After seeing two earlier Howard Hawks movies about flying, The Dawn Patrol and Ceiling Zero, I couldn’t resist watching his most famous airborne drama. Not surprisingly, I loved this one too. I’ve now watched it twice and am sure I’ll be returning to it in the future.
Hawks wrote the original story which was the basis for the Jules Furthman screenplay of Only Angels Have Wings, and set it in the same world as Ceiling Zero. Again he focuses on a small close-knit group of mail pilots who are determined to make sure the letters get through on time, whatever the weather, even at the cost of their lives. The sheer number of dead and injured by the end of the film makes it feel almost like a drama set in a war zone – except that here the enemies are fog, hills, trees and passing birds.
However, intertwined with all the melodrama, there is also a strong element of humorous romance, making it hugely entertaining to watch. At times the quickfire dialogue between Cary Grant and Jean Arthur almost seems to be taken from a screwball comedy like Hawks’ His Girl Friday. The blend of deadly danger and love works brilliantly, even if at times the plot twists seem a little unlikely.
Jean Arthur’s character, travelling piano player Bonnie Lee, doesn’t know quite what she is getting into when she gets off the boat in a small South American town. She is chatted up by two handsome young pilots, who offer to buy her a drink – but, next thing she knows, they are both being packed off to work, and their boss, Geoff ‘Pop’ Carter (Grant) is the one turning his charm in her direction.
The story quickly takes a darker turn when one of the pilots, Joe (Noah Beery Jr) is killed trying to land in fog. Bonnie is shocked by the reaction of the rest of the air crew, especially Geoff, as within 20 minutes they are joking and drinking as if nothing has happened – or so she thinks. “Who’s Joe?” they chorus, when she demands to know how they can be so callous. Taking her outside, Geoff points out to her that this is the only way they can carry on despite their grief. Bonnie dries her tears, takes the lesson on board – and is soon playing the piano for a brave, defiant singalong. This whole sequence is very reminiscent of a scene in The Dawn Patrol where some of the pilots sing and get drunk straight after one of their number has been killed, and the dead man’s grief-stricken buddy accuses them of not caring enough, just as Bonnie does here.
Despite being warned off by Geoff’s best friend, Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell), Bonnie has fallen in love at first sight and decides to let her boat go without her. However, she is soon regretting her decision, as Geoff gives her the cold shoulder and tells her he won’t get involved – his reasoning being that she is a woman and as such is bound to want to change him, settle down and have kids. Above all, he thinks she would want to stop him flying.
At this point, it seems as if Bonnie has almost landed like a female alien in a world of men. Some reviews of this film suggest that she can only win the approval of Geoff, and also of Hawks, when she manages to fit into a man’s world and act more like an honorary man than like a woman. However, I think to say that Bonnie has to adopt male values may be only half the story.
She does have to make changes – but, then, so does Geoff, whose macho insistence that he doesn’t need anybody is never very convincing. (Indeed, it’s constantly undermined by the way he never has a match and has to ask someone else to light his cigarette in almost every scene, a gesture which is by turns comic, infuriating and strangely poignant. The first time he meets Bonnie, he steals a match from her before they have even spoken to one another!) By the end of the film he has shed a few silent tears over the death of a friend, rather than just ordering another drink and organising a singalong – and he has also started to plan for the future, even if he can’t bring himself to ask Bonnie to stay in so many words. (Flipping a two-sided coin seems more manly somehow.)
In one telling scene, Bonnie, played by Jean Arthur with a wryly understated charm, insists that she will learn to love Geoff as his friend Kid loves him – not fussing when he flies into danger but just being there to greet him with a smile when he lands. However, as soon as she asks Kid about how to achieve this, she discovers that men have no magic way to avoid worrying about a loved one.
“What do you do if he doesn’t come back when you expect him?” she asks. “I go nuts,” replies Kid flatly.
Of course, I know there is sexism inextricably bound up with the whole idea of the “Hawks woman” who has to take things like a man. Yet I do enjoy the fact that his heroines are able to leave behind the glamour which so often seems to surround women in 1930s and 40s movies, and to live and work alongside men on more equal terms. Having said that, this description really doesn’t apply to Rita Hayworth’s character in this film, Judy. An old flame of Geoff’s, she doesn’t seem to have any life of her own outside her relationships first with him and now with her new husband, veteran pilot Kilgallen (Richard Barthelmess).
The flying sequences were partly done with miniatures and are not always completely convincing, but I’d say that really doesn’t matter – the conviction of the actors carries it all through. All the performances are excellent, and, after being so impressed by Barthelmess in The Dawn Patrol, I particularly enjoyed seeing him as an older pilot, haunted by his memories and longing to redeem himself after cowardice in the past. I also liked Thomas Mitchell’s performance as Kid, with his expression constantly changing to show every little emotional nuance.