Sunday, January 23, 2011

Only Angels Have Wings: the film

I watched a film last night from the remarkable movie year, 1939. I've always wondered what recognition these movies would have achieved had it not been for the devastating chain of events which had begun the year before in Europe and China.
Jean Arthur, one of Hollywood's great comedic actresses, plays a show biz type who has for some reason sailed into a backwater South American port. 

There she meets a bunch of guys who work for a ramshackle airline that needs to get a big mail delivery contract in order to survive. Cary Grant plays the leader of this group.  He's been burned by women in the past, and, though attracted to Arthur, acts the tough guy who only cares about his job and his buddies.   Of course, Arthur falls for him but she's philosophical enough to know that he will not be an easy catch.  But her heart rules her head so she finds herself staying.

   Meanwhile, Grant and his band of tough outback pilots have enough to keep them busy, as they battle wind, rain, fog, old airplanes, big birds and some very tall mountains in order to get the mail to its destination.

One thing I love about this movie is that it successfully mixes comedy, adventure and larger, more serious life questions.  Grant and Arthur were two of the most successful comedic leads of their day but they were that because they play the situation, never the comedy.  I actually prefer Grant in this tougher character role which I have almost never seen him play.  

 I don't know what the filmmakers intended, but the movie almost seems to be a satire of macho action pictures.  Either that or the macho code was much stronger and in evidence at that time.  But then the code of honor in general was stronger then, it seems to me.   

I would say we are left with a confusing ending.  Not wanting to give it away and spoil it for you....  I will just say that I found the ending too abrupt and glib and not really satisfactory.  I would be interested to hear your take on it.

Another quite interesting aside is how much we have become intolerant to smoking nowadays!  This film could be a subliminal advertisement for tobacco as all of these old films were.  I love to see the cultural changes in a movie and try to think of how it was received at the time. 

However, in my book, it was not well enough received at the Oscars of 1939.  The movie won only for Best Special Effects.   Some of these are remarkable even today, while others are now laughably crude. But the special effects were the least of this film's allures.   The story is complex and rich and acting ensemble is top notch.
Aside from the principals there are great supporting perfomances by Thomas Mitchell, Richard Bathelmess and a very young, lovely but inexperienced Rita Hayworth.

If you can find "Only Angels Have Wings" on dvd you will find a lot to appreciate and enjoy.  



  1. I will definitely check it out. Great review.


  2. A phenomenal year for film: The Wizard of Oz, The Women, Gone With The Wind, Beau Geste, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Drums Along The Mohawk, Stagecoach, Gunga Din, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dark Victory, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights, Destry Rides Again, Each Dawn I Die, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Jamaica Inn,
    and W.C. Fields in You Can't Cheat an Honest Man. What a year, including Roxanne's entry.