Only Angels have Wings: Cary Grant epitomizes the tough, existential Hero in this prototypical Howard Hawks classic

January 18 marks Cary Grant’s 116th birth anniversary. So it’s good time to look back at one of his most memorable performances in one his greatest films: director Howard Hawks’ 1939 film Only Angels have Wings, which has now completed 80 years. The film was, perhaps, the first time Grant broke from the mold of the debonair, charming and funny ‘Cary Grant’ character to play a more darker, cynical, serious role

Hey, Things happen awfully fast around here

Bonnie Lee(Jean Arthur) wonders aloud, as she amazes at the speed with which things progress in Barranca, the fictional south American port town in Only Angels have Wings. Bonnie Lee had just stepped of a banana boat, and is immediately acquainted with two American gentlemen, who show her around and invite her out for dinner. She promises to have dinner with one of them, Joe Souther (Noah Beery Jr.). But then Joe has to pilot a single prop plane, carrying mail out of town; a perilous journey through the Andes, marred by rainstorm and fog. Unfortunately, Joe crashes and dies, trying to land the plane through thick fog. Next: Bonnie makes her acquaintance with Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) and “Dutchy” Van Ruyter (Sig Ruman). Geoff is the manager of Barranca airways – for which Joe was working – and Dutchy is the owner. The airways is barely solvent , and consists of some down-and-out American exiles flying planes, which are barely in good condition. Geoff and crew fully knows the risks, and hence, even though they are disturbed and saddened by the death of Joe, they get on with their lives. Within 20 minutes of Joe’s death, Jeff and crew are back in Dutchy’s saloon, eating, drinking and partying; something that shocks Bonnie. She bristles at, what she perceives to be their brazen insensitivity to Joe’s death. But Geoff and Co. shut her up with the question “Joe Who?”, reiterating their life’s mantra, that tragedies happen, but life has to go on. And soon enough, Bonnie, a piano-playing entertainer herself, joins in the fun. As a showgirl, She is familiar with the adage that ‘show must go on‘ ; not just that, Bonnie is soon falling in love with the tough, cagey Geoff. It appears that Geoff too has feelings for Bonnie, but true to his cagey nature, he refuses to acknowledge it. Bonnie had planned to go to Panama by the boat next morning, but something about Geoff makes her stay. It’s obvious to everyone that she is smitten with Geoff , but Geoff repeatedly makes it clear that he didn’t ask her to stay. His philosophy is: “I never ask any woman to do anything for me, because soon enough they’ll be asking me to do things for them“. Things are complicated further with the arrival of Judy(Rita Hayworth), Geoff’s ex-flame , now married to disgraced pilot Bat MacPherson(Richard Barthelmess) . Judy’s lack of faith in his profession and her abandonment of him, had a lot to do with Geoff turning out to be the way he is now. Judy seems to have lost faith in her current husband as well, and appears to be warming up to Jeff again, much to the dismay of Bonnie: who was expecting that Geoff would mend his wandering ways and settle down with her. What follows is an elaborate resolution to this classic Hawksian quadrangular quagmire, where each character will find love, redemption, acceptance and a happy ending.

Only Angels have Wings, like a lot of Hawks films, is a mixture of a lot of genres. It’s an adventure story, it’s a comedy, it’s a romance, it has early Noir elements in it, and it’s also a musical. The fictional South American port town of Barranca, which forms the location of the film, is a typical Hawks’ Boys town: an exotic fantasy land, just like Martinique in To Have and Have Not or Rio Bravo. It is populated by a bunch of Hawksian archetypes, topped of by the prototypical Hawksian hero Geoff Carter. Barranca is a totally closed off world akin to a hermitage, where a group of people dwell in an almost ascetic existence, governed by their own rules and moral codes. They talk and behave as only characters in a Howard Hawks film does. Though the world is pure fantasy, the characters and the details of their every day life is totally truthful. The theme of the film represents the culmination of Hawksian themes up until that time: of tough men bonding together in a moment of crisis. These are a group of highly individualistic, unattached and women-starved men, with no long term aspirations or goals, except for what is in the present; men who live in the moment and find their meaning through their camaraderie and understated support of each other. The dramatic interplay between these characters is understated, light-hearted and never melodramatic. In creating this world. Hawks is ably assisted by his screenwriter Jules Furthman, who believed in this Hawksian philosophy wholeheartedly, and would go on to write several classics for him. The sprawling set of Barranca was erected on the Colombia Ranch in North Hollywood, right next to the Shangrila set of Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon. And in many ways, Hawks’ Barranca is very much a utopia like Shangri-la, where time stands still. Hawks compresses events that might take place over a period of several weeks and months to just a few days in the film. And like Shangri-la, the place looks cut off from the rest of the world, except for the airways run by Geoff.

