Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings is a classic of adventure and drama. Set in a small Latin American port town, Hawks recounts the daily dramas and dangers of a group of pilots at its fledgling airfield. Led by Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) the men daily risk their lives to keep their schedule so their kindhearted boss Dutchy (Sig Ruman) will get a mail contract he desperately needs. Dutchy is on the verge of losing everything – his hotel, his store, his airfield – and Geoff is determined to get him his mail contract at all costs. Hawks introduces us to Geoff and his men through Jean Arthur. She plays Bonnie Lee, an American nightclub performer making her way home. Her ship docks in their town and she spends the evening enjoying the attentions of two pilots. She will, of course, eventually fall in love with Geoff, though he wants nothing to do with her in the beginning. She conveniently misses her boat and gets wrapped up in the high tension world of their airfield.
The romance between Bonnie and Geoff is not, as it would first appear, the main focus of the story. Perhaps Hawks trimmed her part when, as it has been reported, he struggled to get the performance out of Arthur he wanted, but whatever the reason, she serves as our introduction to this specific world of U.S. aviators in South America. She recedes into the background as the story shifts to the real meat of the plot: the pilots’ battle against the elements and mechanical failure to secure the contract, and the hostile relationship between a new pilot MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess) and Geoff’s trusted right hand man Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell). MacPherson has been blackballed from airfields throughout the Americas because years earlier he parachuted out of a spiraling plane, leaving his copilot to die a fiery death. The copilot was Kid’s brother and Kid has vowed revenge. Normally Geoff would not have hired someone hated by everyone else, but too many men have died and he needs to have pilots – especially a pilot who is desperate enough for a job that he can throw the most dangerous assignments at him. Geoff convinces the Kid to put aside his antipathy for the man who didn’t bother to save the Kid’s brother – at least until the mail contract is secured.
This is one of those rare movie where the leads actually end up supporting the true spine of the narrative: the subplots. Though it comes later in the film, the Kid’s hostility for MacPherson is the most emotionally resonant part of the narrative. Their relationship evolves from active (almost violent) hatred to an icy truce to mutual respect is compelling. Hawks, Mitchell, and Barthelmess develop these characters and their relationship flawlessly, allowing us to identify and empathize with both. Plus Thomas Mitchell gives one of his most nuanced and accomplished supporting performances of his career, something in which he specialized in the 1930s and 1940s.
Only Angels Have Wings is an effective white-knuckle action movie, but Hawks, like he did with all of his great movies, uses the drama to explore deeper themes. Here he asks us to consider the temporality of life in a microcosm in which death is a constant presence in the lives of its men. At one point, after a pilot has died, Geoff and the other pilots go on as though nothing has happened and he sends another pilot on the same fatal route. In a fluster with all the activity around her and unsure how to process the emotion, Bonnie exclaims, “Say, things happen awful fast around here!” Of course they do. They have to move fast both for their own sanity and for the survival of the greater good. They know that any one of them could die on their next run. There’s no use planning or saving for the future and, for those who do go on living, there isn’t much sense into getting too attached to their comrades or mourning after they die. We see similar dynamics among soldiers during wartime.
Howard Hawks was one of the true masters of the Hollywood studio system and Only Angels Have Wings is one of his best. There are lots of characters and subplots swirling around, threatening to disrupt the narrative flow, but Hawks successfully shepherds all the parts into a cohesive and entertaining whole, again exhibiting his mastery of the medium. Watch it as an entertaining adventure, a sultry romance, an example of the Hollywood studio system’s success, as a comment on the omnipresence of death in the midst of life, or any combination of these things. It will work on all levels.