Thursday, 16 August 2012

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Kun Engle Har Vinger
”Only Angels Have Wings” is a thoroughly good movie on almost all accounts. This is exactly the right movie to spend an evening with if you just want a good time. It is not a movie of deep socio-political points and not really a comedy either. It is a story of tough men flying a mail line across the Andes Mountains in horrible weather and the life surrounding that. That is enough and that is very entertaining.

For a 2 hour long movie it does not feel long at all. The pace is fast, the dialogue is interesting and there are plenty of high adrenaline flying stunts. For the movies on the list this is a first, though for movies of the period it was not so uncommon. And of course the girls of the movie are quite a sight.

Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) is running this mail service owned by Dutch, the local trade-in-all-things, but it is bare sticking together. If they can keep their contract for 6 month they will land a much bigger contract and will be able to get some proper planes. As it is they have to fly half-wrecks as long as condition are just marginally acceptable to fulfill the contract and they are only a few weeks from completing it. These are tough conditions and Geoff is losing pilots and planes at a frightening pace, but he and his men know this and weather all the bitter losses with stoic macho attitude.

Into this world walks Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), a showbiz girl on her way from A to B but apparently in no hurry to get there. She stands out quite spectacular in this frontier environment and quickly becomes the center of attention. Everybody jockeys for her attention, even Geoff, but when one of the pilots dies landing in bad weather and they all hide their grief in macho banter she shocked and disgusted by their insensitivity. That is, until she finds out that these are the hard realities here and they just have their own way of dealing with the pain.

Jean warms up to Geoff, but then things get complicated again when Bat McPherson (Richard Barthelmess) enters as the new pilot with Geoff former girlfriend Judy (Rita Hayworth) in tow as his wife. Bat carries a secret with him. He once bailed out of a plane while the mechanic crashed. Total dishonor. Only he has come to the wrong place cause one of the pilots here at Barranca, The Kid, is the mechanics brother and his secret is soon common knowledge. Bat is an excellent pilot and he is willing to do anything to prove himself worthy. Excellent qualities when you want to fly for Geoff.

The whole setup with the pilots and the planes here at this frontier location is great. It works and even though Cary Grant is a little too much of a sleek star for the part of this roughneck running this operation it is still quite believable. Once Richard Barthelmess gets out of his suit and into proper flying gear he gets to be a bit of an Indiana Jones and those flights across the pass makes the movie worth seeing on their own.

My sole objection is with the girls. Oh, they are great, not two opinions about it. Jean Arthur is good and Rita Hayworth is just spectacular. It is just that they seem out of place in this setting. Barranca is not a place where you hang around. This is a place where you work and make yourself useful. Geoff does not want a wife who will just settle down and make family and worry about his flying, but that leaves nothing for these women to do but being trophy wives. Otherwise they are basically useless. We never see them do anything but being idle, flirting or worrying and this in a place of grime and hard, dangerous work. I guess that is just being 1939 and me being 2012, but still…

Anyway, that is just a detail. I really enjoyed this one. This is a movie from the time when men were men and instrument flying meant following a compass in bad weather.


  1. This movie is a lot of fun. It's like an early version of Indiana Jones. Sadly, you're right: women in 1930s adventure movies rarely have much to do other than stand around and look pretty. If they did anything more, they might break a nail. Nice writeup!

    1. Thank you.
      I saw this right after "The Crowd" and it was exactly the right medicine. It is exactly a lot of fun.

  2. Danger gets lonely--who wouldn't want a good woman around, except Grant's character? Howard Hawks was really into aerial-based films and of all the classic directors he did them best.

    1. Yes, that guy really loved planes and while that is an excellent and adrenaline filled backdrop, this movie belongs to the actors.