Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Dir. Howard Hawks. Starring Cary Grant, Thomas Mitchell, Jean Arthur

(Featured image links here.)

Throughout the film, Hawks is careful not to use close-ups with much frequency. His shots are the long shots which allow us to marvel at the model airplanes which rise and fall from the little airstrip, and the American shots which give us crowds of men together, or that lonely guy who works the radio to report on planes’ progress through a mountain pass, or, of course, Cary Grant with a woman. There are so few real close-ups – and they’re so close when they happen that it feels like the camera’s been replaced with a microscope – that they are just as explosive as the airplane crashes that seem to dog Barranca Airways. Bonnie (Arthur, perhaps at the height of her fame) has a couple – gotta give the people what they pay for, right? – but only one man gets that close-up. It’s Grant’s, and he’s letting loose a few tears. His best friend, the Kid (Mitchell), has been killed in a freak accident; a condor broke through the window of the plane he was on and broke his neck. Within the arc of the film, it makes sense; Geoff and the Kid have been best friends for years, and losing him is a crushing blow. Yet it’s still surprising, and it has less to do with Geoff being the man’s man of Barranca than one would imagine. He’s the boss of the airline as well as the best pilot; the Kid tells Bonnie early in the film that Geoff will fly a route if he doesn’t want to risk the other men. And he’s the most handsome guy, too. (Grant is surrounded by character actors, good ones, but not necessarily beautiful ones: Mitchell, Allyn Joslyn, Noah Beery, Jr., Sig Ruman, and a past-his-prime Richard Barthelmess.) He drinks well and he hits hard. None of this he-man business necessarily exempts him from crying; arguably the great movie he-man of all time, Clark Gable, gibbers weakly during Gone with the Wind. But what’s striking about is that over the course of this film, men have been propped up and and encouraged and raised high and generally feted. Masculine virtues like daring and courage and social responsibility are the tacit bywords of the Barranca Airways men. And with one perfectly reasonable moment, Hawks punctures the facade. Geoff’s crying? The guy who made such a big deal out of not mourning the dead for too long? The myth of this ’30s masculinity is at the heart of the movie, but there’s a bravery in showing us the stents in this system.

As much as any other movie of 1939, Only Angels Have Wings seems to recognize what’s really at the root of what its audience wants. The Wizard of Oz has fantasy, Ninotchka charm, Dark Victory melodrama, Gunga Din adventure, and Gone with the Wind scope. (America, as far as I can tell, also couldn’t get enough of Ty Power in ’39.) But in an age of strongmen abroad, when the world was lurching ludicrously towards its greatest calamity, there’s a balm in believing that Yanks can be real men too. The movie’s first big moment is a plane crash, where Joe (Beery) thinks he can land the runway (and, better still, cash in on a steak dinner with Bonnie) but in fact strikes a tree, shears off a wing, and dies in the ensuing crash. There’s bravado there, if not necessarily skill. But later in the film, fliers will do some dangerous deeds. Bat (Barthelmess), a disgraced pilot wearing an easily punctured pseudonym, redeems himself by flying a series of complex, intensely dangerous missions. He’s sent to fly nitroglycerin to an oil field once after another man refuses to go (and is summarily fired). In his last one, he manages to land the plane that was hit by condors, with two of its three engines in flames. The movie’s triumphant ending – the clouds over the pass have cleared and it’s safe to fly the mail, thus securing a lucrative long term contract with the government – requires two men with badly injured arms to fly one plane. The casualty rate for these pilots is astronomical. Two men are killed in the few days where the action takes place. Les (Joslyn) has his arm broken in a fight with the Kid. Bat lands the aforementioned fiery plane, but his hands are badly burned and wrapped in plaster at the film’s end. Bonnie accidentally shoots Geoff in the shoulder by dropping the revolver she was threatening him with. It unknowingly foreshadows what would occur in the few years shortly to come, when other brave Americans abroad would be obliterated all at once. And yet for the most worthy, for the pilot elect, there is no question. You go up when you have to go up and you do what you can. You risk the blackouts, the cloud cover, the Hitchcockian condors, and the mechanical failures because the risk is the thrill (though no one would be so crude to say that). In short, this is the right stuff before The Right Stuff or its movie adaptation, a film which is so old that Yeager himself would only have been a teenager when it was released.

Everyone’s got an old flame in these pictures, and Grant’s is Rita Hayworth. Judy has married Bat MacPherson, not knowing his given name is Kilgallen and that he is guilty of having bailed out on his mechanic, letting that man die rather than facing his own impending doom like a champ. Judy used to be one of the many ladies who threw herself at Geoff, got some throwing back, and never got much more than that out of it. She’s shrewd enough to realize that the men of Barranca are leery of Bat, even hateful, but not shrewd enough to go to her husband first to ask him about it; after Geoff tells her to go to him, she does and then gets drunker than women usually get in ’30s films, stumbling around behind the bar searching for a corkscrew. (One of the great, presumably “moral” running gags of Only Angels Have Wings is that Bonnie is frequently served liquor, but rarely takes more than a sip of it while the men drain theirs in one.) Geoff has done this trick on himself before, but it’s, uh, a little more risque when he does it for Judy. He pushes her over the sink, grabs a pitcher of ice-cold water, pours it over her head as she struggles and yelps, and then does it again for good measure or for the heck of it. He towels her off roughly, lecturing her: if he can’t even say it to himself, what’s your business badgering him about it and making him feel worse? (One wants to shake Cary Grant through the screen eighty years later and yell something to the effect of “THEY’RE MARRIED,” but alas, time.) It’s not Geoff’s first instance being rough with a woman. Twice on Bonnie’s first night in Barranca, he does the “snap out of it” shoulder-shaking routine with her. Part of being a man is some aspect of physical discipline, the film argues, and being capable of meting it out against anyone (the Kid has to get laid low with a punch from Geoff at one point) is an essential. But for women in a manly man’s world, in the tough business of pre-jet airlines and the presumed wilderness of South America, they need a special seasoning from their male counterparts. After her dousing, Judy comes to see Geoff. You were right, Jeff, she says. It’s my job to support him.

The macho characters in the film get to be that way most of the time without too much resistance, but in moments like Geoff’s tears in close-up, we get the sense that the machismo is less a fact of who these men are and more a statement of how they’re expected to act. (There’s a goofy double-vision here. Nothing in the film could have been playacted more than Grant crying, but it’s the other 99.9% of his screen time which is meant to be read as a mere front for this guy who does, yes, have a heart. Geoff’s tears are honesty; Grant’s buff command strategy is raw manhood.) Bonnie has already missed her boat once in an effort to snare Geoff. A mechanic, Sparks (Victor Killian), advises her to say goodbye to Geoff before she goes a week later; he’d want you to, Sparks implies heavily. Later on, before flying the mail in a tag team with Les, Geoff has to subduct his request for Bonnie to stay behind a coin with only the “heads” side. It’s another chink in the armor for aloof manliness; Bonnie has done what no other woman could and won our chauvinist flyboy hero over. This isn’t a feminist extravaganza, but it is a fairly thoughtful reflection on what American men are. Hawks manages to slip in a few words about what American men ought to be, too.

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