Monday, November 1, 2010

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) -- Howard Hawks

Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) operates a small airline company near a backwater port in South America. Flying mail and cargo over a narrow mountain pass with wind and dense fog is dangerous business—more than one pilot has cracked up on the trip. At the moment, Geoff is short-handed and waiting for a new, replacement pilot. And though it is never explained why, the pilots all carry side arms, perhaps to ward off guerrillas hoping to high-jack their freight. In any case, it is a job for men, the more stoic the better.

Two women turn up to complicate Geoff's life. American showgirl Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) is in port waiting for her ship. She finds herself attracted to the cynical boss and decides to stay. Later, Judy (Rita Hayworth), one of Geoff's many former girlfriends arrives as the wife of the new pilot, Bat MacPherson, (Richard Barthelmess), whose dubious past has turned him into a pariah. Bonnie wonders why men risk their lives in this remote place:   

Bonnie: They must love it. Flying, I mean.
Sparks: radioman: Why do you think they come down to this kind of a place?
Bonnie: It's like being in love with a buzz saw.
Sparks: Not much future in it.
Bonnie: What is there about it that gets them?
Sparks: I'm not a flier myself. Hey, you'd better ask the Kid. Miss Lee. Mr. Dabb.
Bonnie: How'd you do?
Sparks: She wants to know why you like flying.
Kid Dabb: I've been in it 22 years, Miss Lee. I couldn't give you an answer that would make any sense. What's so funny about that?
Bonnie: That's what my dad used to say.
KId: Flier?
Bonnie: No, trapeze. High stuff. He wouldn't use a net.
Sparks: Not much future in that, either.
Bonnie: Yes. We found that out.

An ex-flame (Rita Hayworth) complicates Geoff's life.
The script is full of that kind of fast, clever dialog, often overlapping. When Bonnie asks Kid (Thomas Mitchell) if Geoff used to be in love with Judy, he responds: "When it rains, every third drop falls on one of them."

Howard Hawks made action adventure films heavy on comradeship, with brave men who live on the edge without too much complaining. They rely on luck and are tough, and they enjoy a good time with women, laughing and drinking. When a friend dies in the line of duty, they pretend not to care—it's just part of the job. Geoff sits down and eats the man's steak. Hawksian women are usually strong-minded. Bonnie fits the bill. She knows how to take care of herself and sets about to crack Geoff's cold exterior, a man who seems callous and uncaring. But Geoff isn't all he seems. He won't ask Bonnie to stay. Instead he flips a coin: heads she stays, tails she goes. She doesn't know it's a two-headed coin. 

One of the best scenes occurs as Geoff tries to talk a pilot down by radio in the fog. Hawks focuses on the faces of the people on the ground. They are tense as strain to listen. The plane hits a tree and starts to tumble. Kid lights a cigarette, his hand shaking. Another great scene happens at the bar with Bonnie at the piano, showing she can be one of the guys.

The supporting cast is fun and includes Thomas Mitchell, Noah Berry and Sig Ruman. Ruman plays Dutchy, Geoff's partner and bartender. He's probably most remembered as the two-faced POW guard Sergeant Shultz in Stalag 17 (1953).         
What Makes Angels Special:

Grant and Arthur.
It takes timing to make snappy dialog effective, and Jean Arthur and Cary Grant have great chemistry and wonderful timing. Arthur's voice is one of film's most distinctive and Grant did double-takes better than anyone. Here, both actors play vulnerable characters hurt in the past. They make a fine contrast as Bonnie wears her heart on her sleeve while Geoff has adopted a hard-shelled personality and womanizes to protect himself from another heartache. Arthur is adorable and for Grant, his character is a change of pace from the usual romantic comedy performances he was known for.

Though tame by later standards, the special effects are fun. Model planes serve as the real thing and in scenes with thick fog, the strain of labored engines sound just right.

Thomas Mitchell, one of Hollywood's best character actors, gives another memorable performance as a wise and tired pilot who loves Geoff as a son. 1939 was a big year for him. He also starred in Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.   

Inside Story:
Bonnie plays The Peanut Vendor song while Geoff sings. 
Howard Hawks knew about danger and airplanes. In World War I he served in the Army Air Corps. After the war, he was a race car driver and pilot. 

As a director he believed "a good film consisted of at least three good scenes and no bad ones." He has several to his credit that meet this standard.

Near the end of the film, Bonnie tells Geoff,"I'm hard to get, Geoff, all you have to do is ask." Hawks used almost the same line in the film To Have and Have Not five years later with Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. 

Major Awards:
  • Oscar Nominations for Best Cinematography and for Special Effects.
  • Hawks won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy in 1971.
Other Films of Interest by Howard Hawks:
  • His Girl Friday - 1940
  • Sergeant York - 1941
  • Ball of Fire - 1941
  • The Big Sleep - 1946
  • Red River - 1948
  • The Thing - 1951
  • Rio Bravo - 1959
  • Hatari! - 1962
  • El Dorado - 1966

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