‘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.