explore and appreciate. Cary Grant and his boys only buy drinks for, and we assume, sleep with, local girls from time to time. They don’t bother with the local culture too much. Their clubhouse is an island unto itself. Like Peter Pan's Island of Lost Boys.  An American 1939 fantasy.  When Mr. Grant reaches into his wallet to donate money to the sister of a killed pilot, he offers American greenbacks.  In a country where U.S. currency is not used.

Two happy go lucky fliers chat up Jean and bring her to their clubhouse for drinks and steaks, and take turns flirting with her. One, played by a young Noah Beery, Jr., is sent by the boss, Cary Grant, on a late night mail run, but there is bad weather and he returns in a risky landing. The film is barely ten minutes old and we have a ghastly crash while Grant, Miss Arthur, and Grant’s best pal, Thomas Mitchell look on, horrified.

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?”

But Cary Grant, as handsome as it gets and just coming off his hero-adventurer stint in "Gunga Din" (1939) is right for the role in his charm, his boyish devil-may-care attitude, and especially his under-the-surface neediness.  (And Bogart had not yet reached his "hero" stage; he was still a thug in 1939.)

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.

In a sweet bit of consoling, which is reprised later in the film, Victor Kilian, who plays the radio operator “Sparks”, confesses he got the same treatment when he was a newbie. Jean unburdens herself to the gentle, sad-faced Mr. Kilian,

“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.

She gives him a look of disgust and mutters in a low voice, just short of growl, “Say, somebody must have given you an awful beating once.” It’s as good a putdown as anybody ever gave to Grant, and as truthful. He begins to change his opinion of her, for her honest challenge, and because she immediately gives the gift to the local girl who grieves the most for Joe. Grant is rebuffed, and impressed.

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.

He irritably puts her off again, and she questions her own mixed up feelings and lack of judgment, “I don’t know whether this is me or another fella.”

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.)

The movie shifts gears and we have the introduction of Richard Barthlemess, last seen here in “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.

Barthlemess is great in this role, a man doomed by his own guilt, haunted and too self-punishing even to look for redemption. We look in his expressive dark eyes and maybe we recall the “The Dawn Patrol” (1933) and other hero roles not so many years ago, but seemingly a lifetime for this now middle-aged man.

Another element is keeping up the pace is the constant and subtle shifts into humor. There are glib remarks and pratfalls. The proud Spanish-speaking company doctor, played by Lucio Villegas, who Barthlemess is ordered to fly up to a mining camp to treat an injured man is insulted by the suggestion that it might be too dangerous, and spouts a soliloquy from Shakespeare about courage while Grant tries to placate him and shut him up.

Then there are the flying scenes that take us breathlessly up the mountain passes and across rugged terrain in a craft that looks like to be little more than a wood crate with wings. The aerial photography is spectacular. Though some of it is models, it’s all breathtaking action. At one point, Barthlemess must take off from a narrow cliff with not enough room to taxi, so he taxis the plane right off the ledge and picks up the wind currents on the drop, like a kite, in a stomach-turning descent.

It is these successful daring tasks and precise flying that earns Barthlemess Grant’s grudging respect. Eventually, however, Rita Hayworth (Judy, Judy, Judy) wants to know why her husband is always treated like dirt. She is still in the dark about his past. We have a reunion scene between the former lovers Hayworth and Grant, but we can see that there are no more sparks between them. Miss Hayworth is in love with her husband, and Mr. Grant is just as fed up with her as when she tried to tame him.

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.

More humor when Grant catches the stumbling Jean Arthur eavesdropping on their conversation, and Jean slowly starts to enter the picture again, waiting out a nail-biting test flight of Grant’s that has her getting sick to her stomach. Again, comforted with kind words and a Bromo-Seltzer from Thomas Mitchell. She confides again her love of Grant to him.

“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.”

“Why can’t I love him the way you do, sneer when he tries to kill himself, be proud when he doesn’t? Why couldn’t I be there to meet him when he got back? What do you do when he doesn’t come back when you expect him to?”

