Howard Hawks, ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS.
I was prompted to finally pull this one off the shelf after comments following my review of FLIGHT FROM GLORY (1937) this weekend mentioned the similarities that "B" movie has with ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS.
Having now seen both films, I don't believe there's any doubt the earlier RKO programmer must have influenced Columbia's "A" picture ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS. Both films deal with South American delivery pilots whose lives are constantly on the line, flying rickety airplanes over the dangerous Andes. The Hawks film even repeats the theme of the disgraced flier (Richard Barthelmess) anxious for a second chance who shows up in the middle of nowhere with his bride (Rita Hayworth).
That said, the films each stand on their own as unique achievements. FLIGHT FROM GLORY did a lot with a little, conjuring up some great atmosphere and dramatic tension on a relatively small budget, with a running time that's just slightly over half the length of ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS.
ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS is a top-of-the-line film all the way, with an amazingly deep cast in a film which runs a minute over two hours. Cary Grant plays Geoff, the tough man running the airline owned by Dutch (Sig Ruman). Jean Arthur is Bonnie, the plucky showgirl who stops off in the isolated town and is immediately absorbed into the unique community of flyers, played by actors including Thomas Mitchell, Allyn Joslyn, John Carroll, and Noah Beery Jr.
Victor Kilian is Geoff's radio man at the air field, and Don "Red" Barry plays Tex, the weather lookout stationed in a mountain cabin. I kept noticing a familiar face in the crowd scenes and later realized it was James Millican (COW COUNTRY).
Over the years much has been written about this film and Hawks' potent depiction of the pilots' camaraderie; I've read so much about it in the past that it's difficult to feel I have many great insights of my own to contribute about the movie. Having now seen the film for myself, I can say that everything I've ever read was right: this is simply a great movie.
One of the faces at the end of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE belongs to Thomas Mitchell, who also plays Geoff's dear friend Kid in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS. Few actors have had a more remarkable year than Thomas Mitchell had in 1939. In that single year, in addition to ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, he was Gerald O'Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND, Diz Moore in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, Clopin in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, and he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor playing Doc Moore in STAGECOACH.
Aside from longtime favorites like Grant, Arthur, and Hayworth, who are all perfect in their roles, Allyn Joslyn is a real favorite of mine; he would again play a pilot in another film with some similar themes, William Wellman's ISLAND IN THE SKY (1953). It's interesting that Joslyn, who could be goofy or milquetoast onscreen in comedies, is also completely believable as a tough, experienced pilot in these two aviation films -- the mark of a really good actor.
I've also got quite a soft spot for John Carroll, whose work over the years included singing in MGM movies, playing good supporting roles in comedies, and giving an extremely fine dramatic performance in the Randolph Scott Western DECISON AT SUNDOWN. The year after ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, Carroll and Hayworth were reunited in SUSAN AND GOD (1940).
A couple brief things to watch for: There's a scene at the bar near the end of the movie that nearly brought me to tears, as the gruff pilots, in their clumsy way, attempt to welcome someone to their inner circle. Similarly, Geoff's "invitation" to Bonnie at the end couldn't have been more perfect, inarticulately saying everything.
Joseph Walker was nominated for the Oscar for Best Black and White Cinematography. The movie also received a nomination for Special Effects.
I watched ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS on a Columbia Classics VHS release which came out back in 1994.
It's also available on DVD in a boxed set of five Cary Grant films or as a single-title release. The DVD can be rented from Netflix or ClassicFlix.
The movie can also be purchased for download via Amazon Instant Video.
As I came to the end of writing this, I remembered that Jacqueline wrote about this film at Another Old Movie Blog a while back. Her richly detailed, humorous posts are always fun to read, and this one is no exception; those who don't want to know more about the plot should save it to enjoy after seeing the movie.
ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS is highly recommended.
October 2014 Update: ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS will be available on DVD and Blu-ray from the TCM Vault Collection in November 2014.
January 2016 Update: ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS will be available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection this April.