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Only Angels Have Wings | reviews, news & interviews

Only Angels Have Wings

Only Angels Have Wings

Howard Hawks' airmen adventure re-released in a new restoration

Yes, they have no bananas. Jean Arthur, Cary Grant and colourful support, in Only Angels Have Wings

Howard Hawks and Cary Grant made five films together. Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, I Was A Male War Bride and Monkey Business were all screwball comedies, made by two of the genre’s leading exponents. As an adventure film, Only Angels Have Wings was the odd one out, but certainly no ugly duckling.

Howard Hawks and Cary Grant made five films together. Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, I Was A Male War Bride and Monkey Business were all screwball comedies, made by two of the genre’s leading exponents. As an adventure film, Only Angels Have Wings was the odd one out, but certainly no ugly duckling.

Made in 1939, it has Grant playing a macho role far removed from his bespectacled boffins in Baby and Monkey Business, and more serious than his comic adventurer in the same year’s Gunga Din. That said, the actor is as willing as ever to find the vulnerability beneath his character’s self-assurance. And with two very different leading ladies, this boys' own drama is laced with the romantic frisson that marks the Hawks/Grant partnership; one couldn’t imagine this precise concoction coming from another team.

The boys' own drama is laced with the romantic frisson that marks the Hawks/Grant partnership

And It’s always a pleasure to return to Grant at the height of his powers. Here he plays Geoff Carter, the boss of an aerial postal service in Barranca, a South American trading port, with a team of fliers whose every delivery across a foggy mountain pass is a dice with death. Despite having a chap perched in an eyrie in the clouds, giving constant weather reports over the radio, the team will experience more than its fair share of casualties.

On the ground, Geoff is brusquely running the airline for amiable owner Dutchy (Sig Ruman), knowing that if they miss a delivery the business will collapse. Why would fliers risk their lives for the post? The thrill, no doubt, combined with the fact that Barranca is a place for waifs and strays. Hence the arrival of Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), a showgirl whose ship is briefly in dock, but takes a shine to the handsome but unattainable Geoff and decides to stay.

Geoff’s resistance to attachments doesn’t make life easy for Bonnie; it gets a whole lot worse when the reason for his closed heart, former flame Judy (Rita Hayworth, pictured right with Grant), turns up in Barranca with her new husband, a pilot in search of work but with a past misdemeanour that has made him a pariah. With a storm brewing, romance, dissension in the ranks and the airline’s future all entwine. Geoff, who will only take a plane up himself when all is nearly lost, will inevitably need to buckle up.

It’s great stuff, silly and stirring and romantic, made at a time when thrills could be achieved without special effects and heroism conveyed with a few words or a shrug, and without an ounce of aggression.

Grant begins to suggest here the detachment and coldness that would figure more prominently in his work with Hitchcock; at the same time his innate charm and comic instinct allow Geoff the possiblity of romance and show us why his men follow him. Even when he’s misguidedly wearing an all-white number with matching, wide-brimmed hat – looking more like a camp cowboy than an airman – the actor’s natural charisma and authority win through.  

The women are amongst the least well-written in Hawks’s films (though the bar is a high one), Bonnie too reactive and slapstick, Judy too peripheral. But the latter was a breakthrough role for Hayworth, whose instant allure threw ostensible lead Jean Arthur into the shade.

It’s great stuff, silly and stirring and romantic, made at a time when thrills could be achieved without special effects and heroism conveyed with a few words or a shrug

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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