Electrified by the verbal wit and visual craftsmanship of the great Howard Hawks, Only Angels Have Wings stars Jean Arthur as a traveling entertainer who gets more than she bargained for during a stopover in a South American port town. There she meets a handsome yet aloof daredevil pilot, played by Cary Grant, who runs an airmail company, staring down death while servicing towns in treacherous mountain terrain. Both attracted to and repelled by his romantic sense of danger, she decides to stay on, despite his protestations. This masterful and mysterious adventure, featuring Oscar-nominated special effects, high-wire aerial photography, and Rita Hayworth in a small but breakout role, explores Hawks’s recurring themes of masculine codes and the strong-willed women who question them.
Widely regarded as the single greatest year in Hollywood history, 1939 spawned a cavalcade of finely crafted and beloved classics that will never lose their luster. 'Gone With the Wind' and 'The Wizard of Oz' lead a pack of superior films that include 'Stagecoach,' 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' 'Gunga Din,' 'Ninotchka,' 'Wuthering Heights,' 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame,' and 'The Women,' to name but a very few. And yet one of the best movies of that monumental year often gets lost in the shuffle. You may not have heard of 'Only Angels Have Wings,' a stirring aviation drama directed by Howard Hawks, but it's time you did, and it's time this overlooked gem emerged from the shadows to receive the attention and affection it so richly deserves. Chock full of colorful characters and distinguished by a crackerjack story, thrilling aerial sequences, and excellent performances, 'Only Angels Have Wings' deftly blends action with romance and tension with heart to produce a terrifically entertaining and muscular motion picture that captivates from the first frame to the last.
Hawks' versatility is well documented, and his ability to float between genres, masterfully embracing screwball, westerns, film noir, musicals, war, and gangster movies, is unmatched in film history. Hawks did it all and did all of it well, but if there's one thread that stitches many of his pictures together, it's an underlying macho toughness that's often subtle but still potent, and it's on full display in 'Only Angels Have Wings.' Hawks depicts the culture of reckless flyboys, who love their profession and accept its inherent risks, with insight and reverence, emphasizing the commitment, camaraderie, devil-may-care attitudes, diehard sense of duty, and bravery in the face of danger that define it. Rigid rules and a lofty honor code keep this tight-knit fraternity focused and fierce. Women, of course, are welcome dalliances, but few can understand the lifestyle and mores or penetrate the group's well-guarded inner circle.
Hawks knew this world well because for a while he lived in it, and according to him, 'Only Angels Have Wings' is a true story, based on an amalgam of events he experienced and various characters he knew or heard about from others in the club. Barranca, however, a makeshift banana port on the Ecuadorian coast near the Andes Mountains, is pure fiction, but it provides an exotic backdrop for a crew of cocky pilots hoping to earn a permanent government airmail contract. Run by Dutchy (Sig Rumann), the proprietor of a local saloon, the fledgling company must prove its reliability and efficiency by delivering mail to remote locales despite dangerous weather and rickety equipment. Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) manages the stable of airmen with a firm hand, and no one sheds any tears when missions fail and comrades are killed. It's all in a day's work, and if you can't handle the risk, stress, or fallout, then you better take the next boat back to the States.
No one does, of course, because they're all hopeless adrenaline junkies, addicted to the rush that soaring through the clouds inevitably brings. Enter Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), a nomadic showgirl who stops in Barranca on her way to Panama. The boys take a shine to her, but it's Geoff who turns her head. He expresses little interest in her ("He's a good guy for gals to stay from," quips Geoff's right-hand man, Kid Dabb [Thomas Mitchell]), but she sticks around anyway, trying to get a handle on what makes him and his community tick. Complications arise when Geoff's ex-fiancée, Judy (Rita Hayworth), unexpectedly shows up with her new husband, Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess), a disgraced pilot who once parachuted out of a doomed flight, leaving his mechanic to crash with the plane. (Ironically, that mechanic was Kid's brother.) Geoff is still bitter over his break-up with Judy (he hasn't had a relationship since), but she can't figure out what's eating the reserved and sullen Bat, who's determined to win back the respect of his peers and prove he's not yellow by accepting the company's most dangerous missions.
