Howard Hawks has gone down in history as one of the greatest underrated Hollywood storytellers in the past century. A visual stylist, Hawks rarely stuck to the same genre for long – capturing the versatility of romantic comedies, slapstick melodramas, westerns and serious dramas such as Scarface, Bringing Up Baby, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and El Dorado.
Of these Hawksian classics is Only Angels Have Wings, a 1939 film, which screened at the AFI Silver Theatre this past week as a part of a Jean Arthur retrospective
Starring the unmistakably timeless Cary Grant opposite the spunky Jean Arthur, Only Angels Have Wings is quintessentially old time Hollywood. It portrays a group of ‘Hemingway-esque’ jungle pilots working on a South American airstrip and the head honcho, Geoff Carter (Grant) as the conflicted, cynical protagonist. It blends action, adventure, comedy and pathos in a story about men determined to keep their free-flying livelihood.
Set in the exotic, make-believe Barranca seaport – a trade city for bananas – Hawks immediately transports us to the new, beautiful and different. At the outset, the film is a visually stunning romp, equipped with Havana music, palm trees and attractive, flirtatious people. Yet with a plot centered on the danger and dedication of piloting airplanes, Only Angels Have Wings is suddenly dark, deep and depressing. (Which is exactly how I would describe a number of this year’s Academy Award Best Picture nominees.)
This makes me wonder: how does this Hawks film compare to present-day Hollywood hits? Can we compare? Does it benefit our understanding and appreciation of the classic movie genre to do so?
While obviously not shot on location, the same attention to detail, in scene and costume, is apparent. Men don khaki, leather jackets, Havana hats, gun slings and accessorized cigarettes – adequately representing the era and locale. What differs from most contemporary movies is the capturing of this detail. We are so attuned to fast-paced camera angles and scene cuts, but where Hawks is a master is his ability to attend to scene composition and length. He lingers on frames, cutting only when absolutely necessary. In doing this, we are allowed to soak in minutiae and scenarios. We are the immovable bystander, not the omniscient ever-moving eye, a calmer perspective from the norm.
He is even able to successfully direct effects. For a film made 70 years, we witness spectacular aerial photography by the premiere trailblazing aerial photographer of the time, Joseph Walker. Here he is able to capture plane-side action shots, which are no less appealing than Avatar’s cliff flying Pandora scenes. Yes, we see a few strings holding up model planes and some entertainingly fake explosions – but this film was not meant to be the early Star Wars/Armageddom action/adventure epic tale.
It is almost like a skeleton of Ben Affleck’s Pearl Harbor – sans war and romantic fluff, but with more character. Above all, it is about brotherhood and less about love and passion. It follows the same formulas we find in many of Hawk’s films.
Plotline one: an outsider in the form of Bonnie Lee (Arthur) enters and destroys the equilibrium, so what must happen to restore this equilibrium? Plotline two: Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess), the man with a disgraceful past, must endure the subsequent road to redemption alongside the strong, stoic leading man Geoff. These themes show up in many of Hawks’s films. Sure, we could also approach feminist critiques about the roles and attitudes of the Hawksian heroines in Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth, but we could make the same arguments for all women in today’s films – they accidentally fall in love and make plans. They are the starry eyed girls looking at a “screwy ideal of a man,” as Bonnie Lee would say.
On the other end of the spectrum are men like Geoff, who live for today. They fly planes without a safety net and “never ask anyone to do anything.” They’re irresistibly good guys for girls to stay away from. We’ve all known and seen these men depicted (think James Dean and Western cowboys), but nowadays we are accustomed to seeing these men change for the love of a woman. For Hawks, this is not the point of resolution. Rather, it is about brotherhood and honor. Men stay true to who they are, no matter how much women will them to change.
What we also do not experience today are the sort of strange story structures and dialogue with which Hawks composes his films. Only Angels Have Wings is seemingly split into three stories, almost like acts in a play. Act I: romantic introductions; Act II: a men’s melodrama; Act III: a drawn-out redemptive resolution. Within these acts are the delightful improvised breakouts into harmonized song, where a single scene has an entire musical group framed harmoniously as one.
However, toward the end of the film, we see four identical shots from the airplane with the characters stating, “Calling Barranca” into their radios. This sequence lasts 10 minutes or more before anything “exciting” happens. But is this poor storytelling? Not if it means taking realistic sequential steps to the ultimate conclusion… even if it results in impatience!
Indeed, parallelism runs rampant in this film. Multiple captured flights show almost identical take-off and landing footage. More important, the film successfully comes full circle with a concluding setting mimicking one of the opening scenes. A man has just died from a disastrous plane crash, as did a man at the onset of the film, but while the motions of the characters are aligned in both instances, the emotions and reaction are violently, affectedly disparate. This is the most poignant portrayal of these actors’ interpretive ability.
Grant has famously been criticized for being too “pretty” to carry powerhouse roles. If anything, Only Angels Have Wings will prove these criticisms are unsound. He’s our present-day Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt – it is not their fault they are beautiful, especially if they can act their parts. Grant not only acts this troubled role, but he picks up on the dialogue’s nuances, giving us just enough hints to get into the head of this broken man.
This differentiated method of acting is coupled and fed by the pointed dialogue. The move reads more like a stage play, with a few inner monologue asides and many vague references to unseen interactions. The dialogue is more honest and blunt, making it almost offensive yet balanced by its context and character. Today, we are impressed by restricted dialogue (Wall-E) and over-dynamic word vomit (Juno) – both of which grab our attention. But rarely do we find films that are direct but without full exposure. It is intelligent writing no longer used in contemporary filmmaking.
With films like Only Angels Have Wings, I soak in the difference in attitude, storytelling and content. It helps provide a point of departure for the films I love today, while reminding me that a good movie is a good movie, regardless of time.