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.”

Another comic, but sexy scene is when Jean Arthur sneaks into Grant’s room so she can use his bathtub. Grant enters, and they bristle and irritate, and flirt, and laugh. Rita pops in, and a terrific jealous exchange between her and Jean:

“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.

Another comic bit when Grant sees Arthur limping and he picks her up in her arms. She tells him she’s not hurt, she just broke the heel of her shoe.

“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.”

It’s an honest assessment of his relationship with Thomas Mitchell, who puts a coat over Grant’s shoulders on a chilly night, brings him coffee and worries that he doesn’t get enough sleep, lights his cigarettes. (Everybody seems to light Grant’s cigarettes in this movie.) He does what he can do for his chum, then he wanders into the background. It’s the kind of relationship with which Grant is comfortable, and the only kind he can accept from Jean.

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.

Another flight must be undertaken to meet a needed contract, but the only ones who can take this assignment are Barthlemess and Mitchell. Destiny takes a hand, and the man with the guilt, and the man with the hatred for the guilty party who got his kid brother killed are riding the skies together.

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.

Afterwards, the fliers welcome Barthlemess into the fraternity and place a drink in his bandaged hands. Manuel Alvarez Maciste plays guitar and sings a sad Spanish tune that soothes and laments at the same time. Mitchell’s personal effects are laid out on the bar in a handkerchief. This time, Cary Grant does not cynically offer the goods to anyone. He takes the small bundle to his room to be alone with them.

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,

“Aren’t you going to say goodbye to him? I think you ought to.”

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.”

“You do?”

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.

But this is not a world of commitments, because commitment suggests the possibility of a future, and in Barranca we are only concerned with the here and now. There will be many hasty commitments made, clung to, and perhaps regretted during the war that will follow in only a few more months.

Does anybody else feel sorry for the guy in the mountain lookout post, all by himself through the entire movie? Played by Don “Red” Barry, poor “Tex” never gets any company, except his mule.

“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.


Dawn said...

Well written review to one of my favorite 1939 movies, Only Angels Have Wings. I agree.. it is a heart warming movie full of humor, drama, adventure.

Raquel Stecher said...

Great post! I'll have to watch this again and keep in mind the historical factors especially the whole thing about pilots being daredevils instead of commercial fliers. :-)

Even though this film has a great cast, I still only think of it as a Barthlemess movie. Is that strange? Even with big hitters like Jean Arthur, Cary Grant and Rita Hayworth?!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by, ladies. Raquelle, I agree, Barthlemess is superb in this movie. I think his depth and maturity is what Grant lacks, but I think Hawks was pushing the Grant character as a dynamic leader and a sexual force. Barthlemess wears his back story all over him, and Grant doesn't seem to have any.

Caftan Woman said...

Wonderful and thought-provoking reading as always, Jacqueline.

Your analysis of the world created by Hawks in "Only Angels Have Wings", and quite a few of his pictures, highlights a lot of his appeal. We're all emotional beings, but for a lot of us it's not that easy to deal with them. The devil-may-care attitude passes for a type of sophistication, but there never were bigger softies at heart.

Thanks for the link to the Joslyn blog, and for your comment on "Five Came Back" which made my day/year.

Yvette said...

Another great post, Jacqueline. I'm going right through all the Blogathon's posters today, reading some mighty fine stuff.

I'm sure I've seen this film before, it sound vaguely familiar. You make it sound very attractive.

By the by: You've hit the nail right on the head about Cary Grant. This is something that has eluded me about him until I saw your comment. Grant RARELY if ever wore a backstory on his face. He was, let's face it, a handsome but often bland fellow. (One of the reasons I always had trouble accepting him in non-comedic roles.) An exception might be THE PHILADEPHIA STORY where his bitter self reproach and sadness is-self evident in every close-up. But this is the excception.
(There are several others. Incongruously, I think in BRINGING UP BABY, we understand almost immediately the sort of man he is though we know nothing, really, about how he got that way. Still, there is that insipient hysteria below the surface that works for him. Almost the same as in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE in which he plays a hysterical man for most of the film but makes you like him inspite of it.

