The Special Effects of Only Angels Have Wings

Inside Criterion / Sneak Peeks — Apr 14, 2016

Before he became one of cinema’s greatest directors, Howard Hawks was a pilot for the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War I. And in the years following the war, Hawks took advantage of his flying expertise and the public’s fascination with aviation to create a series of films that played to the wonder of flight. His features The Air Circus (1928), Dawn Patrol (1930), and Ceiling Zero (1935) were the first of these films, and they laid the groundwork for his timeless masterpiece Only Angels Have Wings, now out on Blu-ray and DVD.

Set in the fictional South American port of Barranca, Only Angels Have Wings (1939) stars Cary Grant as Geoff Carter, a thrill-seeking pilot managing a struggling airmail company, and Jean Arthur as Bonnie Lee, a visiting entertainer whose stopover becomes a permanent stay when she finds herself immersed in Carter’s dangerous lifestyle. This compelling tale of honor, love, and adventure—enhanced by a sparklingly witty script by Jules Furthman—also features a radiant Rita Hayworth in her first major film role. But what also sets Only Angels Have Wings apart are the innovative special effects that Hawks employed to capture the film’s more challenging flight stunts.

To simulate the experience of traversing the steep mountain passes of the Andes, for the film’s major flight scenes Hawks and his team amalgamated live action with miniatures. In a new program on our release, film scholars Craig Barron and Ben Burtt explore Hawks’s aviation movies: in the clip below, Barron discusses Only Angels Have Wings’s stunning aerial photography and the unique techniques used to create its breathtaking visuals.