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TR.N Research Indy's Influences Classics Adventures Only Angels Have Wings
Only Angels Have Wings

Released by Columbia Pictures - 1939

Directed by: Howard Hawks
Story by: Howard Hawks
Screenplay by: Jules Furthman
Produced by: Howard Hawks

Cary Grant .... Geoff Carter
Jean Arthur .... Bonnie Lee
Richard Barthelmess .... Bat Kilgallen - MacPherson
Rita Hayworth .... Judith 'Judy' MacPherson
Thomas Mitchell .... Kid Dabb
Allyn Joslyn .... Les Peters


Set in the South American port town of Barranca, Only Angels Have Wings is a film about flyers routinely risking their lives to deliver everything from mail to medicine. Jean Arthur plays a showgirl brought into the mix of chummy aviators with names like Dutchy, Sparks and The Kid. She falls in love with Cary Grant’s Geoff Carter who runs the airline and sometimes pilots the planes when he determines a mission is too dangerous for any of his crew.

Cary Grant as Carter.

Rarely has a fists-in-the-air adventure film dealt so directly and sensitively with the fragile nature of life. Death is an ever-present, right next door reality on this airstrip and these characters face it with courage, humor and great affection for one another, recognizing a shared vulnerability mixed with a lust for flying.

Only Angels Have Wings is a beautiful movie. The rain-soaked tropical atmosphere and roped-together bamboo interiors offer striking contrasts and richly textured lighting, all highlighted by gorgeous black and white cinematography. It’s also an extremely charming story, finding subtle ways to explore the most profound of themes. The film is ultimately about faith.

Jean Arthur as Bonnie.

Early on, Jean Arthur’s Bonnie Lee marvels as a plane take off. "Oh, it’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen. It’s really a flying human being," she says. Then somewhere around the middle of the film, a pilot must take off without an airfield. Despite the obvious danger he flies right off a cliff, eventually gathering enough speed to lift into the air.

Thomas Mitchell plays The Kid, a pilot whose sight has deteriorated and must perform one last mission. His co-pilot on this mission had earlier bailed out on a young pilot who tragically died. The young pilot was The Kid’s brother and now The Kid must put his faith in a man he holds responsible for his brother’s death.

Carter & Bonnie.

Bonnie’s faith in Geoff is eventually challenged by the arrival of his past love, played by Rita Hayworth. As well, games of chance are repeated throughout the film, most poignantly when Geoff invites Bonnie into a coin toss. If the coin lands on heads, she stays with him. If the coin lands on tails, she leaves. She refuses to toss the coin, offended that he would allow their future to be determined by something so haphazard. But then she discovers the coin is a trick, with heads on both sides. She realizes Geoff has asked her to take a chance on him.

The casting is perfect. Cary Grant made seventy-five films in his career and Only Angels Have Wings gets one wishing he had made seventy-five more. Jean Arthur remarkably balances her devotion to Grant with a feisty independence and Thomas Mitchell bursts with so much humanity he could deliver a touching performance standing silently in a corner.

Bonnie in the middle.

Jules Furthman (Morocco, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Big Sleep) wrote the script and it was directed by Howard Hawks with his usual fast-paced finesse. At one point Bonnie mentions, "Say, things sure do happen fast around here," which seems more a comment on Hawks directing than the actual plot. There have been several great directors in Hollywood’s history but Hawks, probably more than any other, proved himself the most skillful at investing his particular style within so many different genres.

Only Angels Have Wings is simply one of the greatest movies ever made. Any underestimating of its value may be due to the year of its release. 1939 was arguably Hollywood’s best year and this little gem may have been overshadowed by a few of the year’s more colorful releases like Gone With The Wind, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Wizard of Oz. Still, despite these other masterpieces, Only Angels Have Wings did win oscar nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Special Effects. As well, it opened the floodgates for greater stardom and more quality roles for Cary Grant and Jean Arthur. (Stephen Jared)


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