Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Directed by: Howard Hawks
Written by: Jules Furthman
Starring: Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Thomas Mitchell, Rita Hayworth

Black & White, 121 minutes

Grade: A+

Howard Hawks had made at least twenty films by the time he started work on Only Angels Have Wings, but it is safe to say that Wings would be the harbinger for what was to come in the next phase of his career. With this film, Hawks brings together all of the trademarks that he would be known for: camaraderie among men in dangerous situations or professions, whip-lash dialogue, tough women, and of course, the group sing-alongs that he would relish so much in To Have and Have Not. The film practically transformed his career, it was the first to have a definitive Hawksian feel, allowing him to delve into deeper and more personal projects such as Sergeant York, Red River, and Rio Bravo. However much of an effect that this film had on Hawks' career, it did just as much, if not more, for Cary Grant. It lifted Grant out of the realm of screwball comedy, and proved to the world that he could fare just as well in dramatic roles, paving the way for what he would accomplish with Hitchcock in Suspicion and most of all, Notorious.

Here, Grant plays Geoff Carter, a no- nonsense manager of an airmail service stationed in a small town in Columbia. Carter takes his work seriously, and expects the same from the other pilots in his crew. When a pilot in his company dies, he refuses to take the time to mourn, ("Who's Joe?"), and insists on getting back to work. He isn't easily distracted, not even by members of the opposite sex, but this being a Cary Grant film and all, you know that's about to change. Enter the ever-adorable Jean Arthur as Bonnie Lee, a piano player who is passing through town on her way back to Brooklyn. She knows a thing or two about Carter's type, but she is enticed regardless, even when he seems to brush her off. She finds a sympathetic ear in Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell), a fellow pilot and Carter's life long friend. Kid, however, has problems of his own: for starters, he's going blind, and to add insult to injury, the new kid in town is Bat Kilgallen (Richard Barthelmess), a disgraced pilot man who, years before, had bailed out of his plane, leaving his mechanic (Kid's younger brother) to die. If that ain't enough to make your head spin, Kilgallen's new wife comes in the form of Rita Hayworth, who, conveniently, just happens to be the vixen who scorned Carter in a past life. It all sounds very melodramatic, I know, but melodrama done this well can pass for high art in my book any day of the week.

Screenwriter Jules Furthman, working from a short story by former aviator Hawks, finds the underlying tenderness in the lives of these men, without ever sacrificing the excitement. As he and William Faulkner would do five years later in To Have and Have Not, Furthman gives the actors lines they can really chew on. Everybody gets their fair share, especially Arthur and Mitchell, whose rapport here matches their interactions the same year in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It's Grant, though, that looms the largest, not only in physical stature, but also in talent. This is his movie, he knows it, and he makes damn sure we do as well.

Has there ever been an actor as effortless as Cary Grant? He was the prototypical movie star. The way he walks, how he speaks, the manner in which he happens to stare, ever so slightly, at nothing in particular, or the way he smokes a cigarette as if he single handedly invented the habit, he owns every frame. No actor in world cinema commands one's attention the way he does, when he enters a scene, your eyes immediately focus on him, no matter how beautiful his costar happens to be. What always impressed me the most about Grant, however, were the layers of emotion he was able to convey with just a few glances. With Grant's characters, you always knew there was something more going on, he was always able to exist in a sort of invisible shell. Geoff Carter is charming, for sure, but at times, he can come off as a bit of a bastard. Deep down, though, you know that he is considerate, he is sensitive, and while Grant doesn't go as far as his more romantic about face in Notorious, we do catch a slight glimpse of it late in the film, when he gently, yet believably, lets a tear shine through. Pay attention kids, this is why movies were invented.

None of this would amount to a hill of beans without a sure hand at the wheel, and that's where Hawks comes into the picture. Hawks was never the most stylish of filmmakers, but he was among the most consistent, and he always knew when to pull the reigns. Paced like a soap opera, Wings throws you through every loop possible, with your emotions pushed to the breaking point. The aerial photography and action sequences can stack up to anything that Jerry Bruckheimer has been regurgitating for the last few decades, but it's what takes place on the ground that matters. In a Hawks film, a verbal exchange can be as threatening and dangerous as trying to land a plane on a plateau. Everything builds to a masterfully executed last flight that forces Kid and Kilgallen to work together, resulting in a seamless blend of excitement, tenderness, and tragedy.

Both Hawks and Grant would go on to better things, but they always felt comfortable together. This was their second film together, following Bringing up Baby in 1938, and they would work three more times. There was something real in their collaborations; they brought out the best in each other. As much as I love Grant's work with Hitchcock, Hawks always gave Grant more freedom, always allowed him to cut loose. Nothing ever seemed controlled or forced in their work together, it seemed natural, and it seemed true. They were a hell of a team, one for the ages.


H. Stewart said...

The more time that passes since I've seen this movie (only about two months now), the more I love it to the point I think I might nominate it for "one of the greatest films ever made". At least, Hollywood filmmaking at its very finest, with Howard Hawks at his Hawksiest and Grant as good as he gets. And I just love Jean Arthur, she's my favorite '30s starlet, and her rapport with Mitchell is great, just as it was in Mr. Smith!

Keith Phipps over at the AV Club recently wrote of Rio Bravo: "[it] features characters who form a familial bond while performing an impossible task in the face of death. It is, in other words, a Howard Hawks movie." That's a great (reductive) description of OAHW as well!

Clayton L. White said...

The problem with writing on nothing but "classics" is that you do nothing but jump up and down in praise, but this film truly warrants it. I was really amazed at how much I enjoyed it.

H. Stewart said...

Try watching some mediocre movies every once in a while. :) (Besides Ghost Rider!)

Clayton L. White said...

I know, man. I'm going to have to start slumming here soon.