April 12, 2016
Only Angels Have Wings keeps growing stranger with age. This studio-era classic is about a group of nihilist flyboys who enact their dreams of self-destruction out of an imaginary South American cabana. Howard Hawks insisted on the film’s realism, as he based it on the stories of some ragged pilots he met in Mexico, but the movie is as realistic as the Star Wars cantina. The invented port town of Barranca is pure Hawks country, an extension of the death-driven pilots he depicted in The Dawn Patrol, Ceiling Zero, and The Road to Glory. Revisiting Only Angels Have Wings in the new DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection (out today), one is struck by the sheer lunacy of the fliers, ready to sacrifice their lives for the chance to deliver the mail. Only Angels Have Wings pushes Hawks’ love of professionalism to the extreme – death is a natural part of the job, and beyond just accepting it, they seem to embrace it. In Only Angels Have Wings, to work is to die, and these jokey nihilists, including the the female interlopers who are integrated into this group – cheerily embrace the void.
When film critic Robin Wood was diagnosed with a perforated intestine and was told he might not survive the subsequent surgery, “what immediately came into my mind was the work of Howard Hawks and specifically the way his heroes confront death (actually, in Only Angels Have Wings, and potentially in Rio Bravo, where only one minor sympathetic character gets killed). I felt completely calm, and like to think I was smiling (though I probably wasn’t).” Only Angels Have Wings confronts death early on, when the flirtatious pilot Joe Souther (Noah Beery Jr.) crashes on his return from a mail run, rushing to make a date with traveling musician Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur). Bonnie is shocked to discover that the mail crew boss Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) and his team do not mourn but instead carouse at the bar. When Bonnie asks them how they could be so crass after Souther’s death, Geoff replies, “Who’s Joe?” His job is over so they wipe away his identity. They are not heartless, but the only way they can carry on is to proceed without a heart. They embrace nihilism in order to survive. And they usually don’t – like Kid (Thomas Mitchell), who asks Geoff to leave his deathbed since he’s never died before and doesn’t want to screw it up. It’s like going on your first solo flight, he says, and he didn’t want anyone watching that either.
The film traces Bonnie’s curiosity with and assimilation into Geoff’s odd group, a process of sanding off her emotionality. It is an impossible job because Jean Arthur brings her irrepressible Jean Arthur-ness to the role. Hawks reportedly had trouble working with her, as she refused to do the husky, simmering sensuality thing he preferred, and proceeded to be her perky self. Rita Hayworth, who plays Geoff’s old flame who re-married to a disgraced Richard Barthelmess (whose real plastic surgery scars sell the character’s tragic past), also had a rocky relationship with Hawks, but her slinky role got her noticed by Harry Cohn and set her on the path to stardom.While Bonnie doesn’t bend to the group’s will, she is fascinated by it and tries to understand it – her empathy comes through in a performance of “The Peanut Vendor.” After the “Who’s Joe” line, she comes back, sits down at the rickety piano, and bangs out a perfect, rollicking version of the Cuban tune, joining in on the vast forgetting of Joe’s death.
Geoff and his team were an extension of James Cagney’s character in Ceiling Zero (1936), Dizzy Davis. Davis flew missions in WWI, and has spent the years since as a stunt flier and rabble-rouser. The film begins with him getting hired on by at Newark’s Federal Airlines by his old war buddy. But the flying world has passed him by – it has become professionalized and standardized while Dizzy still flies by the seat of his pants. His free-wheeling ways eventually end in tragedy, and Dizzy chooses suicide over any kind of redemption. Geoff and his crew are a whole group of Dizzys – thrill-seekers too unreliable to get regular jobs in the States, so they ended up at a cheapjack outfit in South America flying impossible missions on ancient equipment.
By the time of Only Angels Have Wings, Hawks had already asserted more control over his work. The film was made for Harry Cohn at Columbia, and Todd McCarthy reports in his biography Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, that the director had “virtual carte blanche as long as he could deliver a strong story for Cary Grant and one of his top female stars.” So where Ceiling Zero is a compact adaptation of a stage play, Only Angels Have Wings is an extended series of digressions and character moments, so Hawks can build-out this fantasy-world of Barranca. The story outline came from a seven-page synopsis by Anne Wigton entitled “Plan Number Four”, which Hawks then fleshed out with stories of “outcasts” he had met in Mexico. Hawks said that these men were “collectively and individually the finest pilots I’ve ever seen but they had been grounded because of accidents, drinking, stunting, smuggling — each man’s existence almost a story in itself.”
Most of these stories are focused through Geoff, played with inimitable insouciance by Cary Grant. Grant worked well with Hawks’ improvisatory style, and though he doesn’t have the look of a grizzled, disgraced adventurer, he was able to convey all of the arrogance and cynicism. It is an improbable performance, and I can never get Manny Farber out of my head when Grant is on-screen: “The thing you you remember most about Cary Grant’s sexy, short-hop Lindbergh in Only Angels Have Wings, a rather charming, maudlin Camp item, is his costume, which belongs in a Colombian Coffee TV commercial: razor-creased trousers that bulge out with as much yardage as a caliph’s bloomers and are belted just slightly under the armpits.” This is not to mention the wide-brim Panama hat that looks like something my mom would wear to the beach. Yet within the boundaries of Barranca it looks like the most natural thing in the world as the push-pull romance works its magic, with Bonnie forthright and honest in her feelings, and Geoff withholding, cruel, and devilishly handsome. The ending is of joyful sadness. Geoff expresses love through the flipping of a coin, the realization of which spreads across Bonnie’s face like a new dawn. But they will all have to go to work the following day, their jobs guaranteeing no happiness past the present, reckless moment.