All these guys are tough, but Hawks makes sure we see chinks in their macho armor. A wince here, an unguarded reaction there, and we know the men harbor deep, abiding attachments even if they're loath to admit them. Though they slough off death like it's a pesky fly on their collective shoulder, the losses take a toll over time, but Hawks never dwells on them. 'Only Angels Have Wings,' despite a slew of predictable plot points, feels disarmingly natural and authentic because the characters are so real. Instantly, we believe and care about them, so when they're up in the foggy, stormy air with their fate a huge question mark, we tense up, rooting for their safety like a close friend.
The lack of a music score - arguably the most significant choice Hawks made - enhances the film's naturalistic elements. Without any rousing or melodramatic refrains telegraphing the narrative arc, our feelings aren't manipulated and we remain in the moment. Like the pilots, all we have are the whirring propellers, rumbling engines, and whistling wind to guide our senses. (Okay, they have a few panel instruments, too, but you get the point.) Sure, there's music in the film, but it grows out of the story, emanating from a bar, radio, or victrola, or performed by street players. Our own lives don't have constant instrumental soundtracks, and it's refreshing to see a movie that doesn't rely on one either.
Hawks was a veteran of aerial dramas, having helmed the 1930 version of 'The Dawn Patrol' as well as James Cagney's 'Ceiling Zero,' so he knew how to properly photograph planes in flight, but 'Only Angels Have Wings' raises the bar, combining breathtaking aerial shots with (relatively) realistic mattes and miniatures. A tracking shot of a plane hugging the face of a mesa before it rises and lands on top of it is especially exhilarating, as it celebrates the romance of aviation and expanse of the skies. It's no wonder both Joseph Walker's cinematography and the special effects of Roy Davidson and Edwin C. Hahn received Oscar nominations.
But amid all the technical brilliance, a host of top-flight performances also distinguish the film. Grant had just finished 'Bringing Up Baby' with Hawks and the two would re-team for 'His Girl Friday' shortly after 'Only Angels Have Wings' wrapped. (They would also work together on 'I Was a Male War Bride' a decade later.) 'Angels' would be their only drama, and though one could argue Grant seems more at home in the no-holds-barred world of madcap comedy, Hawks wrings from him a performance of great conviction that combines the classic Grant charm with a cynicism and edginess the actor rarely displayed. He and Arthur supposedly didn't click off screen, but they create a comfortable chemistry on it that keeps their relationship believable whether they're flirting or bickering.
It may be difficult to envision Arthur as a sassy showgirl, but her winning sincerity helps her craft a highly competent portrayal. She made 'Only Angels Have Wings' between two notable Frank Capra films, 'You Can't Take It With You' and 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' and while Arthur definitely seems more at home in Capra's idealistic world, she navigates the down-to-earth Hawksian landscape with a plucky resolve that serves her character well. And as the sexy siren who ruffles Grant's feathers, Hayworth, appearing in her first "A" picture, makes a notable impression, burning up the screen with her sultry glamour. Her acting may be far from refined, but this film would sow the seeds of her stardom, and within a couple of years, The Love Goddess would be born.
The stellar supporting cast adds immeasurable vitality to the film, but Mitchell, who would appear in no less than five 1939 classics ('Gone With the Wind,' 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame,' and 'Stagecoach,' for which he would win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, are the others), all but steals the film. His memorable performance brims with humor, warmth, and pathos, and he makes a fine foil for Grant, Arthur, and all the other actors. Every serious film needs a soulful presence to succeed, and Mitchell fills that role here to a T.
'Only Angels Have Wings' may not be one of Hawks' most famous films, but it's definitely one of his most personal. Even directors regarded as auteurs try to keep their cards close to their vest, but lucky for us, Hawks plays his hand freely here, and the result is an exciting, well-crafted motion picture that exudes the essence of this legendary filmmaker.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Only Angels Have Wings' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard Criterion case. A 12-page booklet featuring an essay by author and editor Michael Sragow, cast and crew listings, and transfer notes is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is LPCM mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with sound effects immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
According to the liner notes, this beautifully modulated transfer "was created in 4K resolution...from the original 35 mm camera negative, and restored by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment." Much of the action transpires at night or in dingy interiors, but superior contrast, gray scale variance, and shadow delineation ensure a balanced, vibrant image that brims with fine detail and a lovely sense of depth. Grain is evident but never overwhelms the picture, while rich black levels supply necessary weight and sharp close-ups showcase Grant's dashing good looks, Arthur's wholesomeness, and Hayworth's striking allure. Though the enhanced clarity of high definition calls a bit more attention to the miniatures and mattes used in some of the flight sequences, their impact is never compromised, and the aerial photography of real planes is twice as breathtaking. Only a couple of stray marks dot the pristine source material, and no digital enhancements could be detected. Fans of classic film will embrace this terrific transfer with open arms, and Criterion deserves kudos yet again for preserving another Howard Hawks gem.
