‘Only Angels Have Wings’
Perhaps you can identify with them: The heroes in Howard Hawks’ “Only Angels Have Wings” are married to a job they know may ruin their lives. But they do it anyway, in part because it makes them feel alive, in part because they don’t know how to do anything else. It’s a compulsion you may share, at least on some level, if you work in any of today’s dying professions. The arts and journalism, to cite two examples, aren’t doing too hot in 2016, and the bottom is falling inch by inch. And yet those of us in these fields keep at it, just like the manly men who fly rickety mail planes about the Andes in Hawks’ 1939 classic.
OK, not “just like.” These guys are actually risking life and limb, not just fearing unemployment. Moreover, their boss is Cary Grant. In the actor’s first real, full-on turn as a macho god, Grant plays Geoff Carter, the swaggering head of Barranca Airways, whose pilots fly mail in and about a fictional South American port town. The business is barely solvent and every trip is a potential death trap. And yet one of them — Thomas Mitchell’s slovenly and lovable “Kid” Dabb — so loves the gig he tries to hide his failing eyesight. Why wouldn’t he use that as an excuse to leave a job that may kill him? Because this foolish profession is the only thing he’s good at. And everyone’s a lot of fun.
There’s barely a plot in “Only Angels Have Wings,” and though it was sold as a testosterone-fueled adventure our heroes are almost always grounded. Most Hawkses tend to squeeze good-time banter into genre fare: screwball farces (“Bringing Up Baby,” “Ball of Fire”), Westerns (“Rio Bravo”), loose “Casablanca” knockoffs (“To Have and Have Not”) and detective novels (“The Big Sleep”). “Angels” is all hang-out, without the safety net of a genre, and with but a few minor subplots to keep things moving. There are jokes and even real profundity, but they rise organically out of what may be Hawks' greatest, shaggy dog-iest masterpiece — maybe the most easygoing great film ever made.
Among the plot elements is Bonnie, an American showgirl (Jean Arthur), shows up in the opening scene, and is so taken with this cadre of quip-flinging, death-defying lunatics she decides to stay. A new guy, Richard Barthelmess’ Bat MacPherson, shows up and is instantly ID’d as the guy who bailed on a malfunctioning plane, leaving his mechanic — also “Kid”’s brother, as it were — to perish in flames. Maybe worse, Bat shows up with his wife, Judy (Rita Hayworth), who happens to be the girl who once broke Geoff’s heart, turning him into an emotionally remote badass who thinks nothing of wearing white shirts with white trousers, with a white Panama hat to top it off.
All this is left to simmer, while “Angels” lets us stew in this sealed-off microcosm, at once hermetic and inclusive — at least provided outsiders, like Bonnie and Bat, are willing to play ball and find their place amongst the regulars. Then again our group has to be welcoming: The crew is strictly a revolving door. One of them, Noah Beery Jr.’s Joe, crashes and dies in the opening minutes, prompting Geoff’s (in)famous response as he tears into a dead man’s never-eaten steak: “Who’s Joe?” There is no mourning here, at least not publicly. The only way to brave death is to ignore it.
A tough worldview, an adventure with little adventure, a plotless mix of drama and comedy — this, insanely, was Hawks’ idea of a comeback after a string of flops (yes, “Bringing Up Baby” really did bomb) and troubled projects (“Come and Get It” and “Gunga Din,” each of which saw him kicked off the job). Luckily it was a hit — Columbia’s third highest grosser of 1939 — as well as, at that point, the purest expression of a sensibility Hawks had been crafting through the ’30s. It’s all the stuff Hawks likes, none of the filler.
Yes, Hawks was an artist, and yes, he didn’t like being called that later in life, when people like Peter Bogdanovich and Joseph McBride saw him as more than a mere maker of entertainments. But he was also a guy just doing his job. That job wasn’t flying planes, though he’d done that, too, during World War I, and had already made several pictures on the subject (“The Dawn Patrol,” “Ceiling Zero,” the lost though allegedly inferior “The Air Circus”).
But moviemaking is no sane occupation either. It’s one for the mad, for people who want to break from conformity, who not only don’t mind toiling in a frivolous industry with no security but thrill to it. Hawks may not have thought of himself as an artist, but “Only Angels Have Wings” is a deeply personal confession from a man who loves his twisted idea of a job.