GROUP THERAPY: ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939)

April 12, 2016

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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 PatrolCeiling 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

YOU WERE MEANT FOR ME: PENNY SERENADE (1941)

August 20, 2013

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Penny Serenade (1941) is the third and final film Cary Grant and Irene Dunne made together. The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940) are screwball comedies of re-marriage, and Penny Serenade is their tragic inverse, focusing on the work necessary to maintain a long-haul relationship. The first two are set in high society, produced by the improvisatory Leo McCarey, while Penny Serenade is working class and focused on the fear and trembling of young parents, made with stark realism by the more deliberate George Stevens.  Grant worried about audience expectation, the “people who are laughing already, in anticipation of another mad marital mixup”. Both actors were protective of this heart-tugging melodrama, and later in life Irene Dunne declared it the favorite of her films. It was a success, although not to the same blockbuster degree as The Awful Truth, and for years has circulated in beat-up public domain editions. Olive Films is releasing a spiffy Blu-ray of Penny Serenade next week, and it’s something of a revelation.

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After parting with RKO, George Stevens signed with Columbia on May 14, 1940 to produce and direct two features. Harry Cohn wooed him with a promise never to speak to him on the set, which was reportedly honored. Stevens presented Cohn with the Martha Cheavens’ short story “Penny Serenade”, which was to be published in McCalls magazine. Columbia purchased the rights for $25,000 and hired Cheavens as a script consultant. Morrie Ryskind expanded her story into a feature-length screenplay, which tracks the travails of Julie (Dunne) and Roger (Grant) Adams, a married couple at the breaking point. Julie is about to leave him when she spies a scrapbook/record album that collected the history of their love alongside the hits of the day. In a series of flashbacks set to those pop hits, Stevens traces the bloom and decay of their bond, from the meet-cute at a record store to their grieving lows of poverty and irreperable personal loss.

In The Awful Truth, Leo McCarey would play a piano on set to loosen up his actors and stir improvisational ideas. When they cooked up something funny, they would shoot and move on. Stevens was a far more deliberate worker, who Dunne described as “just the opposite” of McCarey, “very slow. But he came well prepared…we would have rehearsals on the set, and…discuss details of how a scene would be played.” He was notorious for shooting a lot of coverage and running up film costs, waiting for the moment in his head to appear in front of the camera. Stevens uses crowded compositions in Penny Serenade, life a series of obstacles Julie and Roger must traverse. Before Roger can make his marriage proposal on New Year’s Eve, he has to navigate packed rooms in which he is continually interrupted. It is only when they squeeze onto the fire escape that Julie can say yes. At their most peaceful moment, when George gets a reporting job in Japan, an earthquake levels their home as Julie is pinned by debris on the staircase.

He also deploys intricately choreographed long takes in the parenting scenes. The camera is fixed, but Grant and Dunne are in constant motion. In one slow-burn gag, Dunne is freaking out about bathing her newly adopted baby, approaching as if it were a caged lion. Grant watches with queasy anticipation next to her, and both of them fail so badly in this simple task that their assistant Applejack (the wonderful Edgar Buchanan) has to take over. The film is unique in how it undercuts traditional notions of motherhood. Dunne does not instantly become nurturing, but has to learn how to care for the child. She is as terrified of hurting the baby as Grant, who handles the kid with goggle eyed terror.

This is one of Grant’s greatest performances, for which he was nominated for his first Best Actor Oscar (he lost to Gary Cooper in Sergeant York). Roger is a playboy crushed by the Depression, unable to provide for his wife and child. Grant has to divert his natural charisma into something darker as the film progresses, culminating in a pained monologue to a judge about to reject their adoption application. It is a plea of pure abjection, Grant bows his head and flexes his body inward, making himself looks small so his emotions seem enormous and true by comparison. It works beautifully, and as Orson Welles said of Make Way For Tomorrow, it could make a stone cry.

The Columbia publicity director at the time, Lou Smith, wrote in a private memo that “I cried three times during the showing and everyone around me was mopping up too…Instead of having actors jump off cliffs, this one will have the audience jumping off.” Penny Serenade is a traditional tearjerker, with a plot that turns on unthinkable tragedy and improbable coincidence. But Stevens, Grant and Dunne treat the material with utmost respect, etching a film of bone-deep melancholy about the terror of child-rearing and the greater horror of losing that child. By the end Stevens shoots the Adams home as a tomb, shadows creeping in on Julie and Roger. Only a miracle can save their marriage, and Penny Serenade is one of those movies that makes you want to believe.

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