Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

The site stats for this blog sometimes show decidedly odd search terms that bring people to ‘bollywood hide and seek behind a tree’; ‘sailing boat naked’; ‘iwanttohearmukeshsonginmukeshvoice’; ‘saree of kolkata grandmother’; and – this is one I can agree with, wholeheartedly: ‘cary grant being beautiful’. Yes, Cary Grant was very beautiful indeed (would ridiculously handsome be perhaps a more apt term?)

This one, therefore, for all you Grant fans out there. Only Angels Have Wings was one of the five films that Grant made with director Howard Hawks (Bringing up Baby, His Girl Friday, I was a Male War Bride, and Monkey Business were the others) – and this was the only one of these five films that wasn’t a screwball comedy. Instead, Only Angels Have Wings is an absorbing and sensitive melange of drama, action, and romance.

The film is set in a South American port town called Barranca. It’s a very typical expat town: a handful of Americans (and one Dutchman), surrounded by natives who are mostly there to lend colour. Into this set-up comes Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), and it is through her eyes that we get to see and know Barranca and its inhabitants. Bonnie used to be a chorus girl, but now does a specialty. She’s travelling on a banana boat for which Barranca is a port of call. When the boat docks, Bonnie disembarks and goes exploring.

In the midst of her perambulations round town, Bonnie makes friends with two Americans, Joe (Noah Beery Jr) and Les (Allyn Joslyn). Both are openly admiring of Bonnie’s many charms, and have soon managed to coax her into joining them for a drink. Bonnie, who’s been yearning for some American company, is more than happy to oblige.

… and so gets introduced to the entire set-up. There’s Dutchy (Sig Ruman), who owns the hotel and restaurant, and is the local postmaster. As postmaster, Dutchy is responsible for ensuring that mail gets in and out of Barranca – and that’s where Les and Joe come in. Both of them are pilots, working for a tiny airline that Dutchy has set up along with Geoff Carter (Cary Grant), also a flyer.

Joe has just about managed to get Bonnie to agree to have dinner with him when he gets called to take a plane out with the mail. Joe and Les toss a coin, and Les agrees to go in Joe’s stead, while Joe has dinner with Bonnie. Just then, however, Geoff Carter comes along and puts his foot down. He needs Les to attend to some other work; Joe has to take the mail out.

And with the inevitability of fate, Joe finds himself enveloped in a bad fog. The little airline’s lookout in the mountains reports such dense fog that Joe is forced to head back for Barranca – where the fog has suddenly thickened into dense, impenetrable opacity. Using a radio and with fog lights out, Geoff tries to guide Joe in to land, but when that doesn’t work, he orders Joe to circle around (he has fuel for another three hours) until the fog lifts.

But Joe is impatient; he wants to have ‘dinner with that blonde’ – and so he tries to land, flying completely blind. And of course, he crashes, and is dead before Bonnie quite realises it.

By the time she does realise it, and has tried to come to terms with it, the other men of the outfit are back to their jobs. There’s one scene, shocking and poignant all at once, in which Bonnie comes into the restaurant to find Geoff, Les and the others standing around, chatting and drinking. The waiter comes by with the steak Joe had ordered before he’d taken off – two plates of steak, one for Joe and one for Bonnie. But Joe is dead, so Geoff tells the waiter to give him the steak, and he begins eating.

Bonnie is horrified, sickened at the callous way in which these men have already forgotten their old friend.
“How can you do that?” she exclaims, and when Geoff asks what, she replies, “Eat that steak.”“It was his,” she explains. And, “Haven’t you any feelings?! Don’t you realise that he’s dead?”
At which Geoff looks up from his steak and says (defiantly), “Who’s dead?”
(she’s getting tearful and indignant now, frustrated at the heartlessness of these men)
And all the men around her chorus: “Who’s Joe?”

The whole point being, as Geoff tells Bonnie when she bursts out crying and runs from the room after slapping him (he follows her): “… yes, and he’s been dead about twenty minutes. And all of the weeping and wailing in the world won’t make him any deader twenty years from now… if you feel like bawling, how do you think we feel?”

Bonnie has soon gotten over grieving for Joe. Chatting with Geoff, she discovers that the little airline at Barranca is at a make-or-break stage in its life: Dutchy is nearing the end of a six-month contract to deliver the mail, twice a week, on time. Just a few more deliveries to be made, and they will have fulfilled their contract. The reward will be a long-term contract, plus heavy subsidies which will allow them to invest in more state-of-the-art planes, not these ramshackle old wrecks that the men are forced to fly.

Gradually, the other problems that plague Geoff begin to rear their heads. For instance, there is Geoff’s best friend and fellow flyer, the Kid (Thomas Mitchell). The Kid’s eyes are no longer good enough for him to fly, but he refuses to acknowledge that fact, because he cannot imagine giving up flying.

Then there’s Geoff’s own past, ragged and unhappy. It turns out that Geoff had once been in love with a woman. But her clinging love for Geoff had finally driven them apart – the woman could not bear the thought of Geoff flying off into the blue yonder and perhaps never coming home from one of those flights. So she had left him, and ever since, Geoff has vowed to steer clear of women. No, no love for him. (Ironically enough, Geoff’s long-lost lady love was rumoured to have married a flyer, eventually).

