Nineteen thirty-nine was a golden year for movies. A record number of films were made, more than 20 of them considered now to be classics of cinema, including Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and many others.
Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings (1939) did not fit the mold of movies being made at that time. Angels did not possess the maddeningly indefinable allure of Garbo in Ninotchka, the unwavering idealism of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the melodramatics of Dark Victory, or the unbearable tragedies of Wuthering Heights. Nor did it have the over-the-top fantasy world-whirl of the beloved Wizard of Oz, or the searing romanticism of Gone with the Wind, both made by Victor Fleming that same year.
What director Howard Hawks fashioned was an ode to realism. A pragmatism, uncharacteristic of the movies of that time, permeates Angels’ action. This keynote, which might be what makes it masterful, (I think it’s masterful), may also be what kept it from being popular in those years when audiences, poised on the brink of war, hungered for escapism, fantasy, and deep romance. Only Angels Have Wings presents us with an almost-too-practical approach to life, to relationships, to human attraction, to peril. Its characters dwell in precarious situations and locales – air couriers in the South America transporting mail through the Andes Mountains. They cannot let their emotions get the better of them, whether dealing with their job or the people they meet on the ground. In one very telling scene, a pilot is killed during a mission. The men are stoic, almost cruel in their acceptance of this fellow’s demise. Jean Arthur’s character, Bonnie Lee, an entertainer stranded at the base, is at first repulsed by the men’s cavalier attitude towards this tragic loss of life, but slowly comes to realize that for these airmen and their loved ones to cave to over-emotion would be to imperil more lives. They must stay brave.
The film swings between romance (or at least a stab at it) and danger, loss, and confusion. And yet this is not unnerving or unrealistic. It does not put us on edge; it mirrors the way life can be, and the fickleness of people, their way of drawing you in, magnet-like, only to push you away after more careful consideration. Take for example, the coupling being attempted by Geoff Carter (played by Cary Grant) and Bonnie Lee. Geoff is the most stalwart of the airmen. He clearly has feelings for Bonnie, and might even want to reciprocate her feelings for him, but his practicality forces him to hold back. He keeps talking himself out of it, then taking it further, then pulling away.
Arthur’s sudden musical number at this point is a joy, a minty breeze on a muggy day but it seems at the same time somehow out-of-place; it reminds the men and the viewers that they are not to have too much fun, that it is not wise for them to engage in play. The frivolity of other films of 1939 is anathema to Angels’ message, that to take life too casually might be to sign your own death warrant.
Certainly, pragmatism worked its way into filmmaking in the 1960s, more so in the 1970s. But Angels is unique for its time. It doesn’t have lush orchestral strings rising to unbelievable heights as lovers lock eyes or exaggerated heroics (though the couriers sure are brave), but every act is credible; these folks seem like folks you know or wouldn’t mind knowing. Even the occasional slapstick – a trip on a slippery leaf, a snooping woman falling flat on her face when she is caught eavesdropping – these are falls we all have made, tricks we have pulled. Come on – you know you have!
The cast that Hawks and Columbia Studios producer, Harry Cohn, assembled is nothing short of superb. Cary Grant was scooped up just as he was being released from his contract with Paramount. Jean Arthur brought a disarming screwball charm and keen intelligence; comediennes need to be smart. Arthur, savvy as any of her peers, perhaps even savvier, was to become one of the screens great cut-ups whose work influenced later purveyors of kooky charm like Streisand, Liza Minnelli, and Goldie Hawn. The great Thomas Mitchell, so good in any film he graced, is a knockout here. His are arguably the most memorable scenes in the movie. And Rita Hayworth! She was not yet the sizzling screen siren she was to become – this was one of her first films – but already in Angels, she brings the steam heat and the luster that would make her one of the greatest stars in the history of cinema.
Hawks’ alchemical combination of star magic, crisp, smart dialogue, and deftly-directed action sequences combine to make a potent, irresistible mix, conveying an almost documentary feel.
Over time, Only Angels Have Wings has risen in popularity and esteem and is now considered among the greats. I myself am going to go out on a limb here and call it a masterpiece. The Criterion Collection has stamped it with its imprimatur. Nineteen thirty-nine created a treasure chest of sparkling cinematic gems. Only Angels Have Wings is one of them. It upended the idea that a movie has to be flamboyant to be entertaining. For all its practicality and underplaying, it sizzles like a summer’s day.