Monday, January 21, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

I've seen the vast majority of Cary Grant's films released in 1934 and beyond, but until tonight I'd never caught up with his great film directed by 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.

I was particularly struck by the impromptu jam session which follows the death of one of the pilots. Everywhere one looks in that crowd scene, as well as in many later, similarly busy scenes, there are interesting faces who are part of the action. I couldn't help watching such scenes with a sense of awe; these moments gave me the same emotional feeling I have when the camera pans past all the remarkable actors singing at the end of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). It's just a bit like watching ghosts, knowing they're all gone now, and I also feel so blessed that these people all came together to work at that particular moment in time.

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. (2019 Update: The DVD no longer appears to be available at either the TCM Shop or Amazon.)

January 2016 Update: ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS will be available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection this April.


Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks for the mention. A lovely post, and a top notch film. I'd say more, but am about to put a piece of duct tape over my mouth to keep from giving away any more spoilers.

5:08 AM  
Blogger Vienna said...

Glad you've now seen Only Angels Have Wings. I've loved it for a long time, being a big fan of Cary Grant and Jean Arthur. Jean made so few dramas, it's great to see her in this one. I agree John Carroll is a charmer and did very well in Decision at Sundown.
Must watch out for Flight from Glory

6:50 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

It's very gratifying if my earlier remarks played any part in motivating you to watch it. I knew you'd react well to it. Truthfully, it's kind of hard for me to imagine any classic cinema lover who wouldn't though I guess there must be someone somewhere.

My own first viewing was on TV, back in the day when it was broken up my many late night commercials too. But I was still captivated and that didn't spoil any later viewings of it as I got back to it through the years. I know you were sorry not to be able to see at UCLA last year but I'm sure when you do have a chance to see it again theatrically it won't be the least diminished by already having seen it. There is just so much to appreciate in it.

Among other things, one of the great casts of all time. You didn't single out Richard Barthelmess, so I will--he's just superb. And the payoff scene...


...where the other flyers finally accept him for the man he now is is one of the greatest in Hawks--the way they all try to be casual about it but you can feel the emotion. It's so beautifully played by everyone and so gracefully staged and filmed by Hawks.

Well, I just love this movie. Of all Hawks, only RIO BRAVO is this great, so that's saying a lot.

1:09 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Just reread your piece a little more carefully and realized that the "scene at the bar" you mention is the same one I referred to earlier rather than another (also great) scene that follows a little later in which it's Cary Grant's character who "tears up." So, anyway, I guess that same scene had a similar effect on us and probably does on a lot of people.

I also especially love that musical scene--Hawks is great with scenes where people sing (again, RIO BRAVO, most obviously).

A lot of good things have been written about this movie--doesn't take away from your piece which is good too. You captured it well.

6:58 PM  
Blogger Judy said...

Glad you enjoyed this one so much, Laura - such a great Hawks film and Cary Grant and Jean Arthur are both wonderful, as is Thomas Mitchell. Your comment about the 'amazingly deep cast' is spot on. I'm also a Richard Barthelmess fan from watching his pre-Codes (he is fantastic in Hawks' earlier First World War aviation drama 'The Dawn Patrol), and it is nice to see him get one more powerful role here.

I'm keen on seeing more air mail dramas - have just reviewed 'Night Flight' starring John and Lionel Barrymore, which is also set over the Andes, not a great film but it has its moments. So I'm intrigued by the sound of 'Flight from Glory' and will hope to see it in the future. Another film which has quite a few similarities with 'Only Angels Have Wings' is Hawks' own earlier 'Ceiling Zero', with James Cagney as a selfish, womanising mail pilot. I also like John Ford's 'Air Mail', where Ralph Bellamy is the hero for once, and Pat O'Brien is the show-off!

12:57 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Blake! You were definitely an encouragement to finally see this film -- our tastes are often very similar and this film was no exception! A very special, rich film; I can definitely see wanting to watch it again on occasions in the future and absorb more details.

Discussion of that marvelous scene at the bar reminds me -- something I've been thinking of in the last day, not mentioned in the post, is that I really appreciated that Rita Hayworth's character wasn't cliched. You start out thinking she'll go one direction, chasing after her ex and causing problems for the new woman in his life, but she goes the other, as you realize she really loves her husband. Her emotional expression in that bar scene was just one thing that made it special.

What a great point about Hawks and musical scenes. As you probably remember, I dearly love RIO BRAVO and the music is just one reason why. The sequence at the piano is one of the best scenes in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS.

Best wishes,

9:47 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Judy,

Thanks so much for your comments! You and Blake mentioning Richard Barthelmess makes me realize that I'm not sure I'd seen him in a movie before! Reviewing his credits, I do have a couple of his titles on hand to see in the future, HEROES FOR SALE and CENTRAL AIRPORT.

I have a great fondness for aviation films and appreciate you mentioning more titles! I enjoyed your recent post on NIGHT FLIGHT and like the idea of seeing another film about mail pilots in the Andes. It's intriguing that was the topic of multiple '30s films! I'll have to pull that one off the shelf soon.

The titles you mention all sound very interesting -- I'd especially love to see AIR MAIL. Really appreciate you contributing this information on more films to explore in this vein!