Bonnie is by now pretty much in love with Geoff. Enough for her to deliberately miss the departure of the banana boat on which she’s booked – she gets them to offload her trunk and leave it at Dutchy’s hotel, where she gets a room.
Unfortunately for Bonnie, Geoff makes it very clear that he wants nothing to do with her. He is finished with love. Bonnie, no matter what she says now, will soon become like all other women: clinging to him and begging him not to fly… the banana boat will be back in a week’s time, he says. You can get back on to it then.

In the meantime, with Joe dead, the Kid taken off flying duties because of his bad eyesight, and Les with a broken arm (thanks to a brawl with a drunk Kid), the airline is badly crippled.
A long-awaited flyer whom Geoff had corresponded with, now arrives. This is MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess), and there’s a shock in store for Geoff. He immediately recognises MacPherson: not MacPherson at all, but a disgraced pilot named Gilgallan. Gilgallan’s name had become a hissing and a byword because he had once bailed out of a plane, leaving his mechanic to die.

And who was the mechanic? The brother of the Kid, who would as soon see Gilgallan as kill him.

And who is Gilgallan/MacPherson’s wife? Judy (Rita Hayworth), Geoff’s long-ago girlfriend.

And so the stage is set, for much drama and dilemma.

What I liked about this film:

It’s entertaining, in a nicely balanced blend of ways. There’s enough drama to please most tastes, there’s a good bit of romance, there is a fair amount of interesting flying (in and out of the mountains and canyons, too). There’s even a little comedy, and a couple of short songs.

Cary Grant. Need I say more?

What I didn’t like:

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I dislike Jean Arthur, but at least as far as the role of Bonnie Lee is concerned, Jean Arthur didn’t quite manage it. Ms Arthur’s always struck me as one of those strong-willed, sensible ladies who won’t stand any nonsense – not quite the way I would have described Bonnie Lee, who seems like an impulsive character, more starry-eyed and emotional than anything else. Interestingly, it seems Howard Hawks had wanted her to project a sexier image in Only Angels Have Wings, but Jean Arthur had put her foot down. I’d still call this particular character miscast.

Oddly enough, Only Angels Have Wings reminded me of two other films. The Dawn Patrol, not just because of the element of flying, but also because there’s that sense of fatality: one never knows, up in the condor-infested, windy Andes, whether one will return safe to Barranca or not. And Casablanca, because of that feeling of expats in a forgotten corner of the world… and the resurfacing of an old love adds to the sense of déjà vu.

A good film, and refreshingly unusual, if all you’ve ever seen Cary Grant in is screwball comedy or Hitchcock.


16 thoughts on “Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

  1. Remember seeing this some time back and liking it! Thanks for a lovely refresher view as always, and Cary Grant is my favourite actor – I seem to love a lot of movies that he is in.


  2. Madhu, you’re a fabulous writer and I’m sure this review is as engaging and intelligent as all your reviews, but sadly I’m missing out on the pleasure of reading it because I just can’t get past that first screeshot of gorgeous Cary. Forgive me. :-D

    PS. I really liked “Only Angels Have Wings” since I have a fondness for Cary Grant in his darker, more tormented roles (ex. Notorious, Suspicion, etc.).


    • That was the whole idea – that you shouldn’t get past that first screenshot! ;-) Cary Grant was such a pleasure to look at – and such a pleasure to watch, even if not from a merely aesthetic point of view!

      I really like Cary Grant in his more tormented roles too – and I guess Alfred Hitchcock is one director I’m grateful to, for having given Grant something more than the screwball comedies he was known for.


  3. Hi Madhu,
    This one sounds so good. I’m so tired these days that I just don’t have the energy to write any posts. The dreadedly boring fashion week is going on and I have to go every day :(
    But will catch up very soon hopefully :)


    • Oh, Sharmi, you poor thing! Only this morning I was looking at photographs of fashion week in the newspaper, and thinking to myself: thank goodness I’m not obliged to go for any of this!

      By the way, I’ve also been thinking of you, because I’ve rented Shonar Kella. It’s a DVD, so I’m hoping it’ll have subtitles. Looking forward to watching it! :-)


  4. Cary Grant and no screw-ball comedy, that’s a risk, isn’t it?
    And men bossing over in foreign lands and controlling the economy, doesn’t really appeal to me much, thus I think I’ll give it a miss.

    Your writing is as usual very appealing though! :-)


  5. I am with Harvey on this – Cary Grant and no comedy is a bit of a risk! You certainly make it sound very appealing, though. I remember finding it somewhat boring and bailed out about 30-40 minutes into the film. Cary Grant as a macho and somewhat tortured hero did not quite make it for me…


    • Though I have to admit Cary Grant as tortured hero is not half as tortured as some of the other heroes I’ve seen! ;-)

      I actually saw this film twice. The first time, after I’d seen it, I put it in the ‘no need to watch again’ pile. Then a few months down the line, because I thought I’d review it, I watched it again – and found myself liking it.


  6. I am trying to catch up on all that I missed out on thanks to my injury which appears to have become my life partner, the injury I mean. Anyway, Cary Grant is one of my favourite actors and I do not like to miss out on any of his films, unfortunately I have not seen this. It appears to be an interesting film.


    • Oh, poor you – I was wondering just the other day how your arm is feeling now. Do get well soon!

      If you like Cary Grant (and who in their right mind doesn’t?! ;-)), you should definitely look out for Only Angels Have Wings – it’s a very good Grant film. Definitely worth the watch.


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