17 April 2007

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Directed by: Howard Hawks
Written by: Jules Furthman

Grade: A

As Ninotchka was billed as, "Garbo Talks!", Only Angels Have Wings could've been billed as, "Cary Cries!" since Mr. Grant, in one of his most complex performances (to my mind, only Notorious exceeds it), actually sheds some tears of grief. He also loses his cool at one point, kicking over a chair in furious fit. For the debonair and always upright actor, it's an uncharacteristic film.

Uncharacteristic in more ways than one. Only Angels Have Wings sports an unusual (for a '30s movie) opening scene that's long and hardly bothers to get the plot moving, dawdling instead in a set piece that introduces and extensively develops the characters. (Only Angels... is a rarity—a successfully character-driven action movie.) The adorably squeaky Jean Arthur is on a sea voyage with a stopover in Panama, where she quickly pals up with some fellow Americans who are down there flying planes—delivering mail, mostly. Two guys congenially fight over who gets to buy her a steak; though Joe wins, before he can say "medium-well" the boss, Cary Grant, sends him off on a flight. The weather's bad and, in his hurry to make it back for dinner, Joe's plane crashes, sending Arthur into hysterics, especially when no one else seems to care. "What's the use of feeling bad about something that couldn't be helped?" asks Grant, ordering his men to see if he's alive (he's not) but also, more importantly, to retrieve the mail.

Is Grant really so cold and unsentimental? When Arthur reprimands them for going about their business without properly mourning Joe, they all reply, "Joe who?" That tears it, and a fight breaks out between she and Grant in which he briefly takes off his mask to snap at her: "You feel like bawlin', hun? How do you think we feel?" But men don't get nowhere by crying, so instead they have one hell of a party. Arthur pulls herself together and rejoins the guys. "Grow up yet?" Grant asks her. "Hope so," she replies with a smile before working the piano like she was Dooley Wilson.

The pilots are like soldiers, risking their lives on dangerous missions and leaving the women behind to worry; primarily, Only Angels Have Wings is an examination of the nature of fraternity, in the strictly literal male sense, thrown out of a balance by the introduction of a woman. Arthur falls for Grant but The Kid (Thomas Mitchell, always amazing) warns her, "he's a good guy...for girls to stay away from!" Still, Arthur can't help herself and Grant, against his better judgment, falls for her too, but they won't get together until: (1) Arthur stops being so emotional, and (2) Grant cuts out all the tough-guy posturing. In short, until they meet half-way and—in broad, stereotypical terms—she acts like a man and he acts like a woman. (A decade later, Grant and Hawks would take this a step further in their tribute to transvestitism, I Was a Male War Bride.)

Grant, Arthur and Mitchell all came from screwball comedies—the latter two went on six months later to memorably fill-out Frank Capra's masterpiece Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—and together they bring moments of levity to an otherwise dark film, moments that would've been lost with an actor like Bogart in the lead. What's remarkable is that the cast never fumbles with the story's grim side—even Mitchell, often the disposable comic-sidekick, gets his own dead-serious dramatic scene, and he pulls it off marvelously.

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