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.


December 11, 2012

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In an early Christmas present, the Museum of the Moving Image screened a 35mm print of John Ford’s unaccountably hard-to-see The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) this past Saturday. Unavailable on home video, aside from out-of-print VHS tapes going for $60 on Amazon, it deserves to be as well known as his Oscar winning drama from the same year, The Informer (his third film in ’35, Steamboat ‘Round the Bend, is no slouch either). A box office hit which revived the career of Edward G. Robinson, its descent into relative obscurity is puzzling, aside from the larger trend of studios choosing to ignore their own history. It has not even been released on Sony/Columbia’s DVD burn-on-demand service, which was made for titles like this.  In any case, it is an elegantly constructed farce that showcases the astounding range of Robinson, who can play delicate meekness and gruff murderousness for equal laughs.

John Ford made The Informer at RKO, Steamboat ‘Round the Bend for Fox, and The Whole Town’s Talking for Columbia, a free agent playing the field for quality projects and paychecks. While Ford had to fight for The Informer to get made at RKO, The Whole Town’s Talking was pitched to Harry Cohn at Columbia by independent producer Lester Cowan. He was selling Robert Riskin and Jo Swerling’s script, which was adapted from a short story by moneymaker W.R. Burnett (Little Caesar). Riskin was a frequent collaborator of Frank Capra, and The Whole Town’s Talking is sandwiched in between his work in It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds (1936). His script for Ford exhibits a Capra feel, in that it concerns a mild-mannered worker or vagabond thrust into extraordinary circumstances, as in Deeds or Meet John Doe.

Arthur Jones (Edward G. Robinson) has never once been late to work at the J.G. Carpenter accounting firm, but his regimented life becomes upended when escaped mobster “Killer” Mannion (also Robinson), turns out to look exactly like Jones. The cops immediately arrest Jones, and he becomes a minor celebrity for being a murderer’s look-a-like. Then Mannion decides that Jones could be of use to him, and the two engage in a roundelay of identity swaps that confuses the cops, their friends and in the end, themselves.

wholtownFord sets up the city as fidgeting mass of humanity, so large and indistinguishable that two people could swap identities with ease. He opens the film with a tracking shot that surveys the faceless workers at J.G. Carpenter, all hunched over their desks and pecking away at their number machines. Later, when Jones is apprehended, the police and the press are depicted as yammering mobs, filling the frame with shouts and bravado as Robinson cowers in a corner. Robinson plays Jones as a man who desperately wants to fit in and disappear like the rest of his colleagues, quiet and recessive.

From the beginning, though, fate is against him. His alarm clock breaks, and he arrives at work late for the first time in almost a decade. Standing out alongside him is Miss Clark (Jean Arthur), who sashays into work even later, in a nimbus of cigarette smoke. Jean Arthur’s entrance here is a marvel of physical control, sucking in one last draw before the door, flicking away the butt an instant before entering, and then exhaling the smoke in the instant after crossing the threshold – a perfect puff of insouciance. It unravels as one continuous gesture, a perfect performance that takes only a few seconds of screen time.

How does such a magical scene happen? Arthur described John Ford’s directing style on the film to Joseph McBride in in his essential Searching for John Ford bio:

Ford always had a handkerchief or a pipe hangin’ out of his mouth. He chewed on it and you never knew what he said. And Robinson had a pipe that he’d chew. They’d stand there, these two guys, and never give you any directions at all or anything much. I’d say, ‘How do I know what I’m gonna do if you don’t talk?’ And they said, ‘Well, we talk with our brains. We don’t need to verbalize things.’…You know what he’s thinking anyway. He’s just – it’s all over him. A darling, darling man. I don’t think he gave much direction, but everybody seemed to understand what they were supposed to do.

Ford trusted his collaborators, which comes across in the moments of offhand beauty like Arthur’s entrance. As Miss Clark she is the willing outsider, Jones an accidental one, although he fervently desires to win her hand, leaving facile anonymous love poems on her desk.

It is only when he encounters Mannion, and discovers a similar animalistic quality in himself, that she shows any interest. He awakens this flicker of attraction in her after boozing it up with the boss, who is looking to curry Jones’ minor celebrity into publicity for the firm. He plies Jones with cigars and whiskey, and Robinson gives a master class in queasy reaction shots. He holds the cigar as if it were radioactive, his hand underneath, pinching it with thumb and forefinger. Ford holds the reaction even longer after he knocks back a shot of liquor, his face full of micro-narratives of disgust, fear and a flickering of acceptance. It is an uproarious sequence that ends with a woozy Jones  smooching Miss Clark and kissing off the rest of the office with a slurred, “so long, slaves!”. Jean Arthur’s smile at this subversive action reveals that she has ID’d one of her own kind.

When she encounters Mannion, she senses the sociopath instead of the subversive. Robinson plays Mannion with a five ‘o clock shadow and an inferiority complex. He speaks in staccato bursts and narrows his eyes into slivers, but at the merest hint of criticism he blows up. Mannion’s darkness cloaks the farce – there are real mortal consequences to all the ridiculous circling of the sub-Keystone cops and press corps. In order for Jones to survive and win the girl, he is forced to kill, or at least abet a killing, and it is that ferocity which attracts her. It is this violent undertone which gives The Whole Town’s Talking its curious power, and is what connects it to the wider current of Ford’s work.  Jones/Mannion are the comic versions of what will later emerge as the dueling impulses of The Searchers’ sadistic hero Ethan Edwards.