In the fictional, banana loving town of Barranca in South America, pilot and businessman Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) is running an air service, delivering the mail through the Andes Mountains. The company is owned by “Dutchy” (Sig Ruman) who also runs the hotel, restaurant, bar and the various pilots waiting to be sent out. Dutchy has secured a lucrative, long-term future contract, if they can continue to deliver the mail on schedule. With only a week to go things are looking good, but the pilots are becoming scarce, and the weather is getting worse.
A wandering entertainer, Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), steps off a boat for a drink, and finds herself mesmerized by the pilots and the adventurous world that surrounds them; well, that and the debonaire Carter. Even though he told her it’s no good, she stays in town, procuring herself a room and attempting to win over his affections. She tries to be understanding to his way of life, but really, how could she be, as these pilots seem to make life damaging decisions at every turn. Things are further complicated when a replacement pilot named MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess) shows up and turns out to be a somewhat infamous pilot that once bailed from his plane, leaving his mechanic behind to die. The mechanic was Carter’s best friend and fellow pilot, “Kid’s”, younger brother. None of the other pilots will work with him (or talk to him), but Carter, in desperate need of more fliers, hires him on the stipulation that he’s willing to fly any cargo- any time- anywhere. Of course, perhaps another reason he keeps MacPherson around is that his wife, Judy (Rita Hayworth), is his former flame.
What begins as a half-hearted melodrama changes course somewhere in the second reel to become a masterfully crafted film. At the start the dialogue seems misguided, the actors look a little lost, but then everyone seems to hit their stride. The story was written by Howard Hawks, based on several different experiences that he encountered while working on other aviation films. Some of the dialogue was taken directly from conversations that Hawks witnessed while spending time among the fliers of South America, and since Hawks served as both producer and director, he was very much in control and able to create the exact picture he envisioned. Well, that is except for the performance of Jean Arthur, who adamantly refused to play the role with the smoldering sexuality that Hawks desired. The story goes that they fought constantly about her character on the set, and Hawks even told her that he would one day write the character again, and get it right. The story also goes that after the release of Howard Hawks “To Have or Have Not” (1944) starring Laurel Bacall, Hawks arrived home to find Jean Arthur in his front yard. Arthur told Hawks that she had just seen his new film and that she now fully understands what he was looking for from her.
Personally I feel that her character didn’t need that element, primarily because up-and-comer Rita Hayworth brought plenty of sexuality to the film, and since the two characters aren’t fighting over the same man, there ended up being a contrast between their characters, not a clichéd feuding.
The real star of the picture, however, is Cary Grant. Sure Grant was already popular and charming, but prior to “Only Angels Have Wings,” his films required a leading lady who often times would over shadow Grant- Irene Dunne in “The Awful Truth” (1937) and Katharine Hepburn in both “Bringing Up Baby” (1938) and “Holiday” (1938). This is the first Cary Grant film where he seems to take charge and make everyone else try to creep out of his shadow.
Adding to the overall splendor of this film are the supporting actors who do exactly that- they support. Star of the silent screen, Richard Barthelmess, had a career on the down-slide. Talking films just didn’t open doors for him, but yet this performance brings his talents into the spotlight once again. Perhaps it’s because much of his acting is done with his eyes- in fact his scarred eyes, as a botched facial surgery left him with X-shaped scars under each eye, which Hawks choose to leave, adding to his characters thick, multi-layered background story.
Thomas Mitchell is always great, and this film is no exception. 1939 was a busy year for Mitchell, who found himself not only in this staple of American cinema, but also in three films nominated for Best Picture, “Gone with the Wind,”“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (alongside Jean Arthur again) and “Stagecoach,” which won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Not that he wasn’t brilliant in “Stagecoach,” but when one actor has four roles all this memorable, in one year, it’s hard not to give him the award.
Rita Hayworth wasn’t necessarily Hawks’s choice for this role. That decision came from up top, where Hayworth was considered a “valuable commodity” in need of a breakout role. It turns out she got exactly that. Hayworth isn’t a major part of the film, but she is certainly memorable when she’s there. Her screen presence is undeniable, and anything that she lacks in acting ability, she makes up for in screen charisma.
“Only Angels Have Wings” was nominated for two Academy Awards: one for Best Effects Special Effects (Roy Davidson & Edwin C. Hahn), and one for Best Cinematography Black and White (Joseph Walker). Both of these nominations were highly deserving, but it’s important to point out that the best cinematography of the film is during the aerial sequences, which were in fact done by Paul Metz. These scenes stand out in the film, and are just as memorable as any of the performances.
The main reason “Only Angels Have Wings” is still such a historic film is that it proves that if every aspect is done properly- if everybody involved gives their best, a film can be appreciated and enjoyed by everyone for years to come.