Director Howard Hawks‘ contemporaries defined him as a “man’s man,” both in his attitude, demeanor and the ethos his characters displayed over his six decade long career span. Much of his tough guy attitude was formed while he served as a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps during World War I. After that War, many returning service men carried a cynical, bitter heaviness within them. This disillusion was best reflected in the writing of the time, most notably in the works of Ernest Hemingway, starting with his first novel “The Sun Also Rises,” and can be traced through the devil-may-care, “we could die any day” attitude of the 1920s jazz age, and further cemented after the stock market crash.
Although the early talkies battled with censors over contemporary depictions of sex, prostitution, alcohol and drug abuse, audiences were split. Some wanted the escapism of musicals and romantic comedies, others the grit and spit of the Warner Brothers social commentaries dealing with crime, violence and redemption.
But throughout the 1930s, the ‘man’s man’ ethos persisted, and was transformed fully into what would later be defined as Noir. Now servicemen were returning from the Second World War, and the horrors they faced would surface in battle fatigue, survivor’s guilt and loss of innocence, entering into a new America some soldiers couldn’t recognize.
John Ford and Howard Hawks were two filmmakers whose movies did a (not always) subtle dance with these themes. Both were tough, take-no-prisoner directors; yet both had one unique difference in their messages. Ford’s characters were strong individuals, but they held love and family honor with a vulnerable sentimentally just under the vest. Almost all John Ford’s movies; from the harsh docu-reality of The Grapes of Wrath, to the free-wheeling Donovan’s Reef, there are always shades of death, nostalgia and reverence.
Howard Hawks, who crossed the same genres as Ford; westerns, war, comedies and mysteries, created characters who choked back any feelings of sentimentality. Men were only worthy if they were “good enough” at their craft. Women either had to reflect the same coldness towards death and its repercussions, or stay out of the way.
The returning soldier’s existential belief that death could come at any moment was the defining characteristic of Hawk’s films. Even if his stories took place before the 20th century, it didn’t matter. His protagonists were world-weary and cynical, and shared a code of brotherhood with a shot of Gallows humor for good measure.
What makes Only Angels Have Wings such a stand-out Hawks film can be attributed to many elements: the loose dialogue and taut characters written by Jules Furthman (a Hawks veteran, later responsible for The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not and Rio Bravo), the performances by Cary Grant, Thomas Mitchell, Noah Beery Jr., Jean Arthur and newbie Rita Hayworth, the cinematography of Joseph Walker (cramped frames bursting with layers of life and activity), and most importantly; the direction.
“Only Angels…” creates a subculture that feels lived in, weathered and complex; as if we’ve wandered into this decades old setting. The canteen that doubles as a post office, club, pilot’s headquarters, funeral parlour and general store is brimming with personality, honky-tonk and calypso music, stories, experience, humor and even death. The characters have a rule book that at first seems dense with ambiguous moral codes, only later to be revealed as a clearly defined roadmap. In fact, the first 20 minutes of the film lays everything out for the viewer, it’s such a compact presentation of this world that it could be viewed alone as a short subject on the tenuous balance between life and death.
In the fictional South American port town of Barranca, Joe and Les (Allyn Joslin, Noah Beery Jr. ), two fliers, drop mail off at the dock with an arriving banana boat. They’re really there, though, trolling for “new talent.” Sometimes a haphazard group of wayward travelers use the boat as a way to get through Barranca and then ports north. Bonnie Blue (Jean Arthur) , a nightclub singer, happens to be on the boat, and decides to hang in Barranca until the next boat arrives at midnight. Joe and Les basically stalk her. She does her best to reject them until she realizes they’re Americans. Making as many desperate passes as they can at her, they talk her into a steak dinner, which is when they bring her into Dutchie’s, the cantina/hotel/restaurant/post office and airline headquarters they pilot out of. Dutchie lets them know they’re one pilot down tonight, and one of the two will have to fly the mail out. They flip for the spot, and the winner gets to stay and have a steak with Bonnie. It’s then we meet Geoff (Cary Grant), tough, hard as nails partner (in name only) with Dutchie; he’s really the boss, and he says it’s Joe’s turn to fly out the mail. He sends Les off to do some busywork, all so he can have his time with Bonnie.
Amidst all this squabbling, it becomes clear that the daily drama between all these flyers is a reaction to their game with death. They have to get the mail out daily, but the entry and exit point for planes is through incredibly dense fog and a tight mountain pass that would be a death sentence for any “above board” mail airline. The fog is especially thick tonight, and while Dutchie pleads with Geoff to keep the planes grounded, Geoff reminds him they’re a week away from either going out of business, or proving to a bigger mail carrier they can handle a lucrative contract. So they have to keep pushing themselves to deliver on time, all the time.