Geoff is the High priest of this hermitage, and the prototype for a lot of Hawksian heroes to follow. He epitomizes the existential hero who brings meaning and purpose to this crazy, fantasy world. He is outwardly tough, cynical, unromantic – dismissive of women – and even fatalistic, but deep inside, he is more than what others makes him out to be. He is self-sufficient, possesses a strong moral center and is capable of tender emotions like romance and sensitivity, though he does his best to hide them underneath a cynical shell. This isn’t exactly the first time we see these elements in a Hawksian hero, but this will be the film in which this character, and this Hawksian fantasy world, will be fully formulated. The character can be seen again in the two Bogart characters in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep and in all the John Wayne characters in Hawks’ films. Cary Grant gives one of his greatest screen performances as Geoff Carter. Hawks, who, just the previous year had tapped the brilliant comedian in Grant in Bringing up Baby, gives him a completely different role here. The kind of serious, cynical, tough guy that would seem more suitable for Humphrey Bogart or Clark Gable. But Grant brings his own interpretation to the role. The combination of the star’s drop dead gorgeousness and signature charm and the character’s cynicism and toughness proving to be absolutely irresistible. Grant would go on to do two more films for Hawks – four all together – and apart from Alfred Hitchcock, Hawks would be the chief architect in creating the ‘Cary Grant’ persona.

Only Angels have wings was the prototypical Hawks film in several other ways too, starting with the Hawksian women; The fun begins in a Hawks films when a woman arrives in this ‘ascetic’ world. She pretty soon becomes one among the ‘boys’ and usually goes after the high priest; aggressively courting him; breaking his cynical shell and exposing him to be the true romantic he is. She is more than a match for the man she’s in love with, and manages to tame him by the end of the film by breaking down all his defenses. In this film, we have two women : Bonnie and Judy. Bonnie is the prototypical Hawksian woman that will form the model for a lot of women to come in Hawks’ films. Immediately on her arrival, she gets comfortable with this ‘boys only’ group, and Geoff and Co. treats her as one of the ‘guys’. In the first meeting between Geoff and Bonnie, Geoff casually takes the cigarette from Bonnie’s hands and lights his cigarette. We later see him do this with all his other comrades. It’s also interesting to note that Geoff carries the cigarettes, but never matches. and it’s always upto the woman to light his cigarette; a metaphor for firing his dormant passion; the lighting of each other’s cigarettes will be an important part of, both, romantic courtship and male comradeship in Hawks’ films – just check out the number of cigarettes that Bogart and Bacall would light for each other in the two films that Hawks made with them. Bonnie is first repulsed by Geoff, but as things progresses and she comes to know more and more about Geoff’s character, she starts falling in love with him. She is spirited, fiery and stubborn, just as Geoff, but she is different in the sense that she is overtly romantic, and quite a hopeless one at that. Her famous words being ” i am hard to get, all you need to do is ask“. Jean Arthur was coming off playing the wholesome American heroine in Frank Capra’s films and just couldn’t get a hang of the flirtatious, insolent Hawksian woman. Hawks tried his best to get her to perform to his specifications, but seeing the situation as hopeless, would just give up. He would later recreate the same character countless times; most successfully with Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not. According to Hawks, after seeing Lauren Bacall’s performance in that film, Jean Arthur apologized to Hawks for not understanding the character fully.

The other woman character of Judy is played by Rita Hayworth (in one of her first screen appearances). Judy is a character who is only talked about in a lot of Hawks’ later movies, never shown. She is the heart-breaker,pretty much like the girl who may have broken Dean Martin, Robert Mitchum or even Humphrey Bogart’s heart. She is not exactly a Hawksian woman,mainly because she is someone who doesn’t like being one with the boys , and Judy’s status as a flyer’s wife makes her ineligible for membership in the boy’s club; even by the end of the movie she hasn’t a clue as to what’s going on around her; Which could be said about Rita Hayworth also. By Hawks’ estimation, she had no idea how to play the role , and in a scene where she was supposed to be drunk, she was so bad that Hawks and Grant changed it through an improvisation, where Grant pours ice water over Hayworth’s head , and then dries her hair. Even Bonnie is a Hawksian woman ‘in progress’, and not yet fully formed. She hasn’t reconciled to Geoff’s profession and the danger that comes along with it – just as Judy was – , and would try to stop him from going up in the air. This would have tragic consequences.

Apart from the women, the film also abound with Hawksian male prototypes, who attach themselves to the hero in various capacities.

