Actors: Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Rita Hayworth
Director: Howard Hawks
Disc Info: NTSC, Special Edition, Subtitled, Widescreen
Number of discs: 1
Studio: Criterion Collection
Release Date: April 12, 2016
Run Time: 121 minutes
Only Angels Have Wings is sandwiched between two other collaborations with Cary Grant in the filmography of Howard Hawks, showcasing his range as a director along with the star’s versatility. 1938’s Bringing Up Baby and 1940’s His Girl Friday gave audiences two different personas for Grant, one meek and bookish with the other cocky and masculine, but both utilized his comedic abilities within the screwball sub-genre. While 1939’s Only Angels Have Wings also made use of the witty repartee and masculinity, it gave audiences a chance to see Grant in a dramatic role and allowed Hawks to capture the excitement of aerial action sequences.
The film takes place in a South American port town, focusing on the dangerous lifestyle of the pilots working in an airmail company hired to make treacherous journeys through the local mountain terrain. We are brought into this world by a traveling entertainer named Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), who makes a brief stop on her journey and ends up staying after becoming enamored with the company’s hot-shot pilot, Geoff Carter (Grant). Carter takes many unnecessary risks in his job, especially with a long-term contract on the line, which makes him an unstable romantic partner. Having previously lost a romantic partner to his love of being a pilot, Carter is hesitant to bring another woman into his world.
This world is complicated even further when Carter’s former love (played by the undeniably gorgeous Rita Hayworth in an early role) shows up married to the company’s newest pilot, MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess). Though one might expect this to turn into a typical love triangle, Carter carries much more weight than romantic feelings. MacPherson faces harsh adversity from his fellow pilots because of a past accident which have left him branded amongst his colleagues, which also begins to affect his marriage. Though Carter is not without his judgments of the new employee’s past actions, he decides to give him a chance, even providing his former flame with advice on how to be married to a pilot.
This drama between the characters is what raises the stakes in the action sequences, which feature Oscar-nominated effects and high-wire aerial stunts. Though these effects from 1939 are hardly cutting edge any longer, this is easily forgiven by how expertly Hawks is able to build suspense. And some of the camera work is impressive even by today’s standards. As a pilot himself, Hawks understood how to apply realism to his aerial action, basing many of the characters and events on people and situations he had encountered. This tough outlook seems also to have been engrained in the pilots within his film, so unaffected by the dangers that they don’t even allow themselves to mourn the loss of friends. It is the ultimate depiction of masculinity, which is just as affecting today, despite being somewhat dated in its representation of gender roles.
Presented with a new 4K digital restoration, along with the uncompressed monaural soundtrack, there is no better way to see this classic (save a time machine trip back to 1939). This Criterion Collection Blu-ray release also comes with an assortment of special features, including a new program with interviews from film scholars Craig Barron and Ben Burtt called “Howard Hawks and His Aviation Movies,” and a new interview with film critic David Thomson. Archival extras include audio excerpts from a 1972 conversation between Hawks and fellow filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich and the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film from 1939, including the original cast members and hosted by Cecil B. DeMille. The Blu-ray package also has a foldout insert with an essay on the film by critic Michael Sragow.
Entertainment Value: 8/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 8.5/10
Historical Significance: 8/10