Filmsite Movie Review
Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
Pages: (1) (2) (3)

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) is a quintessential adventure-aviation film with drama, dark fatalism, suspense and romance that is stocked with true-to-life sequences, fast-paced action and top stars in skillfully-executed roles. The film's themes include male camaraderie and loyalty, professionalism, courage and duty in the face of life-and-death perils and dangers, and rugged, stoic bravery - the pilots' code. A group of courier-aviators in a mythical outpost in South America (in a confined, tropical area centered around a kindly Dutchman's bar), led by the flinty and often unlikeably rude "Papa" (Cary Grant), face hazards and mortality every day as they fly over fog-shrouded Andes mountains to deliver the mail within a banana republic. One of the film's poster claimed: "ROMANCE SOARING ABOVE THE ANDES! DRAMA THUNDERING ACROSS A CONTINENT!"

Producer, director, and writer Howard Hawks wrote an original short story titled "Plane Four from Barranca" in 1938 and then had screenwriter Jules Furthman create the screenplay [Note: William Rankin and Eleanore Griffin are uncredited writers] - to take advantage of the availability of Cary Grant and Jean Arthur at Columbia Studios. After Grant's success in Gunga Din (1939), this was the actor's 33rd film in a career stretching back seven years. And this was the second of five films that Grant made with Hawks - their sole adventure film among four other screwball comedies (Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), I Was a Male War Bride (1949), and Monkey Business (1952)).

The well-directed film, originally titled Pilot Number 4, was based upon and recalled Hawks' previous aviation films - The Dawn Patrol (1930), Ceiling Zero (1936), and other films of the 30s: John Ford's Airmail (1932), Night Flight (1933), Flight From Glory (1937) and director Edmund Goulding's remake The Dawn Patrol (1938) with Errol Flynn. Only Angels Have Wings mirrored a very successful plot element of other adventure/romance pictures of the 30s (Red Dust (1932), China Seas (1935) and Torrid Zone (1940)) - the idea of an independent woman invading an all-male, small environment and community. Hawks reprised this thematic element in To Have and Have Not (1944) with Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart.

Silent film star Richard Barthelmess (who had appeared in D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920)) returned to the screen in a comeback attempt after a three-year absence in the role of an ostracized and disgraced ace-flier (responsible in the past for causing the death of another aviator) who redeems and vindicates himself by flying on a dangerous mission. [Barthelmess also appeared in the lead role in Hawks' first successful flying movie and first talkie, The Dawn Patrol (1930).] Reddish-haired, inexperienced Rita Hayworth (birthname: Margarita Cansino) made her most important film appearance to date as Grant's "no-good" ex-wife. And star Thomas Mitchell appeared in at least four other great films in the same year: in Ford's Stagecoach (1939), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) (with co-star Jean Arthur!), Gone With the Wind (1939), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).

[Note: For trivia buffs, this is the film that inspired the oft-quoted Cary Grant impersonation of "Ju-dy, Ju-dy, Ju-dy" - the character name of his vampish co-star, although he never pronounces her name that way. The multiple mention of the name Judy probably originated with comedy impersonator Larry Storch who was actually referring to Judy Garland.]

The film received only two Academy Awards nominations without winning any Oscars: Best B/W Cinematography (Joseph Walker) in preliminary balloting, and Best Special Effects (Roy Davidson and Edwin C. Hahn). The film, shot in Los Angeles, was significant for being one of the first to receive an Oscar nomination for Special Effects - a category recognized for the first time.

Plot Synopsis

The title of the film appears in lower case, supposedly at the end of a sentence, and it is surrounded by quotation marks: "- only angels have wings." [The reason for the film's title is never explicitly explained within the film.] The tale opens on a foggy night with the docking of the ship San Luis at the small, exotic port of Barranca in Ecuador:

Port of call for the South American banana boats.

Two handsome and amiable American air-mail fliers, Les Peters (Allyn Joslyn) (from New York) and Joe Souther (Noah Berry, Jr.) (from Kansas) collect two sacks of mail from the boat's purser Rafael and inquire about female prospects among the tourist passengers. A pretty American blonde with a tight-fitting suit disembarks (for the stop-over until 4:00 am), parades down the gangplank, and catches their eye - they pursue her to a nearby cafe. She stands at the doorway looking in at locals dancing and singing "Chick-a-chee." Although a foreigner, she attempts to cheerfully sing along with the refrain. Outside, she is delightfully pleased to learn that the on-the-make guys are Americans. She surprises them by striking up an acquaintance with her two fellow countrymen: "Sure sounds good to hear something that doesn't sound like pig latin" - she introduces herself as Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) "from Brooklyn."

The two fliers, while both making a play for Bonnie Lee, take her to their place of work for a drink - a flying service owned [for the previous year and a half] by John Vanrider, a Dutchman affectionately named "Dutchy" (Sig Rumann) ("the postmaster and leading banker of Barranca") - the restaurant that he also owns is a combination saloon, general store, hotel, gathering place, and airlines headquarters for Barranca Airways. They describe their work: "We fly a little mail and things here and there," and they toast their drinks with "Happy Landings!" Bonnie Lee is unemployed and on her way home, unless she gets a job in Panama as a showgirl: "I quit a show at Valparaiso."

