Is Only Angels Have Wings the Top Gun of the Golden Age? Both Top Gun and Only Angels Have Wings were nominated for Special Effects at the Academy Awards but are separated by almost 40 years.
Even today, the flight sequences in Only Angels Have Wings will make your jaw drop. Starring Jean Arthur, Cary Grant and, in her first major screen appearance, Rita Hayworth, Only Angels Have Wings was another success in the expert hands of Howard Hawks.
Showgirl Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) arrives at Barranca Airport by boat and is pursued by two flirtatious pilots. Denying their advances, they arrive at a bar and Captain Carter walks in (Cary Grant). Carter manages small planes that deliver mail through surrounding mountains but, after one of the flirty pilots crash down in an effort to woo Bonnie, we see a sadder side. The men laugh and joke, even repeating “Who’s Joe?” when Bonnie begs them to think about the deceased pilot. These men are used to such horror and they bury it down and move on quickly to live another day. Though initially uncomfortable, this carefree attitude (and Cary Grant) keeps Bonnie in Barranca.
There is also the small matter of a pilot who’s frowned upon for parachuting from a plane, leaving the mechanic to die. This is Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess), the husband of Judy (Rita Hayworth) – a woman previously in a relationship with Carter. Despite the gloss of Hollywood, this dark story places Cary Grant in the middle of two women, with the inevitable pairing up between Grant and Jean Arthur. Rita Hayworth is the sexy, seductress; playing the drunken vamp who Grant could have but, instead, settles for the traditional and homely Bonnie Lee.
Geoff Carter is a man that can’t be tamed and Bonnie realises that her love for him needs to tolerate his “need for speed”. It’s all about balance. Balancing love and loss; stasis and change; stoicism and grief. It’s Bonnie who balances Geoff.
Cahiers du Cinema claimed Only Angels Have Wings was an example of auteur Cinema. Written, directed and produced by Hawks, it has all the trademarks of the theory marrying together elements of both his pre-1939 career and hinting at the future. Dave Kehr, for The Chicago Reader, clarifies how the “themes he was developing throughout the 30s [reach a] perfect clarity … without yet confronting the darker intimations that would haunt his films of the 40s and 50s”.
Howard Hawks remains a fascinating figure. Directing hit-after-hit in the mainstream, while retaining a freedom of creativity and independence when choosing each project. Westerns such as Rio Bravo, Gangster films in Scarface and comedies in Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday to name a few. Even Only Angels Have Wings can’t be pigeon-holed into a genre, comfortably transitioning between drama, romance and comedy.
Airplanes are front-and-centre. This is an adventure showcasing the majestic, free-falling planes that drop and curve in the sky. But the playful exchanges, enjoyable sing-a-longs and heartfelt dialogue are all part of what makes Only Angels Have Wings so entertaining. Of course, Top Gun has the same draws in the aircraft pilots banter, Berlin’s Take my breath away and the heartfelt dialogue between Iceman and Maverick are unforgettable. It’s just Only Angels Have Wings was there first in 1939.
This was originally written as a review to support the UK Criterion release of the film in April 2016, for flickeringmyth.com