Film Legends Of Yesteryear (2019): 1939 on… Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Next up from 1939 is the Cary Grant and Jean Arthur drama Only Angels Have Wings.

Jean Arthur plays chorus girl Bonnie Lee, whose ship makes a stopover in the port of Barranca. She meets a pair of American flyers and goes with them to buy them a drink. However, their party is short-lived, as their boss Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) tells one of them that they have to fly the mail out. The flight is cut short by the foggy weather, and the pilot dies trying to land. Horrified at first by the almost indifferent reactions of his co-workers, Bonnie decides to stay when she develops an attraction to Geoff and tries to learn to be more accepting of the lifestyle the pilots have taken on. Everything gets a bit harder, though, as Geoff is forced to ground his buddy Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell) and has to hire Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess), a pilot trying to live down his mistake of jumping out of a plane and leaving his engineer, Kid’s brother, to die. His wife, Judy (Rita Hayworth), makes everything even more complicated, as she was Geoff’s former girlfriend, who soured him on women.

In learning about this movie, I found out that its director, Howard Hawks, had been a flyer himself, back during the first World War. Not only that, but a lot of the characters were based on people he knew. Considering that, it does seem like Jean Arthur’s character is the audience’s representative, as we’re also coming into the world of this group of flyers. No doubt, we’re all horrified to see their reactions to the death of the young flyer near the beginning of the movie, but, as we begin to get an idea of what their life is like, it becomes easier for us to understand them and want to stay as well. And from that point on, the focus seems to shift away from Bonnie Lee onto the men, although we still empathize with her. And, to a large degree, we need an “in” to this world, as I suspect it was a vastly different life for the airplane pilots at that time than it was for most people, considering commercial flight wasn’t a big thing yet. Never mind the how different it would be for today’s audiences, since flight technology has come so far since then.

I really liked this movie. It’s definitely different from the other Cary Grant/ Howard Hawks collaborations, being that the others are all screwball comedies while this one is more dramatic. I do love the camerawork on this movie, particularly for the flight scenes. Almost gives us the feeling of flying right along with them, and never more so than when Richard Barthelmess’s character (or, more likely, the actor’s pilot stand-in) has to fly a doctor up on a cliff and we follow the plane as it goes around to make its landing. It seems like I read something that said this movie influenced the TV shows Tales Of The Gold Monkey and Tailspin, and I can certainly see that. I’ll admit, this movie’s pacing might make it harder for modern audiences to watch, which is made somewhat worse by the almost episodic nature, not to mention some of the plot threads that are not as fully realized as we might expect them to be (like their need for regular mail delivery within a set length of time to earn a contract with the government). Still, I do enjoy it, and would easily recommend it!

This movie is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion Collection.

Film Length: 2 hours, 1 minute

My Rating: 9/10

List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections

Holiday (1938)Cary GrantThe Philadelphia Story (1940)

You Can’t Take It With You (1938) – Jean Arthur – Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939)

Rita Hayworth – Music In My Heart (1940)