Only Angels Have Wings Review

Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) disembarks the San Luis after it docks in the small South American port of Barranca. An unemployed showgirl and looking for company, she falls in with two fellow countrymen, Les Peteres (Allyn Joslyn) and Joe Souther (Noah Berry Jr) – American airmail fliers who frequent the, seemingly, only bar in town. Ran by ‘Dutchy’ (Sig Rumann), the bar/restaurant/general store/hotel/gathering place and headquarters of Barranca Airways is the place to be, where a toss-of-a-coin can get you a steak or the chance to be in the air.

Geoff Carter (Cary Grant), steely boss and general misogynist makes his presence heard and seen; dressed flamboyantly in high waisted trousers, a gun belt and a large Panama hat, worn on a jaunty angle, think saloon-dwelling Indiana Jones type. It is quintessential glamorous and sensitive Grant, however; there is an underlying darkness which is rare. A man, as the film’s original trailed declares, who has a “propeller blade for a heart and an eye for a pretty girl.” The pretty girls in question, although as per the Hawks way far from just that, are Arthur and Rita Hayworth (looking far less Spanish than she had previously) and they are aptly supported by Thomas Mitchell (Gone With the Wind, It’s a Wonderful Life) and Richard Barthelmess (Broken Blossoms, The Dawn Patrol).

If anybody can make an aviation adventure-dramedy with real levity and musical numbers blend in such a way it is Howard Hawks. The plot is slight but the dialogue; pacing and verbal wit, superb special FX and lighting (oh how Hawks could light a movie!) flesh out the otherwise simple story accompanied by a wonderful score by Dmitri Tiomkin. What carries it is the maverick machismo of these high flying men, their friendships, loneliness, camaraderie and even love. Love for each other and love for the air, there is little glory in what they do and certainly no flag flying but they are there day-in-day-out regardless of the peril. Not unlike all of those other men preparing to forge their own close barracked friendships following Only Angels Have Wings release in 1939.

The Criterion Collection launches in the UK on April 18th with a small, yet defined, assortment of filmic goodies on Blu-ray for the discerning cinephile. Grateful for the restoration, both visual and aural, and availability, Only Angels Have Wings is the Hawks not often discussed; a hidden treasure made all the more valuable by the love and attention shown by Criterion. The crisp sound and perfect transfer/picture quality will make an audience believe they are in that South American Port of Barranca.

Aside from the option to select chapters and make screen selections, this disc also offers the ability to bookmark within the film’s timeline and save scenes for further analysis or study.

Hawks and Bogdanovich (19 mins)
Audio excerpts taken from a conversation between writer, actor, director and producer Peter Bogdanovich and Howard Hawks recorded in Palm Springs, California in 1972. It is an alternative to commentary as both men discuss the basis for Only Angels Have Wings. They touch upon Hawks’ time as part of the Air Corp, his brother’s death and his personal history with aviation. A significant conversation ensues about Hawks’ lighting and some wonderful anecdotal titbits about his leading men and reigning in their performances. Hawks is a fascinating, albeit very staid interviewee. It would have been great had the film still that the audio was played over had changed over the nineteen minutes but regardless it is enlightening.

David Thomson on Only Angels Have Wings (16 mins 40 secs)
Film historian David Thomson discusses the film in depth in a new interview recorded in 2016. The interview is intercut with scenes from the film and discusses Hawks’ influences and provides a brilliant critique. The best extra on the disc, shame it isn’t longer.

Howard Hawks and His Aviation Movies (20 mins)
Craig Barron and Ben Burtt look to Hawks’ obsession with aviation within his films The Dawn Patrol, Air Force, Ceiling Zero, the connection with realism, special FX, most notably sound. It’s informative but becomes a little dull, the two men despite being in an aeroplane hanger, wearing bomber jackets and looking the part, they never really gel as watchable subjects in front of the camera.

Lux Radio Theatre
A 60 minute radio adaptation of Only Angels Have Wings featuring the principal cast from the film, hosted by director Cecil B. De Mille and originally broadcast on May 29 1939. This is great fun and the only criticism is I wished I had have listened to this before watching the film.

In case anybody is doubtful about the amazing restorative work Criterion do, check out the original trailer in all its scratched, dull and dodgy picture and mute sounding glory.

Hel Harding-Jones

Updated: Apr 18, 2016

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