Only Angels Have Wings: Hawks’s Genius Takes Flight

On Film / Essays — Apr 12, 2016
Only Angels essay

Howard Hawks has gone down in film history as an American artist who enjoyed scant critical recognition until, in the early 1950s, the French discerned the genius behind movies like Scarface (1932), Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), and The Big Sleep (1946). But in 1948, James Agee, at that time America’s most influential film critic, began his rave for Red River with an encomium to the career of its maverick producer-director: “When people discuss the real artists in picture-making, they seldom get around to mentioning Howard Hawks. Yet Hawks is one of the most individual and independent directors in the business. Even when he has a vapid chore to do, he gives it character; when a picture really interests him, he gives it enough character to blast you out of your seat.” Like a proto-auteurist critic, Agee boldly assessed this popular artist’s intrepid disposition: “Hawks obviously likes and understands men, grand enterprise, hardship, courage, and magnificent landscape.”

No one quotes that summation—which fits 1939’s Only Angels Have Wings as well as it does Red River—because it didn’t make the pages of Agee on Film. So Jacques Rivette certainly deserves credit for lauding the director’s “marvelous blend of action and morality” and “pragmatic intelligence” in Cahiers du cinéma in 1953. A few years later, Agee’s friend Manny Farber proclaimed Hawks “the key figure in the male action film because he shows a maximum speed, inner life, and view, with the least amount of flatfoot.” Peter Bogdanovich followed with an influential film-by-film interview in 1962, and, roughly simultaneously, the auteur theory’s American spokesman, Andrew Sarris, championed Hawks and his devotion to the “instinctive professionalism” of his protagonists. Hawks briefly became a polemical football when Pauline Kael attacked auteurist critics for, among other things, lionizing certain hypermasculine directors (both directly, in her famous 1963 broadside “Circles and Squares,” and implicitly, in her pans of fatigued aging-auteur works like Hawks’s 1966 El Dorado). But in her 1968 collection, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and right up to the end of her career, Kael rated Hawks’s swift, sexy movies of the thirties and forties as high-water marks of American commercial cinema. He was, she wrote, “a born entertainer.”

It’s about time that Hawks received equal credit for the formal mastery and distinct personality that impressed the auteurists and the zest, sophistication, and prodigious mass appeal that won over Agee and Kael. This new 4K restoration of Only Angels Have Wings provides the perfect occasion to appreciate Hawks both as an artist and an entertainer. It’s the most amiable great movie ever made, thanks to the director’s hard-edged eagerness to please and pinpoint comic-dramatic control—a personal existential statement and a delightful piece of showmanship.

Hawks presents a fledgling South American airmail service as a band of brothers and, occasionally, sisters. Their flaws include streaks of malice, hypocrisy, buffoonery, and pride. But being part of their community brings out the best in each of them—and portraying them elicits a personal best from nearly every member of the cast. Bogdanovich contends that this film made Cary Grant a superstar because it proved he could win the girl as a romantic leading man, not a screwball comic (as in Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth) or a poetic misfit (as in George Cukor’s peak-high comedy Holiday). And he’s right: Grant is great. Clad in broad-rimmed gaucho hats and gaucho pants, he delivers a robust, carnal, yet also delicate and sensitive performance as the flyboys’ boss, who maintains their esprit de corps and discipline as they traverse the Andes in planes held together by the proverbial chewing gum and baling wire. Thomas Mitchell is equally impressive—subtle and moving—as his best pal and right-hand man. So is Richard Barthelmess, as a top aviator with a tainted past. Jean Arthur, in an atypical role, manages to be skittishly charming as an entertainer waiting for a boat out of town (attracted to Grant, she never leaves), and Rita Hayworth is sympathetic and impossibly pretty in her first attention-getting role, as Barthelmess’s wife and Grant’s former flame. It’s startling to see an unselfconscious swagger transform familiar character actors like Noah Beery Jr. (usually a cozy heart-warmer) and Allyn Joslyn (often an officious snob) into virile, unpredictable sky jocks.

