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Originally titled Pilot Number 4, Only Angels Have Wings (1939) began as a short story written by Howard Hawks in 1938. According to Hawks, much of the story was taken from real life: "In Only Angels Have Wings, I knew every character personally that was in that picture. I knew how they talked. . . . If you've seen the picture lately, you may remember Richard Barthelmess' part. I knew the fellow that jumped out of an airplane and left somebody behind to get killed. He spent the rest of his life trying to make up for that, and he got killed, finally, trying to make up for it." As in all of Hawks' adventure films, what matters most is the code of professional ethics, a code that binds together the isolated group of men.
When a member of the group dies, there is no ritualized mourning as there is, say, in a John Ford film. Instead, Cary Grant lays out the dead man's possessions on the bar and tells everyone to take what they want. According to Hawks, the pilot's reaction of death is a necessary part of their professional demeanor: "It's just a calm acceptance of fact. In Only Angels Have Wings, after Joe dies, Cary Grant says: 'He just wasn't good enough.' Well, that's the only thing that keeps people going. They have to say: 'Joe wasn't good enough, and I'm better than Joe, so I go ahead and do it.' And they find out they're not any better than Joe, but then it's too late, you see." As Bonnie Lee, Jean Arthur plays the independent woman who intrudes on the all-male community, and as she finds out early on, her emotionalism is frowned upon. If she is to join the group, she too must learn to be hard.
In fact, as Molly Haskell notes in her history of women in the movies, Jean Arthur barely figures in the film's romantic subplot: "In the all-male community of civil aviators Grant heads up, the central relationship is the tacit, mutual devotion between Grant and Thomas Mitchell." It is only with Mitchell's death that Arthur is invited (albeit quite casually) to stay. Interestingly, the manner in which Mitchell's character faces his death is again based on something that Hawks personally witnessed. It so impressed him that he used the scene again in Rio Lobo (1970). According to Hawks, "That's a good dying."
Only Angels Have Wings was the thirty-third film Cary Grant had made in only seven years. Coming off the success of Gunga Din (1939), Grant here plays a harder, more serious character than any he had yet played. Far from the suave, mannered roles that would become his trademark, Grant's character, Geoff Carter, is rude almost to the point of unlikability. When he first meets Jean Arthur, he aggressively grabs her cigarette and uses it to light his own. Immediately afterwards, Grant orders Noah Beery, Jr. to fly a dangerous mission. Beery was supposed to have dinner with Arthur and is obviously disappointed. Grant tells him not to worry: "I'll be glad to take up where you left off." This was the second of five films that Grant would make with Hawks, but it was the only adventure film they would make together. The other four were screwball comedies: Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), I Was a Male War Bride (1949), and Monkey Business (1952).
Only Angels Have Wings is also the film that may have created the often-quoted Cary Grant impersonation line: "Judy, Judy, Judy." Grant often says the name "Judy" in the film, but never three times in succession. In interviews over the years, Grant expressed his bemusement over the tag line. In the 1980s, he said he thought "it started with a celebrity impersonator by the name of Larry Storch. He apparently was appearing in a nightclub and doing me when Judy Garland walked in. And that's how he greeted her." However it started, the phrase stuck, and like "Play it again, Sam," has become one of the most beloved movie lines never spoken in a movie.
Playing Judy is a young Rita Hayworth, who had made a dozen films since signing a contract with Columbia. Unfortunately, none of the roles made much of an impact. Harry Cohn, though, was desperate to make her a star. Cohn changed Hayworth's name from Margarita Cansino, approved the use of electrolysis to raise her hairline and persuaded Howard Hawks to cast her in Only Angels Have Wings. This was Hayworth's first appearance in a major film, and the experience was far from satisfying as Hawks treated the budding starlet with nothing but disdain. In an interview some thirty years later, Hawks' antipathy to Hayworth had not diminished. Claiming that Hayworth was "never a good actress," Hawks told Joseph McBride that when he couldn't get Hayworth to act drunk for a scene, he gave up and instead told Cary Grant to pour a bucket of ice water over her head. "She'll holler or scream or do something," he told Grant, "and we'll dissolve, and you put a towel over her head and be drying her hair and say 'What you want to know is this.' You take her lines and your lines too." But despite her mistreatment, Only Angels Have Wings was a breakthrough for Hayworth and within a year Cohn took her out of B pictures for good.
Nineteen thirty-nine is often cited as the high-water mark for the studio system as so many great films were turned out that year. What is often overlooked is that Thomas Mitchell played a part in five of these. In addition to Only Angels Have Wings, Mitchell appeared in Stagecoach (1939), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and Gone With the Wind (1939). Not a bad year! For the always terrific Jean Arthur, the year was also a high point as her performance in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was one of her best and won her critical acclaim. And for Richard Barthelmess, 1939 was a comeback of sorts as he hadn't appeared in front of the camera in three years. Barthelmess was one of the silent era's great actors and his performances in D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920) are unforgettable.
Only Angels Have Wings was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Black-and-White Cinematography (Joseph Walker) and Best Special Effects (Roy Davidson and Edwin C. Hahn). Though the film took home no awards that year, it has remained a consistent winner with film fans for over sixty years.
Producer/Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Jules Furthman, Howard Hawks, Eleanore Griffin, William Rankin
Art Direction: Lionel Banks
Cinematography: Elmer Dyer, Joseph Walker
Costume Design: Robert Kalloch
Film Editing: Viola Lawrence
Original Music: Manuel Maciste, Dimitri Tiomkin, Morris W. Stoloff
Principal Cast: Cary Grant (Geoff Carter), Jean Arthur (Bonnie Lee), Richard Barthelmess (Bat McPherson), Rita Hayworth (Judith McPherson), Thomas Mitchell (Kid Dabb), Allyn Joslyn (Les Peters), Sig Ruman (Dutchy).
BW-122m. Closed captioning.
by Mark Frankel