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Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Film Class Wednesday pushes through the works of 1939 with the high-flying adventure, Only Angels Have Wings.  This is the second Hawks film I’ve watched in a classroom setting, the first being Hawks’ The Thing.  Howard Hawks was a master of any genre he came across and even though Only Angels Have Wings isn’t my favorite of Hawks’ ouevre, it’s resplendent in its imagery and acting.

A South American trading post is shook up upon arrival of singer Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) whose never see anything like the aerial daredevils who carry mail and other items out of the post via airplane.  The group of pilots are overseen by the standoffish Geoff Carter (Cary Grant), suffering from trust issues.  When a new pilot arrives, with a dark past and Geoff’s ex-girlfriend (Rita Hayworth), the entire trading post is set for an explosion of its own.

It’s surprising how much Only Angels Have Wings shares with Red Dust, the 1932 pre-Code starring Jean Harlow and Clark Gable.  Both this and Red Dust take place in exotic locales where a brash daredevil just wants to get his work done in order to get over issues with women.  Similarly, each one sees the arrival of a blonde beauty who  gets in the hero’s way while simultaneously taming him.  And both create a love triangle between the hero, beauty, and a brunette woman (unaccustomed to the new location) traveling with her husband.  With so much in common I’m sure watching and enjoying Red Dust colored my perspective on Hawks’ tale.  Everything about Only Angels Have Wings connects with Red Dust albeit in a more Hollywood way.  Cary Grant and Jean Arthur are all-American with less sexual tension compared to Gable and Harlow in the earlier film.  Where the audience believed Gable and Harlow were having wanton sex everywhere, the audience believes Grant and Arthur’s connection is more cerebral and chaste.  And while Rita Hayworth is a luscious step up from Mary Astor, her relationship with Gable is fraught with complications that affect him more than her.

The lessened anticipation of this when noticing how similar it is to Red Dust also affected my appreciation for Cary Grant.  The role of Geoff Carter never felt as embodied within Grant as it would in a Clark Gable.  The two actors sport the same initials and little else.  Geoff is a man unafraid to die, whose only true love is his pilot buddy, Kid (Thomas Mitchell).  Grant pulls off the standoffish persona.  You believe he’s been bruised by a woman and can’t submit to the allure of Arthur’s Bonnie Lee, but that’s all.  Grant just fails to sustain the roguish overseer like Gable would have.  Gable set the bar high and Grant barely gets his chin across.  Thomas Mitchell, returning after his great role as Doc Boone in Stagecoach, is the one who sails away with the picture.  His Kid is a tragic figure, better off dead than prevented from the thing he loves the most.  His fall from grace, and eventual farewell to the world and his love of flying, is heartbreaking.

The women provide comic relief and tension, as well as the requisite romance to prevent the movie from alienating the opposite sex entirely.  Jean Arthur’s a wonderful comedienne, and Bonnie Lee puts her in the role of guy’s girl.  All the men want to date her, one giving his life in the pursuit, and introducing her as a goal and a possible bad omen.  After various disasters spring up, Bonnie asks Geoff “Was that my fault?”  The pilot’s death in the beginning isn’t, but her “accidentally” shooting Geoff is.  Really, his near fatal gunshot wound acts as a means of propelling the plot and turning Bonnie into a daffy character who Geoff tames in the future.  Thankfully, Arthur is so bubbly you can’t help but smile at her antics.  Don’t forget Rita Hayworth in a star-making appearance as Geoff’s ex, Judy.  The role is pitiful-the girl who got away and broke Geoff’s spirit-but Hayworth creates a character whose eyes you sink into.  You wouldn’t mind her wrecking your life.

The aerial imagery is also well-done, with many long shots of planes taking off and flying through the air. In 1939, air travel was in its infancy, and Hawkes reminds audiences of the fear of early air travel.  As the plans dip and glide through the air they’re continually aware of the lack of proper navigation and safety, ever reliant on air navigators triangulating their position.  Some spectacular air disasters are shown, although watching this so close to my TCM trip just made me hate flying all the more.

Only Angels Have Wings explores the world of early air travel, benefits and all.  The premise of daring men taking their lives in their hands by getting behind the controls of a plane is dated now, but Hawks injects enough tension and suspense to leave you worried for the characters.  Cary Grant is miscast, but does well, especially when playing off Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth.

Ronnie Rating:


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Only Angels Have Wings


1930s, Adventure, Drama

Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

5 thoughts on “Only Angels Have Wings (1939) Leave a comment

  1. I have not seen Only Angels Have Wings yet, but love Red Dust. I would like to make a case for Mary Astor’s sexiness in this film, sort of like the librarian who takes off her glasses and let’s down her hair to become a tigress. Mary Astor, with wet hair, kissing Gable……super hot!

  2. This is going to be an extremely unpopular sentiment, but I think Jean Arthur was miscast as a chorus girl that men throw themselves at. I think Ms Hayworth would have been much more convincing in that role. I realize Ms Arthur was the bigger star and probably wanted the bigger role, but she just wasn’t convincing. Cary Grant was fine as Geoff. True, it’s a different performance than Gable would have given, and even if Gable had the role, Ms Hayworth would have been more his style.

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