Les and Joe gamble (by guessing the number of matchsticks in Joe's hand) to decide who will have a "real American steak" dinner with Bonnie. [The 'odd' guess of Les loses the bet - it is the first wager in the film.] The steely, misogynist boss of the Latin American pilots is Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) (often called "Papa" by his workers), a no-nonsense, steely supervisor who looks like a gaucho with a wide Panama hat and a gun holster. In his first encounter with Bonnie, he strides over to the table and boldly grabs her cigarette to light his own - without permission. He reverses the outcome of their bet, gives Les an overnight warehouse job, and orders bet-winner Joe to fly that night into the Peruvian Andes on a dangerous mission in bad weather: "Sorry, Joe, but the mail goes out on schedule. So do the pilots." Geoff assures the fliers that he can take care of Bonnie by having dinner with her himself:

I'll be glad to take up where you left off.

He asks about the perky blonde and her occupation:

Bonnie: Now look here, mister. I've got something to say about this, you know.
Geoff: Chorus girl?
Bonnie: No, I do a specialty.
Geoff: So much the better...

A young and dutiful Joe assures his Latin American girlfriend Lily (Milisa Sierra) as he leaves to board an old, rickety plane: "I've got to go. I'll be back soon." Ground fog that's about 200-300 feet thick, and a foggy mountain pass (with a live-in lookout named Tex Gordon (Don 'Red' Barry) stationed there who always radios: "Calling Barranca...") threaten all flying assignments: "The only way inland from here is through a deep pass...It's 14,000 feet at the low spot. Wind and clouds make it a bad place." Bonnie marvels at the miracle of aviation when Joe takes off in the single-engine plane, but Geoff is spiteful of her reaction:

Bonnie: Oh, it's the most wonderful thing I've ever seen.
Geoff: Yes. Reminded you of a great big beautiful bird, didn't it?
Bonnie: No, it didn't at all. That's why it's so wonderful. It's really a flying human being.
Geoff: Well, you're right about one thing. A bird would have too much sense to fly in that kind of muck.

The pass quickly closes in and becomes enshrouded enroute ("a heavy fog bank"), noticed by Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell), another of the older, daredevil pilots. Joe is forced to turn back and make a risky landing - he is determined to share a steak with Bonnie that evening: "You tell that beautiful blonde I'm still in the running." Kid's affection for Geoff is illustrated by the gesture of taking his jacket outside to him near the cold airfield and draping it over his shoulders. To allow better concentration, Geoff orders the piano player to stop playing Turkey in the Straw in the saloon.

The scene of Joe's attempted landing in the fog, as Geoff lines him up and talks him down three times, is nerve-wracking - the camera persistently remains with the controllers and witnesses on the ground [Bonnie stands with Dutchy, and Kid Dabb stands with Geoff, while Lily hovers on the side], only allowing the sound of Joe's radio observations, and the drone of his plane's engine to be heard:

[First attempt] On top of the fog at 1500...Flying at 1500 due east...Here I come, 1200...A thousand. Eight hundred, six hundred... [Second attempt] Here I come, six hundred...five hundred, four hundred...three hundred...I'm down to 100 now, Geoff...(He narrowly misses crashing) I saw the lights, I'll get it next time... [Third attempt] Give me one more chance. I think I see a hole. Yeah, I do see one. I'm comin' down, Geoff...It's all right, Geoff, I see the lights. I'll make it easy.

Although Geoff orders Joe to circle the obscured field until it is clear, to "stick to business," and to "quit worrying about that blonde," Joe slices off one wing on a tree near the runway, and then fatally crashes. Without any expression of emotion or grief, Geoff reacts with matter-of-fact orders to "get the wagon, take along a big pair of shears in case you have to cut him out...get the mail...telephone the police and have them clear the field..." Trembling but remaining steadfastly stoic, Kid Dabb solicitously lights Geoff's cigarette for him as they stand there paralyzed by the incident. Geoff blames the accident on Joe's brash, "wise-guy" disobedience and disregard of his orders, and his non-business-like attitude - and on Bonnie's contribution to the "trouble":

Kid Dabb: Well, you did all you could.
Geoff: Yeah. Mr. Wise Guy.
Bonnie: Oh, do something, do something. He may be alive! Don't just stand there!
Geoff: Cut it out. Pull yourself together. Haven't you caused enough trouble?

Dutchy confirms the fatalistic, indifferent reaction of the other fliers:

Joe, you crazy fool! Nobody could tell you anything. You knew it all, huh? Well, it serves you right. I don't feel sorry for you. Not a bit. No skin off my nose. If you can take it, I can.