Kid Dabb(Thomas Mitchell): the wounded elder to whom the Hawksian hero plays protector to. He is almost equal to the hero; he banters with him, advice him, gets angry with him; He is the platonic ‘wife’ character in this man’s world. Eddie in To Have and Have Not (1944) and Stumpy in Rio Bravo(1959) – both played by Walter Brennan – are latter variations of this character. 1939 was a great year, not only for American movies, but also for Thomas Mitchell. He was also in John Ford’s Stagecoach and Selznick’s Gone With the Wind. Bat MacPherson: the disgraced younger guy looking for redemption; a former hotshot in his profession, who has now fallen from grace. Our Hawksian hero takes him under his wings and gives him a chance for redemption. He is the prototype for the characters played by Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum in Rio Bravo and El Dorado(1967) respectively. Bat was apparently responsible for once bailing out of a plane and leaving his mechanic to die in the crash. That mechanic was the brother of Geoff’s best friend Kid Dabb. So now his reputation precedes him, and he cannot be one with any group of flyers anywhere in the world. He is treated with contempt by everyone at Barranca, and even his wife – after she comes to know the truth – gives up on him. Geoff takes him in and gives him the most dangerous of missions; all of which he carries out successfully. He finally redeems himself, when he gets a mission to fly with Kid for an immediate mail delivery. The mission turns out to be perilous due to bad weather, and to make matters worse, a flock of condors crashes into the plane: paralyzing the Kid and seriously damaging the engines. But this time Bat holds his nerve and does not parachute out. He brings the plane back to Barranca, managing to crash-land the burning Trimotor on the field, even as he suffers some severe burn injuries. The Kid dies from a broken neck, but not before telling Geoff what MacPherson did.. This paves way for Bat’s reentry into the community, with the fellow flyers welcoming him back, by lighting his cigarette. The rivalry between Kid and Bat, and they finally uniting to work together, will be again reflected in several latter Hawks films: Montgomery Clift and John Ireland in Red River; Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo etc.

The film, like a lot of subsequent Hawks films, will be short on plot (or a fully developed story arc), and would concentrate on character development and dialogues to move the story forward. The film unfolds as a series of episodes: one ‘human’ episode; of character interaction , followed by a ‘mechanical’ episode; of action and adventure involving planes in flight. The film has some of the most stunning aerial\aviation footage, captured for real, for it’s time. A lot of the crashes and and landings are achieved through models and mattes, which is painfully dated today. But it doesn’t matter, the cinematic element in those moments make it gripping. Just take the scene in the beginning, when Joe crashes his plane; which is mirrored in the plane crash scene in the end, when the kid dies. Both scenes are held together by great moments, where Hawks takes his time to build the suspense, inter-cutting between the characters in the plane and Geoff & Co. on the ground coordinating for their safe landing. The film is made of little moments like these; a few moments of comedy, a few moments of tragedy, a few rousing moments of adventure,..; this is what makes Hawks such a unique director. As opposed to other directors: who either try to tell a great story, or try to tell a familiar story differently; Hawks immerses the audience with a group of characters, to an extend that they become totally familiar with their characteristics and behavior patterns, enough to go along on a ride with them. So from that point onward, what these characters does becomes the plot of the film, and the audience doesn’t care whether all this is leading to any logical conclusion. It’s also advantageous that a lot of these characters are professionals; working men; who take pride in (and enjoy) their work, and moreover they are able to translate this pride, this enjoyment to the audience. Whether the lead characters are aviators, lawmen, journalists, cattle drivers or animal hunters; they all manage to make that spiritual connection with the audience; the majority of the audience being made up of Working class people, especially in the 30’s and 40’s, which was the peak period of Hawks. This working class ethos is what made Hawks’ films so popular with the masses. There is an intentional lack of sophistication in the events and characters portrayed in Hawks films, as opposed to the great directors of the time, like William Wyler or Billy Wilder. This was one of the reasons why Hawks’ films never won any Oscars, nor had much critical acclaim during their time.

Angels was a huge hit for Hawks and marked the beginning of his most successful decade in Hollywood. Starting with this film, upto Red River in 1948, Hawks would have an unbroken string of 8 super hit films that would make him one of the most powerful filmmakers in the industry. Angels preceded Casablanca – which is considered the definite adventure\Romance about American exiles caught in an exotic, alien country – by almost 3 years. Hawks was a big aviation enthusiast and this film really feels like one of his most personal projects. Much like his grand westerns, it captures the essence of a culture of bravery that is now largely forgotten, because in a lot of these fields, men has been replaced by machines. Angels fully capture a time in history, when aviation was as exciting and cutting edge as space technology today. 1939 is considered the greatest year in American cinema. It was a time when World War II was about to begin, and America was standing at the cusp of becoming the most powerful country in the world. And no film released in that great year captures the exhilarating, adventurous spirit of the times more than Only Angels have Wings.


One thought on “Only Angels have Wings: Cary Grant epitomizes the tough, existential Hero in this prototypical Howard Hawks classic

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s