As you might know, I am not fond of Thomas Mitchell. My choice for Best Supporting Actor of 1939 would have been John Carradine for his splendid faded Southern gentleman in STAGECOACH.

I actually wrote a whole post about STAGECOACH with photos and everything but then deleted it when I realized someone else was going to be writing about it for the Blogathon. Didn't want to horn in. :)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks Caftan Woman, and Yvette.

One of the joys of blogging is sharing the comments, "softies at heart" indeed, and I love your observation, and I quite agree, of Grant's bitter self reproach in "The Philadelphia Story" gives him a edgy quality to that role. I also love the description "incipient hysteria below the surface".

Too bad you didn't chime in with your "Stagecoach" post, but I hope you do it another time.

DorianTB said...

Jacqueline, ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS was my first Howard Hawks movie; I saw it in my Fordham University Film Studies class. It's a great adventure film with an aching heart and a wonderful cast. I also loved your line: "Most stars tinkling the ivories for a film role usually look like they are mixing meatloaf with their hands." So true! By the way, for the most hilariously unconvincing piano playing in a movie, see 1959’s THE HIDEOUS SUN DEMON's "Strange Pursuit" piano number. :-) Anyway, Jacqueline, you did a superlative job; great blog post!

Grand Old Movies said...

Thanks for your terrific post about a terrific movie! You make such great points about the historical background about fliers, which will make me watch the film w/different eyes next time. I also didn't realize Thomas Mitchell was in so many 1939 movies - such a great actor, and his death scene w/Grant in Angels is played so beautifully. I agree w/Yvette about the points you make about Grant; & your remark about Bogart in the role is also illuminating - it might be interesting to compare Grant's loner character in Angels w/Bogie's loner character in another Hawks' film, To Have & Have Not; they both embody key aspects of the archetypal Hawks male.
Thanks again!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you both for your kind words. Your point about comparing the Bogie and Grant characters in those two Hawks films is a great idea.

And Dorian, I'm going to be on the lookout for that awful piano playing. Actually, awful movie piano "playing" would be a great post sometime.

Clara Fercovic said...

Super detailed review, Jacqueline. I reviewed 'The Hunchback...' but I didn't remember that Thomas Mitchell was in OAHW too! This a great film, although for me it was difficult at the beginning to accept Cary as the cold -hearted pilot...maybe that's why I love the scene when she talks to Jean and explains that they're suffering the loss of the pilot too, but they had learned how to overcome the pain...

Oh, my favorite idea from your post is : "...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."

I just could hear Jean saying all those expressions in my mind :) You're right.

Rick29 said...

Jacqueline, you did an awesome job of putting the film (and the year of 1939) in historical context. I do think Cary, at that point in his career, was miscast; he's OK in the role, but I think a more mature Cary would have fared better. And I do remember the short-lived TALES OF THE GOLD MONKEY TV series--I thought no one else did!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks Clara and Rick. I'm glad to see so many people actually soldiering on through such a long post.

Rick, I remember "Tales of the Gold Monkey" because I liked it, and so, of course, it was cancelled. Since then I have been very careful about announcing out loud if I like a show. I figure if I keep quiet, it might last more than one season.

Page said...

Boy I was looking forward to this one and it was well worth the wait! My boyfriend Cary looks amazing in your pics. Swoons! And they don't get any prettier or adorable than Arthur was in this one.(I haven't seen this in so long so I hope it re-airs again soon)

I really enjoyed all of the extra little tidbits and trivia you threw in as well as the fun clips.
A fantastic film during a year where it was really hard to stand out. Two cheers for Howard Hawks and Three Cheers for enjoying 'boy movies'!
A beautifully done tribute on Only Angels Have Wings.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Page. I think everybody's enjoying the blogathon, and you and Becky are to be congratulated for putting together this great event.

