By Jeremy Walsh
ArtsPost staff writer
Director Howard Hawks continues to impress audiences with his visual storytelling expertise, and his latest film, “Only Angels Have Wings,” serves as no finer example of his mastery of his craft.
Hawks has successfully followed up last year’s comedic hit “Bringing up Baby” by taking to the skies with a suspenseful love story at an airstrip in the far reaches of South America.
The film begins with American Bonnie Lee (played by Jean Arthur) disembarking her ship at a port in Colombia where she meets two American pilots. Happy to hear the familiar sound of American voices, Bonnie accompanies the pilots to their airport’s restaurant.
She is soon introduced to the head of the airport, Geoff Carter (played by Cary Grant), a contentious and quick-witted man seemingly absent of common emotions. Nevertheless, Bonnie becomes enamored with Geoff, and though the feelings appear to be mutual, Geoff consistently states that he does not want to be tied to a woman.
Hawks once again showed his mastery of the witty romantic comedy. Much like “Bringing up Baby” centered on the banter between Cary Grant and his leading lady (then Katharine Hepburn), “Only Angels Have Wings” hinges on the exchanges between Grant and Jean Arthur. The comedic exchanges are understated and hilarious while the intimate interactions are truly heartfelt.
Screenwriter Jules Furthman should be commended for balancing the film’s entertaining comedic lines with the emotionally pointed dialogue, a balance necessary for a memorable romantic comedy.
As Geoff, Grant gives a complete performance that really carries the film. Grant reintroduces audiences to his sharp wit but adds an element of stoicism, resulting in a well-rounded comedic and dramatic performance.
Being the more experienced actor, Arthur easily keeps up with Grant, stride for stride, even though Geoff Carter is clearly meant to be the film’s centerpiece. The comedic exchanges seem to come naturally to Arthur, as the one-liners roll seamlessly off her tongue.
The beauty of her performance lies in her ability to depict Bonnie’s inner turmoil while watching the daring aerial maneuvers of the pilots trying to navigate inconsistent weather or while waiting for Geoff to make up his mind about their relationship.
The story’s backdrop of an airport set near the base of the Andes Mountains is somewhat problematic because on the one hand, that aspect of the storyline is absurdist. Having two Americans toil with love at an airstrip in South America comes off like a story that could only happen in Hollywood, giving the rest of the plot almost no root in reality.
On the other hand, the aerial shots are brilliant and breathtaking. Hawks keeps the viewers on edge as they watch the planes try to navigate nearly impossible landings through rain and fog, crafting aerial scenes much like another Howard did earlier this decade, Howard Hughes.
In the end, the hilarious and heartfelt dialogue combined with the heart-pounding shots of the airplanes stand out much more than the manufactured backdrop. Hawks has created another brilliant American comedy.