The bench depth of this ensemble is essential to the film’s success as romantic fantasy, and to its vitality as popular art. It has become a critical commonplace to say that Hawks operated in top gear when perfecting the personae of luminaries like Grant, Humphrey Bogart, and John Wayne. But in Only Angels Have Wings, Grant serves as the core of a group character—a close-knit, rambunctious fraternity of fliers. The film’s action hinges on two deaths in the company. Its tension comes from seeing whether a couple of newcomers can fill the void.

The perilous job of lifting mail over and through the mountains becomes a crucible for individual character and team loyalty. Hawks weaves brawny romance and comedy and a man’s-man brand of heartbreak into his tribute to vocation. This air service is made up of pilots who love to fly and support personnel who respect the skill. The possibility of death is constant, but they live for their profession, and they get by with a little help from their friends. Saluting even earthy gallantry can be a risky business for any moviemaker, but it is especially so for one like Hawks, who disdains sentimentality. In Only Angels Have Wings, he brings it off with ease. It’s as if this enclave of aviators and craftsmen in Barranca, a fictional South American banana port, fused in his heart and mind with the crack units he’d commanded making movies.

Like his best friend, Victor Fleming, and their fellow filmmakers William “Wild Bill” Wellman and Clarence Brown, Hawks was himself a skillful flier: he’d served as a U.S. Army Signal Corps flight instructor during World War I. He knew flight’s risks first-hand. Four of his six closest Signal Corps friends had died in the Great War. Later, his younger brother Ken, a promising director, perished in a camera plane shooting a movie stunt. Hawks approached directing with the rigor and excitement aviation demanded. He had already made two top-notch flying pictures before Only Angels Have Wings: a mordant British Royal Flying Corps adventure, The Dawn Patrol (1930), and a rowdy tribute to North American airmail pio­neers, Ceiling Zero (1936). (His early résumé also included two other aviation pictures, The Air Circus—from 1928 and now lost—which Hawks disowned after the studio grafted fifteen minutes of talk onto his silent film, and 1933’s Today We Live, a flat romantic soap with a couple of exciting Great War air battles.) By the time he directed Only Angels Have Wings, he was ready to sum up all he knew about life and art in the air and on the ground. Hawks contended that he based the original story entirely on incidents he’d experienced or witnessed and people he’d met on airfields. But what makes the movie enthralling is its fusion of authentic emotion and wisdom with a bag of moviemaking tricks: mini-cliffhangers, booby-trapped coincidences, and even romantic-comedy gimmicks, such as an accidental gunshot, and Arthur stumbling into Grant’s room when he catches her eavesdropping at his door.

Angels is a precursor to a Robert Altman film in its bursts of rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue and its offhanded tragicomedy and improvisational snap. In place of plot, Hawks and his favorite screenwriter, Jules Furthman, set up a succession of comic and dramatic situations that pop with laughs, thrills, and frissons. Early on, they plant questions in your mind: Can the airmail business meet its deadlines and make enough money to survive? Will Arthur persuade Grant that he’s her man? And will Grant and Mitchell’s deep rapport endure the ravages of Mitchell’s aging? The film starts at the port, where fliers Les Peters (Joslyn) and Joe Souther (Beery) amble toward a ship to see if any “talent” is debarking. They promptly spot Bonnie Lee (Arthur), a peripatetic showgirl on her way to Panama. Once Les and Joe make clear that they’re good-natured Yanks, not gauchos on the prowl, she strolls with them to the inn/bar/general store/office of Barranca Airways. From the get-go, the characters perform lived-in routines that keep them amused in this remote locale. They call “odds” or “evens” with a fistful of matchsticks to decide who takes Bonnie to dinner. Joe wins the call. But in a dominating entrance, the man who runs the airline, Geoff Carter (Grant), saunters into the room and lays down the law: “Sorry, Joe, the mail goes on schedule, and so do the pilots.”

Unlike the mail, this movie’s chuckles and pangs don’t arrive like clockwork; instead, they emerge unexpectedly from the characters’ psyches and the performers’ chemistry. As Hawks exploits Grant and Arthur’s stylistic friction—he’s as controlled and elusive as she is emotionally direct—Geoff and Bonnie’s romance plays like an anti-courtship. He puts her down, and she stands up to him.