Both Dutchy and Geoff have been betting on future prosperity (with ramshackle airplanes and equipment in their "flying business") to win a government contract to fly the mail. They are within a week of meeting the deadline of their six month trial period. Realizing their young flier's foolhardy action and expressing his own grim fatalism about aviation, Geoff reminds his partner of their commitment to running a business - and the very nature of their life-and-death enterprise. Without taking time out for mourning, he asserts that death must be calmly and professionally accepted ("Joe just wasn't good enough. If he hadn't got it tonight, he was bound to get it sooner or later"):

Geoff: In about a week, you'll either collect or lose your shirt.
Dutchy: Oh, I'm not thinking about that. I just can't go on killing nice kids like that, not if I lose a dozen shirts!
Geoff: You think you're the only one that feels that way?
Dutchy: Then why do you send them up for in that kind of weather?
Geoff: Because I'm running an airline and I'm not running it any different than anybody I ever flew for...Joe died flying, didn't he? That was his job. He just wasn't good enough. That's why he got it.
Dutchy: I ain't built like you are, Geoff. I shouldn't be in such a business. We can't go on like that...Oh, Geoff! You're a hard man, much too hard.
Geoff: Cut it out...Cut it out!..What's the use of feeling bad about something that couldn't be helped?...I told you, Joe just wasn't good enough. If he hadn't got it tonight, he was bound to get it sooner or later.
Dutchy: Then you had no business to let him fly.
Geoff: What, ground that kid? Say, he'd sooner be where he is than quit.

Revealing his own deeper, inner feelings and sympathy, Geoff offers to send Joe's sister in the States $100 that he owes him - but Dutchy knows better: "You don't owe him no money, Geoff." In the bar area, Geoff tells Bonnie that she was partly responsible for Joe's death while reciting the string of events leading up to it:

Sure it was your fault. You were gonna have dinner with him, the Dutchman hired him, I sent him up on schedule, the fog came in, a tree got in the way. All your fault. Forget it, unless you want the honor.

Bonnie is shocked and stunned by Geoff's blasé lack of feeling and casual acceptance of Joe's death as he sits down - as if nothing had happened - and calmly begins eating the exact steak that had been ordered for Joe:

Bonnie: How can you do that?
Geoff: What?
Bonnie: Eat that steak.
Geoff: What's the matter with it?
Bonnie: It was his.
Geoff: Look, what do you want me to do? Have it stuffed?
Bonnie: Haven't you any feelings? Don't you realize he's dead?
Geoff: Who's dead?...Who's Joe?...
Bonnie: What's the matter with you? He was sitting here with us talking and laughing just a few minutes ago and...

After the group of men at the table mocks her and drowns her out with a crass version of the song Send Word to Mother ("Let's break the news to Mother, and tell her there's no other..."), she slaps Geoff hard across the face. She bolts from the table - he follows after her and calls her a "little fool." He advises her to bury her emotionalism and to conceal the pain stemming from Joe's death that occurred twenty minutes earlier:

And all the weeping and wailing in the world won't make him any deader 20 years from now. If you feel like bawling, how do you think we feel?

She goes outside to the porch to reflect (Geoff orders: "Stay there until you put all that together") on the "flying business" at Barranca and everyone's detached and pragmatic realism. In her first conversation with non-flying radio-man Sparks (Victor Kilian), he tells her: "Don't feel too bad about it." Bonnie admits her hatred of funerals that sentimentalize a person's life:

Bonnie: All my life, I've hated funerals. The fuss and bother never brings anybody back. It just spoils remembering them as they really are. And when I see people actually facing it that way, I have to act like a sap. This flying business is new to me.
Sparks: You have to have some crazy way of looking at it to go on.
Bonnie: Does this sort of thing happen very often?
Sparks: Well, that depends on weather and luck.

She has trouble reconciling the flyers' love of flying and its inherent dangers and death (always around the corner): "It's like being in love with a buzz saw." Sparks understands her confusion about the airmens' occupation: "Not much future in it." Even Kid Dabb can't explain why he likes flying after twenty-two years: "I couldn't give you an answer that would make sense." His answer reminds her of her father's philosophy - she tells them that he was a circus tightrope artist ("trapeze - high stuff") who wouldn't use a net and died prematurely:

Sparks: Not much future in that, either.
Bonnie: Yes, we found that out.

She is told that Geoff also flies dangerous missions "when he thinks it's too tough for anyone else," but Kid Dabb ("Geoff's best friend") cautions that as a pilot - he is not a suitable person for a permanent, enduring human relationship with a future based on hopes and dreams: "He's a good guy for gals to stay away from." Converted and with the realization that one cannot be anxious about the life one has chosen, she returns to the saloon. By the piano, she tells Geoff, the epitome of the values of the world of fliers, that she has "grown up" - and then takes center stage to happily accompany herself and lead a sing-along of Some of These Days (and later The Peanut Vendor). When she begins to become melancholy again and moodily plays a few bars of the sorrowful tune Send Word to Mother, he asks her a test question. She snaps out of her doldrums - she has adopted his 'mature' attitude toward life and sudden death and begun to bridge the emotional gap between them:

Geoff: Who's Joe?
Bonnie: Never heard of him.

Next Page