Saturday, January 23, 2021

Only Angels Have Wings (1939, Howard Hawks)

Quest Status: 728 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #233

1939... The year of The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. What a different world we see today than the one in those beloved films from Hollywood's Golden Age (especially when it comes to the last of the three). But Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings is one film from that year that doesn't get a lot of fanfare. On the surface, it might seem like a typical Hollywood film to modern viewers. Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, and Rita Hayworth all share the screen in an imagined South American locale where passions run high, the liquor flows like water, and hard-boiled men do their best to never ask a woman for anything. Everything is shot on a studio backlot and the story swivels on a dime, with increasingly improbable plot twists and dynamic character development. Even so, more than most other films being made by Hollywood at the time, Only Angels offers a view into something real and vital about its era.

It may have been made on a backlot, not in "Barranca," but this tale of daredevil pilots tasked with carrying the mail across a perilous mountain pass is given a boost of startling realism by its director, Howard Hawks, who brought his real-life as a WWI fighter pilot to the film. The dialogue and situations feel realistic not because they were filmed with real stunt pilots in real locations, but because they were overseen by someone who knew the subject. In one early scene, a fresh-faced young pilot who spends the first ten minutes of the film sweet-talking Jean Arthur's bombshell cruise ship entertainer finds himself blinded by fog and unable to return to the air field. Suddenly, the light, almost screwball mood of the film's opening scenes turns to nail-biting suspense as we watch Cary Grant and his team of pilots and radio operators attempt to guide the boy down safely. The attempt is unsuccessful, but there are no orchestral swells on the soundtrack - just the sound of an airplane's engine, the bang of the crash, and the ensuing silence.

But just as soon as the kid meets his untimely death, life in Barranca returns to its normal pace. A round of drinks is ordered and songs are sung, suddenly turning a moment of mourning into a musical. In this way, Hawks manages to cram action, comedy, romance, musical, existential drama, and suspense into a single film. Like the best of Hawks' work, Only Angels Have Wing seems to ramble along effortlessly, throwing the viewer right in the middle of a world that's just as exciting and full of life as its characters. Viewers today might not always recognize the world of 1939 - where women fight for the love of men who refuse to open up to them and the men are tethered to a cult of masculinity where nothing is more important than the perilous jobs they do together. Even so, it's fascinating to see the ideals that people strove for almost 80 years ago - and no one could have brought this world to life as vibrantly as Howard Hawks did here.

-- 272 films remaining---

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