Film & TV

Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Only Angels Have Wings’: We’re Never Alone

BY Rudolph Lambert Fernandez TIMEMay 25, 2023 PRINT

NR | 2 h 1 min | Drama | 1939

Affable “Dutchy” Van Ruyter (Sig Ruman) runs a troubled airfreight service from the South American port of Barranca to the United States. His cynical but skilled chief pilot Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) and his corps risk their lives navigating fog that’s often, as one pilot jokes, “only 200, 300 feet thick.” They also ride a treacherous pass in the Andes mountains which, as that pilot explains, is 14,000 feet high “at the low point.”

Two women enter Geoff’s netherworld of men and machines. Old flame Judy (Rita Hayworth) accompanies husband and newest pilot in the crew, Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess). Fresh off the banana boat, showgirl Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) falls for Geoff faster than a Travel Air 6000 monoplane in a nosedive. Meanwhile Bat, loathed for an episode in his past—leaving his mechanic to die in a crash—tries to confront his demons alone, except, up in the air no one’s really alone; if there’s any confronting to be done, Bat and his mechanic must do it together.

"Only Angels Have Wings."
Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) and Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), in “Only Angels Have Wings.” (MovieStillsDB)

To screenwriter-director Howard Hawks, romance here isn’t even a subplot, it’s more like a parachute that he doesn’t get around to using. Instead, he paints a portrait of fragility as his pilots joke, smoke, wink, and drink their way through the daredevilry and dread of hazardous flying. His characters, pilots or not, feel hemmed in, as if struggling to steady their wings between windy mountains or squinting through dense fog. Forget smooth touchdowns, they’re just trying to land right side up.

Geoff’s never short of cigarettes, but keeps asking others for a match; a reminder of sorts that no matter his skill, he’s never fully in control of his fate. His cultivated indifference reminds Bonnie of her father, a trapeze artist who routinely performed without a net.

“Kid” Dabb (Thomas Mitchell), Geoff’s flying buddy, blames Bat for the death of Kid’s brother, the mechanic Bat once deserted. Now, as Kid’s eyesight as a pilot starts to dim, he’s forced to go beyond his blind hatred of Bat, to see him anew.

‘Flying Human Beings’

Bonnie’s awestruck epithet for pilots, “flying human beings,” explains why Hawks makes the airstrip almost a character by itself.

“Taking off” reflects life, hope, and a new friendship struck here or an old one revived there.

“Landing” reflects the end of a phase, not the end of a relationship or life itself; crash landings, though, are a little less ambiguous.

The airstrip, like life, is rarely free of pain or risk. It’s covered in slush, ridden with pits, poorly lit and drenched in rain. Pilots feel like they’re taking off from the toddler’s end of a swimming pool, and landing like a rubber ball on concrete. Trees that appear to beckon warmly in daylight, seem to stretch out like deadly pikes at night, ready to snag a stray wing or propeller.

"Only Angels Have Wings."
(L–R) Director Howard Hawks, Cary Grant, and Rita Hayworth, on the set of “Only Angels Have Wings.” (MovieStillsDB)

Hawks’s point? We’re never alone, even when we fly solo. There’s always someone else who’s fueling our tank, lighting our runway, tuning our engine, checking our console, and steadying our wing through fog or rain. Everyone takes off and lands. It’s how we journey in between that matters: forgiving or bearing a grudge, letting someone into our life or shutting them out.

The aerial sequences are gloriously gritty. You feel as if Bat’s plane takes a deep breath as it taxis idly off a cliff, then milks the sheer drop to earn its lift. You hear its engines hum as it steals a climb.

Cinematographer Joseph Walker’s expertise shows. He’d filmed documentaries for the Red Cross during World War I and a silent film near the Arctic. And he held patents for an enviable range of cameras, zoom lenses, and exposure systems.

Here, he makes you feel like a co-pilot or passenger. You see the wing above a lazy bed of clouds, the “climb” dial in the cockpit, the shiny whip of rotor blades glinting moonlight back in the night, the oxygen tank easing lungs at perilous altitudes, and tiny explosions of water spray as plane tires hit giant puddles in the field.

Although cancelled at the onset of World War II, the first Cannes Film Festival had selected the film as one of the 12 entries from the Unites States.

"Only Angels Have Wings."
Skilled pilot Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) risks his life flying an air freight service, in “Only Angels Have Wings.” (MovieStillsDB)

Only Angels Have Wings
Director: Howard Hawks
Starring: Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Rita Hayworth, Thomas Mitchell
Not Rated
Running Time: 2 hours, 1 minute
Release Date: May 15, 1939
Rated: 3 stars out of 5

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on pop culture. He may be reached at Twitter: @RudolphFernandz
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