Best wishes,

9:53 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Judy's right to mention the other air mail movies she does--a generally fine group of films which peak with ONLY ANGELS.

Ford's AIR MAIL (1932)deserves to be more widely available and I wish Universal vault could be encouraged to release it. It's a gem--still underrated Ford and even though this turned out to be more Hawks' territory, Ford makes it very much his own.

Both AIR MAIL and CEILING ZERO were written by Frank "Spig" Wead, which partly accounts for some of the shared narrative motifs. Wead is the subject of magisterial Ford biographical film THE WINGS OF EAGLES (1957) in which John Wayne plays Wead and Maureen O'Hara his wife Min, both giving exceptional and very moving performances. That's just for those who don't know that film, which is on DVD.

I'm also glad Judy mentioned Hawks' great THE DAWN PATROL, which is crying out for DVD release and exists almost in obscurity after being retitled FLIGHT COMMANDER because of the (much lesser) remake. Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. beautifully enact one of the great male friendships in all Hawks in this riveting WWI drama.

10:59 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Just read your reply to Judy after posting mine. I'd recommend both HEROES FOR SALE and CENTRAL AIRPORT for Richard Barthelmess. Also, THE LAST FLIGHT, which plays like it could almost be a postwar sequel to THE DAWN PATROL and also stars very interesting actress Helen Chandler who is unfortunately mostly forgotten now (this is directed not by Hawks, though apparently the project passed his way, but by William Dieterle). They do show up on TCM from time to time--THE DAWN PATROL under the FLIGHT COMMANDER title.

It's perhaps good to point out that Barthelmess was a major star in silent movies, so if you do back to more silents down the line you may see him opposite Lillian Gish in Griffith's BROKEN BLOSSOMS and WAY DOWN EAST and in Henry King's TOL'ABLE DAVID, in all of which he is just great.

11:06 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Lots of great info here, Blake! I realized reading your note that I recorded DAWN PATROL/FLIGHT COMMANDER fairly recently, because like Douglas Fairbanks Jr. So I've got one more Hawks/Barthelmess movie available to see!

Thanks so much for sharing all this, I refer back to comments like these for ideas and references later on! :)

Best wishes,

5:17 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

The Lasat Flight was done on Broadway under the title, Nikki. The leading male part, CAry Lockwood, was played by Archi Leach, who almost became Cary Lockwood in life. Now, in 1957, Cary Grant did Kiss Them For Me, based on Fredric Wakeman's touch WWII novel, Shore Leave. The play went on in 1945 with Richard Widmark, Jayne Meadows and Judy Holliday. Unsuccessful, more or less. When Grant did it on film with Stanley Donen it became a companion piece to The last Flight. Both have their own strengths, but really and clearly influenced by the star.

8:00 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Laura, a final thought re Last Flight and Kiss Them For Me. The genesis of Kiss is strictly for information. One should see these films conscutively. Then, knowing about Grant's background in thetre, the similarities become clear.

8:43 PM  
Blogger Judy said...

Wow, I'm learning a lot from this thread! I'm very interested to read all the further comments - thanks to Blake for pointing out the link between 'Air Mail' and 'Ceiling Zero' from Frank 'Spig' Weald's involvement. I do hope both of these films get a DVD release in future, as with 'The Dawn Patrol/Flight Commander'.

I agree that 'The Last Flight' is another great pre-Code and a fine performance by Barthelmess. And I'm intrigued by Barry's comments on Cary Grant playing the part on stage and the link with'Kiss Them For Me', as that film is coming up on TV in the UK so it will be possible for me to compare the two.

Laura, both 'Central Airport' and 'Heroes For Sale' are directed by William Wellman and Barthelmess is great in both - for me 'Heroes' is one of Wellman's greatest early 1930s movies. Another good Barthelmess role is opposite Bette Davis in 'The Cabin in the Cotton'. I have only seen 'Tol'able David' so far out of his silent roles but hope to catch up with some of the others that Blake mentioned.

12:37 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I appreciate the info everyone is sharing so much, I'm learning a lot and taking notes for future viewing! :) I'm sure there are probably other film fans who are really enjoying this exchange as well.

I've got a copy of KISS THEM FOR ME and need to round up THE LAST FLIGHT, among other titles mentioned here!

CENTRAL AIRPORT looks especially appealing, since it fits in with my liking of aviation films, and HEROES FOR SALE has Loretta Young so that looks good to me too!

Thanks to all!

Best wishes,

7:03 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I must be the one classic cinema lover Blake mentions who doesn't really care for Only Angels Have Wings. I like it well enough, but I've never felt like it deserved the masterpiece status so many people give it.

It's weird, because I generally love Hawks, Grant, and Arthur, but something about it has just never quite gelled for me.

Ah, well, I've watched it twice, and not too recently - maybe I'll give it another go and third time will be the charm?

5:54 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Jandy!

That's interesting! I'd be curious what you think if you see it again. It might just be one of those movies that doesn't "work" for you, at least on a level beyond simply enjoying it -- there are certainly recognized classics whose reputation baffles me a bit too.

Best wishes,

6:54 PM  

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