Geoff and Bonnie share the film’s emotional center with the third major character, Kid Dabb, who arrives in the form of warm, burly, middle-aged Thomas Mitchell. From the moment he warns Geoff that a change of wind has blasted fog into Joe’s flight path, Kid and Geoff’s communication seems telepathic. In the film’s most famous sequence, Joe fatally ignores Geoff’s orders to fly around until the fog breaks. (Though Joe has a devoted local lover, he’s aching to see Bonnie.) As the characters flank Geoff at the field radio, Hawks focuses all their attention, and ours, on Kid listening for Joe’s location and pointing to it through the murk. In a marvel of intuitive film craft, Kid registers as the ear, and Geoff the brain, of a single organism.

Later, Bonnie accuses Geoff of being heartless for digging into the steak Joe ordered for dinner, and Geoff and his fliers form a derisive chorus, shouting, “Who’s Joe?”—then start to sing, “Just break the news to Mother.” This bit proves Hawks’s unequaled ability to take familiar material and make it his own. Here, he is replaying the key post-crash scene from Fleming’s box-office smash Test Pilot (1938). But he reworks it for his own purposes: to teach Bonnie that fliers honor the departed by getting on with delivering mail and cheating death. Fleming’s fliers sing, “If I had the wings of an angel”; as a title, Only Angels Have Wings is probably Hawks’s tip of the hat to his directing buddy.

Action movies are frequently compared to roller coasters. Only Angels Have Wings is like a Ferris wheel, revolving at a smart, steady clip until the audience is sated. Bonnie’s quest to win Geoff over supplies one spoke of the wheel, and Kid’s fear that Geoff will ground him for losing his sight is another. As the fliers go up and down and the story goes round and round, even self-effacing characters like Sparks (Victor Kilian), the radio operator, perform crucial roles, like retrieving the belongings of the dead. And just when the wheel starts to lose momentum, Joe’s replacement gives it a push with his explosive backstory: Bat MacPherson (Barthelmess), under his real name, Kilgallen, once bailed out of a plane before his mechanic, who crashed and died. Kid’s brother was that mechanic; Geoff’s ex-lover Judy (Hayworth) is Bat’s wife. Barthelmess, Mitchell, and Grant act out their conflicts with such conviction that we accept this triple whammy of coincidences. Bat knows that in this world, he has committed an unpardonable sin. He cannot erase it—but his actions can prove that he will sin no more.

To triangulate the suspense during flight scenes, Hawks invented a character named Tex (Donald Barry), who mans a lookout station in the key mountain pass. (Tex’s “Calling Barranca” became a pop-culture catchphrase.) The backdrop is fake. The action that unfolds nearby, like Bat dropping nitroglycerin on a condors’ nest, is stagy and haphazard. But these technical shortcomings just don’t matter. Hawks focuses on the human stakes, and his actors dominate each frame. He gives audiences the illusion that they’re slouching with his ensemble at a bar or hunching with the pilots at the controls of their flying rattletraps. When Kid tells Geoff that he wants to meet his maker alone, you feel close enough to hear his heartbeat. And most of the action is simply exhilarating, especially Bat’s medical rescue of an injured man from a vertiginous location.

Director Walter Hill, who bridges the gap between Hawks and Sam Peckinpah with movies like The Long Riders (1980), reveres this film for its shortcomings as well as for its strengths. “Directors sometimes make these movies that are more like personal essays,” he told me recently. “With Only Angels Have Wings, you’re in this artificial universe—phony sets, phony jobs, like the guy in charge of watching for condors! But it’s really about a worldview, and about codes of honor between men and women, and men and each other. Once you get past Cary Grant’s costume choices, it’s one of his finest performances. The scenes with him and Mitchell, when Mitchell is near death, are unbelievably good, the deepest kind of drama.” A minute later, Hill shot me an e-mail: “One more quick thing. Here we are, a tight little group, and it’s dark out there, and ultimately we are alone, saved only by the grace of the human spirit: friendship, sex, courage . . . Wonderful film.”

Previous Hawks films had demonstrated his grasp of group dynamics, his admiration for competence, his appetite for adventure, and his gifts for melodrama and farce. In Only Angels Have Wings, he brings it all together with a casual profundity. With his ability to connect with audiences kinetically, he achieves that rarity in American mainstream movies: a complete, organic vision of life—and death.