R. D. Finch said...

A really thorough review of an excellent film. I like the way you compare the plot to a boys' adventure story for grown-ups. Great analysis of Cary Grant and Jean Arthur (two of my very favorites) and their characters in this film, and I appreciate the attention you give Thomas Mitchell, a wonderful character actor whose brilliant work here is very nearly the equal of his Oscar-winning turn in "Stagecoach."

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome, R.D., and thank you very much. There's a lot to like about this movie, and I agree that Thomas Mitchell is up there at the top of the list.

Kevin Deany said...

Jacqueline: Excellent review of this great film. I especially enjoyed your background research on the film.

A short anecdote concerning this film you and your readers may enjoy. I was over at a friend's house and this was on in the background. It had just started. If memory serves the opening scene, or near the opening, shows a ship's captain. My friend's 12-year-old daughter yelled out, "That's the guy from the Three Stooges."

Indeed, it was perennial Stooge foil Vernon Dent, in a non-credited appearance. How ironic that she didn't know who Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Rita Hayworth or any of the cast members were, but she picked out Vernon Dent. Fame is a funny thing in Hollywood.

The odd thing is I bet if you had pictures of the cast members of "Only Angels Have Wings", including Vernon Dent, and showed them to the man on the street today, I bet a great portion of them would pick out Mr. Dent before anyone else. I know a lot of people my age (40s) who don't watch anything in black and white but the Stooges.

Anyway, really fine post, Jacqueline.

Nathanael Hood said...


This is one of the best entries to the blogathon that I have read! Incredibly written, well paced, thoroughly insightful!


Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you so much, Nathanael and Kevin. By the way, Kevin, being a big fan of character actors, I don't mind at all that the young miss recognized him instead of the stars. Good on her. She has the makings of a real old movie fan. Maybe one day she'll even graduate to the likes of Cary Grant and Jean Arthur.

Classicfilmboy said...

I love this film, and I appreciate your detailed look at this film and the various motivations of the characters, as well as the actors involved. I like how Cary Grant was taking chances at this point in his career; he may not have been as suave here, but I felt his later work was really just him playing the persona that we came to expect of him. As for Jean Arthur, I love her performance in this movie. Particuarly, the scene you mentioned when she comes in to play the piano is played to perfection. Great post!!

The Lady Eve said...

You really captured "Only Angels Have Wings," Jacqueline, nailed it. Great idea to include a current events primer to add context, loved it. My only quibble with Cary Grant's character - that was the hat that was miscast, not CG.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Lady Eve. I think you may be right about the hat.

Filmboy, a very good point about Grant playing the persona we expected of him in his later career. As for Jean, I've seen, I guess, at least half if not most of her movies and to my mind she's never given anything less than a great performance. So, it's kind of hard to think of new superlatives to describe her work. I wonder if it's possible to be overlooked simply because you never disapoint?

John said...

Okay, I submitted a long comment yesterday and it seems to have gone off into cyberspace! Anyway, you did a great job here. Hawks is one of my favorite directors. His characters are always interesting, both the males and females. Credit must also be given to Jules Furthman for a great script.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, John, thanks for coming back. You had left your comment yesterday at my post for "Union Pacific". If you scroll down, you'll see it on that post. I agree, the Furthman script is witty and fast-paced.

ClassicBecky said...

Jacqueline, you have outdone yourself. This is one of my very favorite movies, and you have more than done it justice. Your assessments are right on, and the clips you provided are such fun. I love posts with video clips!

I thought everyone in it was wonderful, but Jean Arthur just stands out. But then, that little blonde always did! One of America's best actresses.

You know, my favorite part of your article was the historical review that put the movie into context of its own time. Your first and second paragraphs had me hooked. One of the gangster movies I love is the Roaring Twenties with Cagney, and part of its appeal for me is the almost documentary feel of the first 10 minutes or so in creating background for the story. Your review of Only Angels Have Wings had this quality, I think it is just excellent!

Judy said...