Because 'Only Angels Have Wings' doesn't have a music score, the LPCM mono track has little to hide behind in terms of imperfections like hiss, pops, and crackles. Yet this transfer, which was "remastered at 24-bit from the original 35 mm soundtrack negative," rises to the challenge, supplying clean, clear tones that thrust us into the action. The hum of airplane engines, rowdiness of a packed cantina, even a burst of gunfire are all rendered with precision, and tense quiet moments are never disrupted by errant surface noise. A wide dynamic scale keeps distortion at bay, and all the rapid-fire dialogue delivery that's a Hawks trademark is easy to comprehend. One can only imagine what 'Only Angels Have Wings' would have sounded like had it been made in the era of multi-channel audio, but this track is powerful enough to keep us immersed in the film's exotic, often heady atmosphere from beginning to end.
Though no audio commentary is included, Criterion still offers up a hefty supplemental package that appropriately honors this film classic.
Vintage Audio Interview: "Hawks and Bogdanovich" (20 minutes) - It's always fascinating to hear a filmmaker analyze his own films, and in this enlightening 1972 interview, director Peter Bogdanovich converses with the 72-year-old Hawks about 'Only Angels Have Wings.' Hawks recounts the story's true elements, recalls his service as a second lieutenant in the Signal Corps in World War I, and explains how his brother's death in a flying accident affected him. He also talks about his lighting choices, directorial style, and the difficulties he faced working with Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth.
David Thomson on 'Only Angels Have Wings' (HD, 17 minutes) - The author and film critic focuses on director Howard Hawks during this interesting interview. Thomson notes Hawks was that rare film industry figure who could "tease and mock" the Hollywood system while working within it, and that - like Hitchcock - he saw both charm and darkness in Grant. He also addresses Hawks' penchant for group improvisation on the set and his ability to perceptively depict male friendship on screen.
Featurette: "Howard Hawks and His Aviation Movies" (HD, 21 minutes) - This fantastic featurette pays tribute to "the golden age of aviation" by celebrating the planes and films that captivated America during the 1930s. Historians Craig Barron and Ben Burtt identify and describe the various aircraft used in 'Only Angles Have Wings,' talk about Hawks' service as a World War I pilot, and look at two of his earlier flight movies, 'The Dawn Patrol' and 'Ceiling Zero.' They also discuss early airmail services (often referred to as "suicide clubs"), examine the Oscar-nominated sound and visual effects - as well as the use of models - employed in the film, and even share a few outtakes of failed effects attempts. In addition, there's a wonderful simulation of how one of the aerial sequences was shot. This is essential viewing for anyone who loves aviation and especially this excellent movie.
Vintage Radio Adaptation (57 minutes) - Just two weeks after the film premiered, original cast members Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Thomas Mitchell, Richard Barthelmess, and Rita Hayworth reunited for this May 29, 1939 radio adaptation of 'Only Angels Have Wings' for CBS's Lux Radio Theater series. Director Cecil B. DeMille emcees the truncated adaptation, which maintains the movie's spirit despite the lack of visuals (a critical component of an action aviation flick). During intermission, a real-life Yankee Clipper pilot comments on the inauguration of commercial trans-Atlantic flights between the U.S. and Europe, adding an authentic note to the fictional presentation. Also of interest, actor Alan Ladd ('Shane'), who received his first screen credit the very same year, has a bit part in the broadcast.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 minutes) - The film's original preview touts the artistry of Hawks and the star power of Grant and Arthur.
'Only Angels Have Wings' may not reside on the short list of 1939 classics, but this exciting and emotionally affecting aviation drama from Howard Hawks stands as one of the acclaimed director's most representative and personal films. Packed with thrilling aerial sequences, lively atmosphere, tension, camaraderie, and romance, and distinguished by fine performances from a first-rate ensemble cast, 'Only Angels Have Wings' satisfies on many levels and reminds us what good old-fashioned entertainment is all about. Criterion once again does everything right, providing top-notch video and audio transfers and an absorbing array of noteworthy supplements, all of which earn this Blu-ray release a very enthusiastic recommendation. No collection of Hawks, Grant, or 1939 films would be complete without it.