Only Angels Have Wings

By Elise Lundstrom
ArtsPost staff writer

A plane soars through the sky, we hear her engines roaring but we don’t see her.  The fog is too thick. Pilots, mechanics, locals and visitors on the ground look up in frightened anticipation, hoping the pilot can line up for touchdown. Suddenly we see the plane swoop just above their heads, barely missing the hotel, bar, airline headquarters building. A close call, a wrong descent path and another try. All for a steak dinner with the blonde from the boat.

A story of love and danger set in the 1930s South American port town of Baranca, Only Angels Have Wings, keeps us at the edge of our seats until the last line. Using humor, drama, romance and action all rolled into one picture, Howard Hawks keeps us wanting more of everything.

Starring Carry Grant as Geoff Carter, the fatalistic veteran pilot who runs an airline transporting mail over the Andes, and Jean Arthur as Bonnie Lee, a performer originally only in town for the night who becomes infatuated with Geoff and the world of flying, Angels brings stars of the 1930s silver screen together.

The story line centers around Geoff as he deals with the dangerous consequences of operating his airline, his romantic interests and his own stubbornness. As The Kidd (Thomas Mitchell) remarks to Bonnie, “The only thing I can tell you about him, he’s a good guy for gals to stay away from.” And, of course, that means that no one can.

Under the legendary direction of Hawks, we are shown images of South America in the 1930s, or what Hollywood thought South America in the 1930s looked like, which is remarkably clean and Americanized. Even the rain and mud looks clean. But we can’t have Bonnie (Arthur) and her embodiment of the American feminine getting any dirt on her fluffy white robe.

"Angels"

Arthur plays piano in the hotel bar.

Hawks joins romance and adventure together beautifully.  Arthur and Rita Hayworth glow in the masculine environment of the airline building.  From the interior shots, including a great bar sing-along with everything and everyone perfectly in place, to footage shot from the air following the mail planes banking and turning through the sky, always on the edge of danger, the cinematography was worthy of the Academy Award it was awarded.

Humor is used throughout Only Angels Have Wings in an effective and poignant way. Witty language masks tragedy, keeps social interactions interesting and highlights the relationships between men and women in the 1930s.  One of the exchanges that got the most laughs was between the Kid and Carter about why the next ship heading north is not stopping in Baranca:

“They have no bananas.”

“They have no bananas?”

“Yes, they have no bananas.”

This dialogue is a note on the 1922 Broadway review “Make it Snappy’s” novelty song “Yes! We have no bananas.” It still gets a laugh out of audiences today.

It is no surprise that Angels was nominated for two Academy Awards in 1940, including Best Cinematography (Black and White), and Best Effects/Special Effects.  Hawks’ use of lighting, sound and screen shots warrant those nominations. The scenes where the primary footage is shot in the air of the mail planes is particularly striking; you feel that at any moment they will crash into the menacing Andes mountains.

On the ground, Hawks’ control and minimal camera movement frame every shot perfectly.  You see exactly what you need to when you need to, for as long as you need to.

Originally released in 1939, that same year that brought us Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, and The Wizard of Oz, Only Angels Have Wings is on par with its peers, deserving of the tagline of “Powerful as a tropical storm!”

Today we see this movie as a classic old Hollywood movie, but sitting in the theater with Only Angels Have Wings, the audience sees the film at as a commentary on life in the 1930s.  Many of the jokes and issues are relatable to modern life.  Men and women have not changed that much.  Carter and Lee may interact in a similar way today, and airlines in the Andes are still dangerous to operate.

Hawks successfully blends humor, action, romance, drama and adventure together to bring us a vibrant, exciting and enjoyable film Only Angels Have Wings.

(Only Angels Have Wings was part of a Jean Arthur retrospective shown at the AFI Silver Theater on Feb. 24 as part of a series of films shown in conjunction with Montgomery College.  Each film is followed by a discussion led by a film professor from Montgomery.  For more information visit http://www.afi.com/silver/new)