Only Angels Have Wings (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – If you love movies, I mean really love the glory of Hollywood moviemaking and star power and the joys of wondrous stories, then you love Howard Hawks. And if you love Howard Hawks, then you must love Only Angels Have Wings (1939), the quintessential Hawks adventure of male bonding and tough love in a world where there may be no tomorrow. If you haven’t fallen for it yet, it may be that you simply have yet to discover it.
Cary Grant is Geoff Carter, the charismatic, uncompromising leader of a fledgling air mail service in a South American port town, a business run on rickety planes and the nerves of its pilots. They call him Papa. He lives out of a bar, never lays in a supply of anything, and never sends a man on a job he wouldn’t do himself. Jean Arthur is Bonnie, the spunky American showgirl with a “specialty act” who gets a crash course in flyboy philosophy when a pair of pilots (Allyn Joslyn and Noah Beery Jr.) swoop in as she steps off a ship docking for supplies. Her first contact with Geoff creates sparks, the kind you get when a runaway car scrapes the wall of an alley. He’s all arrogance and lust when he sends Beery off on a mail run and moves in on Bonnie with a smile like a fox finding a hole in the henhouse. She’s outraged and appalled. Of course they are meant for each other, which is news to Geoff, who’s only interested in the moment and has no use for romantic commitment.
You could substitute any number of professions to make the same point—and Hawks did in other films—but there’s something romantic about these men who love flying so much they take a job at the end of the world just to pit their skill against a treacherous mountain pass in a night fog. And there’s something inviting in the way these men banter and argue and spin tales between jobs yet are ready to spring into action at the first hint of a pilot in trouble. It’s Hawks’ idea of a romantic world, which frankly sidelines women who aren’t actively involved in the team effort, but it welcomes all who embrace the philosophy that professionalism is the greatest measure of character.
Hawks’s adventures were love stories between men and Bonnie’s affable rival for Geoff’s affections is his best friend Kid (Thomas Mitchell), an aging flier with bad eyes who Geoff has to ground. Adding to the tensions is the new pilot (Richard Barthelmess), snubbed by everyone for a past cowardice that got a colleague killer, and his glamorous wife (Rita Hayworth, drop-dead sexy in her first major role), who has history with Geoff. Movies are built on such small world coincidences. The magic of Hawks is the way he turns contrivance into community and plot twists into tests of character.
Community is the key. Hawks had always been a master at male friendship in all its camaraderie, competition, loyalty, and sacrifice, and at romance that blossoms from conflict and clashing wills. Here he creates a society with its own rules and in Jean Arthur’s Bonnie, he offers a woman who is accepted into the brotherhood on both their terms and hers. He’s served by a marvelous screenplay by Jules Furthman (Hawks reportedly penned the story himself, based on things he’d seen and pilots he’d known), a piece of pulp fiction poetry and adventure story mythologizing filled with figures who are both dramatic points and beautifully sculpted characters. The dialogue is alive with wit and wiles and truths hidden in banter and metaphors, and the cast delivers it in volleys that collide and overlap.
It may seem crazy that this tropical adventure tale of independent flyboys in a South American port hauling the mail over the Andes is shot entirely in Hollywood (a few aerial scenes to the contrary). Even the exteriors are basically wrapped in muslin, which gives the film a strangely claustrophobic quality even when it isn’t smothered in fog. Even the Andes pass, where a lone radioman reports on the mercurial weather conditions, is more of an illustration from a Gothic German fairy tale (or the most lavish Guy Maddin set ever) than any realistic location. Yet the Hollywood-constructed fantasy of an American outpost and makeshift airfield chopped out of the jungle makes a fabulous backdrop, a fantasy yes, but also an insular, rarified world where life is lived minute to minute, men are good enough, and the highest compliment one can receive is “professional.” Welcome, professional!
The film has been on DVD and Blu-ray before. Criterion’s edition is mastered from a 4K digital transfer from the original 35mm negative. You might think that such clarity would lay bare the seams of the Hollywood artifice but the opposite is true: the rich detail of the sets and settings are a sight to behold in the cleanest, clearest, sharpest presentation I have ever seen.
The Blu-ray and DVD editions both feature a new interview with film critic David Thomson, who offers a crash course introduction to the art and themes of Hawks (it runs about 17 minutes), the new 20-minute program “Howard Hawks and His Aviation Movies” with film scholars Craig Barron and Ben Burtt, and excerpts from Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 interviews with Howard Hawks (audio only, about 19 minutes), plus the 1939 “Lux radio Theatre” adaptation of the film with stars Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Rita Hayworth, Richard Barthelmess, and Thomas Mitchell all reprising their roles, and the trailer. The fold-out insert features an essay by Michael Sragow.