Only Angels Have Wings Directed by Howard Hawks

Only Angels Have Wings Directed by Howard Hawks
By Ron Falzone

Howard Hawks was one of those filmmakers whose reputation suffered because he was too good.  For years, film writers tended to keep him out of the top ranks of movie makers because he was too hard to categorize.  An artist, they believed, was to be lauded for their rigid adherence to a specific genre or thematic approach. To move between these was “proof” that they were somehow unfocused, and what was an artist if not compulsively laser-like?

As usual, it took the French to dig Hawks out of that hole.  Once the critics at Cahiers du Cinema started to write seriously about his work in the mid- to late-fifties, American critics began to take Hawks seriously.  Sadly, this was just about the same time that his creative engine started to sputter.

Hawks overall career is now seen as a remarkably varied and extraordinarily successful one.  He practically invented screwball comedy with Twentieth Century then perfected it with Bringing Up Baby and His Girl FridayRed River marked a turning point in the maturity of the western while Rio Bravo was its most elegiac statement.   And Gentleman Prefer Blondes brought a hip vulgarity to musicals that had too long been mired in cuteness.

Hawks was always at his best, though, when dealing with stories about the enclosed worlds and closed minds of men, and the sardonic women who had to prove that they were “one of the boys.”  This latter model is now referred to as “the Hawksian woman,” a character who retains her sexuality and intelligence when meeting men on their turf.  One of my favorites is Joanne Dru in Red River.  Shortly after Montgomery Clift meets her, her wagon train is attacked.  She not only joins the fight, she shows little more than annoyance when an arrow is shot straight into her shoulder.  Needless to say, Clift is hooked.

Hawks’ greatest expression of these two traits is his 1939 aviation epic Only Angels Have Wings.  Here, the male ensemble, led by Geoff (Cary Grant) and Kid (Thomas Mitchell), are a tightly knit and even more tightly wound fraternity of flyers who must carry the mail over the treacherous Andes Mountains.  Death is an everyday occurrence, one that they can only accept by ignoring it and pretending to forget those who have perished.  After all, remembering the dead will only remind the others that they may be next.

Enter Bonnie (Jean Arthur), a showgirl - read “street smart” - on a stopover while her ship waits in port.  At first enjoying the attention of the flyers, her feelings turn to horrified disgust when the death of one is dismissed by the others.  Bonnie will eventually come to understand their seemingly callous attitude and, although she can never fully adopt it, she learns to adapt.  Along the way, she and Geoff will inevitably fall for each other.  In pure Hawksian terms, this means that they will express their growing attraction in an ever-escalating war of words.  Their yen is so obvious that even the late-in-the-day entrance of a former flame played by Rita Hayworth provides only momentary distraction.

The real key to the film, though, is not in the relationship between Geoff and Bonnie, but between the flyers.  These are men whose skills and daring natures can only be fully understood by each other.  They welcome the entrance of women into their world, but only as adornments or temporary reliefs.  Bonnie is able to slowly gain their respect and affection by opening herself to their world and not by expecting them to change in accordance with her expectations.  As in so many other Hawks films, this one ends with a tacit acceptance of the idea that men and women form bonds that are beneficial but tenuous while the deepest and most lasting relationships are those between men.

This finds its clearest expression in the only death in the movie that doesn’t occur instantaneously.  Shot in beatific overhead pin-spotting and played in close quarters between the two men, it is the purest and frankest love scene in the movie, one that could never happen between Geoff and Bonnie because the differences in their genders and backgrounds will never allow so complete a sympathy.

Only Angels Have Wings is also an action adventure movie, one built around a series of aerial sequences.  These scenes, despite the use of models in some of them, are brilliantly effective because Hawks was himself a flyer sufficiently skilled to be an instructor of other pilots during World War I.  He took his own experiences and used these to find the truth here, as well as in the many aviation films he did over the course of his career (Air Mail, Ceiling Zero, Air Force, Dawn Patrol, etc.).  In Only Angels Have Wings, these sequences are seamlessly woven into the narrative, always moving the story forward.  Unlike most other action movies, these do not feel like the raison d’étre for the film.   They are simply moments in the lives of these men and therefore part of the broader tapestry of the story of their existence.

Watching Only Angels Have Wings recently, I was struck by similarities between it and another great aviation film, Henry King’s Twelve O’Clock High.  Both are examinations of men under pressure and that point at which the stress becomes too much.  Both also give us a main character bound to his men but struggling to remain emotionally removed from them.  Only Angels Have Wings adds a woman into the mix (there are no women anywhere in Twelve O’Clock High), something which in other hands would seem like a sop to the female ticket buyers looking for a little romance.  What saves it from this fate is Hawks refusal to submit Bonnie or his audience to any of the expectations that normally come when adding this “distraction.”  If Twelve O’Clock High subtly points to the imbalance of a world devoid of women, Only Angels Have Wings points to the difficulties of getting one’s bearings in a male world suddenly invaded by one.

The actors play their notes wonderfully in Hawks orchestration. Here, as well as in His Girl Friday the following year, Hawks locates a darkness in Grant and teases it out. Of all the other directors with whom Grant worked, only Hitchcock sensed a similar deep vein in this actor. Although Arthur and Hawks reputedly disagreed about how to play Bonnie, the tension between their visions pays dividends. This is by far the sexiest performance of her career.    Only Angels Have Wings also represents an extraordinary notch in Thomas Mitchell’s belt. In this same year, 1939, he would also give memorable performances in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gone With the Wind, and cap it off with an Oscar for Stagecoach.

For Hawks, Only Angels Have Wings represented a watershed, the point at which his style, interests, modes and themes all met up in one perfect and deeply personal expression. And that is as good a definition of “artist” as we are likely to get.