Great to read such a detailed and sensitive review of one of Hawks' greatest films, Jacqueline - I also appreciate the link to the Lux radio version, and will definitely be listening to this.

On your point about the lack of back story to Cary Grant's character, I think the rootlessness and vagueness is all part of Geoff. The Kid is "Papa's" only family - the same sort of relationship you get between Cagney and O'Brien in Hawks' earlier 'Ceiling Zero'. However, you do get hints of his past - for instance, that line you quote that he says to Jean Arthur when she picks out the watch, "You've got a good eye". He says that with such a strong, sneering Cockney accent that for a moment it takes you right out of the scene he is actually in and there is a fleeting hint of a poor background in London - Arthur picks up on that when she says that he must have had a beating in the past.

It's also great to see Barthelmess playing an older and wearier version of the pilot he played in 'The Dawn Patrol'. All in all, I must watch this film again soon!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Judy and Becky. I also like "The Roaring Twenties" and that documentary intro to the movie. It's been a fun blogathon, and everyone contributed something unique and interesting. I've loved reading the different posts.

Nadya said...

"Only Angels Have Wings" is one of my favourite films of all time, and your review more than does it justice! I particularly loved your analysis of Grant vs Bogart.

"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."

I think it's fascinating to re-imagine this film with Bogart as Geoff. I can see the whole tone changing into something more melancholy and stoic, like the aftermath of too many lonely shots of whiskey. The casting of Grant, in contrast, makes the film more frenetic and driven. There's something about the pacing of his speech that is slightly maddening here, and as you point out, more in tune with the "charming scamp" role ala "His Girl Friday." But when you consider that as viewers we're looking at Geoff through the prism of Bonnie Lee, it's entirely appropriate that we feel both exasperated and exhilarated by this man, because that's how she feels.

Loved the back story on flying that you gave. It reminded me of Dorothy Kilgallen's 1936 "Race Around the World," and how fascinated people at the time were with the idea that world travel could be accomplished way up there in the clouds.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, Nadya, thanks for stopping by. I'm so please so discover so many fans of this film. I like the observation you make here: "But when you consider that as viewers we're looking at Geoff through the prism of Bonnie Lee, it's entirely appropriate that we feel both exasperated and exhilarated by this man, because that's how she feels." That's a very good point.

Nadya said...

Not sure if you've seen this before, but a few years back, TCM did a wonderful poster of "Only Angels Have Wings" for Summer Under the Stars.

Brandie said...

Several years ago, I bought a Cary Grant DVD collection that contains this film along with The Talk of the Town, The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday, and Holiday. I devoured the first four movies the weekend I bought them. But for some reason, I kept putting off watching this one. I guess I thought it would be a dry, "flyboy" film despite the presence of the delightful Mr. Grant. Boy, was I wrong. I'm glad I finally sat down and watched it last year, because it's become one of my favorites.

I seriously enjoyed reading your review, and I agree--I think it might have added yet another layer of depth to the plot had Judy and Geoff still maintained feelings for one another. I was actually expecting that when I first saw the film, and was surprised that such a subplot didn't develop. Maybe that was Hawks' intent--to subvert our expectations of how the romances would develop.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Whoa, Nadya, that is some gorgeous poster! I never it saw it before, thanks.

Thanks, Brandie, I'm glad you're a fan of this movie. You may be right about Hawks' intent about the romances.

Moira Finnie said...

Great stuff and beautifully written, Jacqueline! I especially like your depiction of the band of fliers as fugitives from adulthood. I have some issues with Grant's forced machismo, especially in the beginning of the film and Jean Arthur's "Golly Moses" moments--but the flying, the brotherhood among the outcasts and the professionals and especially Richard Barthelmess all ring true.

Calling Barranca, Calling Barranca: Tell them Jacqueline has their number!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks for popping in to the base camp, Moira. I think this has been a fantastic blogathon, especially for the thread of 1939, the aspects and undercurrents of that year that pretty nearly all of us have slipped into our posts.

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