Begrudgingly making his way out to the field, Joe stops to talk with Lily, a local villager who is obviously in love with him. She doesn’t want him to go, and he assures her it will be all right. Another subtle layer of reality, these pilots have made their way though all the local women, and have a trail of broken hearted girlfriends behind them. Joe thinks nothing of making a pass at Bonnie in front of this ex-sweetheart.
Bonnie, meanwhile, is our foil. She’s our eyes, ears and heart, watching as this world and drama unfold. She doesn’t like Geoff, and the way he has casually decided both these men should “do their job” and leave her for him. Tex, the radio dispatcher who lives at the edge of the mountain, alerts Geoff that the pass is momentarily clear. Joe takes off, but he consistently hassles Geoff about “taking his girl.” Geoff, all business, tells Joe to “lay off the blonde and stick to his job.” Along comes “the Kid,” (Thomas Mitchell) the oldest of the pilots, and the only one there that obviously Geoff has a deep affinity and respect for.
Some critics have commented that the real romance of this story is between Geoff and the Kid. The Kid is also all business, and notices before anyone that the fog has changed direction and is bearing down. Tex confirms, and although already in the air, Joe is called back to the runway. Joe uses this opportunity to ask Bonnie to share dinner with him when he lands. Geoff is getting more irritated and concerned about the weather, and again tells Joe to “stick to business.”
They run out to the field and try to talk Joe down. Music is shut off at the cantina, ground lights are all turned off, searchlights scour the dense fog, and all attention is directed to the sky. Over the radio, Joe admits he can’t see anything. Geoff carefully talks him down, but he cuts it too close and has to pull up in the last minute. When Geoff decides its too thick, he tells Joe to stay circling (he has three hours worth of gas) and when the fog breaks he can land safely. But Joe is focused on Bonnie, and argues that he wants to try and land again. He comes in too close again, this time clipping his wing and crashing in a fiery blaze.
Here we see the difference between a Ford and a Hawks movie. Ford would have ended this scene with heads bowed and silence, and would have dissolved to a funeral scene. Hawks however, continues the scene. People run out to the field, and Geofff and the Kid, are more angry at Joe for his unprofessional behavior. Bonnie is beside herself, blaming Geoff for killing Joe. Geoff shakes her silly and tells her to snap out of it. “He wasn’t good enough, that’s all.” Dutchie calls Geoff a hard man, and Geoff admits later, only in the company of other men, that yes, he feels bad, but Joe should’ve kept his mind on the business at hand.
As the remnants of Joe are brought back to the cantina, Geoff and the other pilots fight over who gets to eat Joe’s now cooked steak. Bonnie slaps Geoff for his callousness, and he pulls her outside, tells her to get over it and not come back in until she has. Outside, the Kid tries to explain to her that this is the business, it’s hard and dangerous, but these pilots love it and live for it. She tells him about her own father who was a trapeze artist and died because he didn’t believe in using a net. “Not much future in that either,” one of the crewmen comment. She asks the Kid about Geoff, and it’s clear she’s becoming fascinated with him. The kid warns her to stay away from him, women don’t do well by him. So what does she do? Back in she goes.
She finds Geoff at the piano, trying to work out the tune “Some of the Days,” with the band. She pushes him aside, gives some last minute notes to the band, and bangs out a stride-style version of the classic. (Of course, the choice of song is not unintentional. “Some of these days, you’re gonna miss me honey…”. Meaning you may miss the departed someday, just not right now). Bonnie is now one of the group, as she slams down a shot of bourbon. Geoff catches her starting to play something sad, asks; “Who’s Joe?” “Never heard of him,” she answers, and breaks into the silly song, “The Peanut Vendor.”
And that’s just the first twenty minutes. The story doesn’t even begin until the next day, when a mysterious new pilot and an ex-lover of Geoff’s show up. But this prologue gives you everything you need to know these characters, respect the setting and understand the existential, Hawksian rules of the game. Like Bonnie, you either get with the program, or get on the next boat out of Barranca.
“Only Angels Have Wings” also belongs in that elite group released in 1939, what many critics feel was the greatest year in classic film history. “Gone with the Wind,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Dark Victory,” “Wuthering Heights,” “Ninotchka” and even John Ford’s genre defining western “Stagecoach,” fought for the audience and Academy’s attention that year. “Gone with the Wind,” may have won Best Picture, and “Only Angels” just nominated for Best Cinematography and Special Effects, but it stands today as one of the greatest films of this period, and a testament to Howard Hawks’ vision, artistry and style. By way of Hemingway, he was film’s existential commentator of the time.