Favorites List --- Only Angels Have Wings
The problem of writing on titles familiar as Only Angels Have Wings is knowledge that many ahead of me did it better. Is the subject finally exhausted? There’s reams of OAHW analysis out there, increased manifold by ease of online access as opposed to waiting on film journals mostly gone now. The best Howard Hawks films seem endlessly watchable. He doesn’t waver in and out of fashion like other cult directors. That word never applied to Hawks anyway, for he was too mainstream and popular to be the object of cults. Whatever started in France during the fifties was just overseas recognition of what we'd known about for years. A Hawks film stops you no matter where it's tuned in. The beginning … middle … no matter. There’s always something good coming within five minutes that you remember and want to see again. I practically avoid El Dorado on my HD hard-drive for knowing that a half-hour at least will evaporate just for scrolling down to it. The best thing to do with any Hawks film is load up, surrender, and watch the whole thing, as I recently did with an umpteenth helping of Only Angels Have Wings. Here are stair-steps of deathless moments spread apart by never more than those five minutes. Hawks said good pictures are made up of pleasurable scenes. Years of experience showed him that highlights supplied by interesting characters paid off lots better than stories rigidly adhered to. I’d gladly swap dramatic peaks of a hundred classics to again see Walter Brennan burn his finger with the match in Rio Bravo. It only takes once to know the gist of even the most brilliant movie plotting. Where’s the need of seeing such play out again once you’ve learned their outcome? Hawks would have been the wrong guy to direct Charlie Chan mysteries (then again, maybe he'd have been perfect). I like the way HH seizes on fun incidents he'll revisit when occasion permits. Cary Grant tells cracked-up pilot Thomas Mitchell that his neck’s broken in Only Angels Have Wings. They’re best friends, so it seems tactless at the least, but we remember the exchange and so would Hawks, storing it in his kit and thirty years later doing a variation for his final film, Rio Lobo. John Wayne delivered the line for that occasion, and it had the same sock. Repeating good action bumps worked better for Hawks than when he reused gags for comedy. Rock Hudson complained of ideas run aground for 1963’s Man’s Favorite Sport and how Hawks reheated stale bread from Bringing Up Baby. The director attributed old routines not working to 60’s players lacking skills vintage stars like Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn had in abundance.
The best of Only Angles Have Wings began with earlier pictures, not all of them directed by Howard Hawks. His 1939 film abounds with echoes of writer Jules Furthman’s China Seas of four years back, as well as friendly rival Victor Fleming's Red Dust from 1932, which plays like a blueprint for much of Hawks to come and supplied at least one third act crisis for OAHW. I’ve read Hawks was envious of success Fleming had with Red Dust. Did he recognize it for the character driven, three-cornered romance template it proved to be? Furthman’s China Seas model contributed to all the shows he’d write for Hawks, and I wonder if he doesn’t deserve a lot more credit for machinations we call Hawksian. It’s also surprising that a seemingly ideal HH lead, Clark Gable, never once worked with the director. They were friends and rode motorcycles together. Maybe the fact of Hawks staying away from MGM through the remainder of the thirties and thereafter had something to do with his not intersecting with Gable, other than socially. It’s a loss to both for not having teamed. As to Angels’ Cary Grant, he’s more effective (for me) as Hawksian action hero than in comedies they did together. In fact, I wonder that Grant was so little engaged as authority figure and man of movement, having watched Destination Tokyo recently as well. He’s commanding in leadership capacity and believable on planes and subs (though punches thrown by CG come across a little stiff). Hawks said he based Angels incidents on real-life aviation drama he’d come across while taking to clouds during WWI. It wasn’t uncommon for a he-man director to adopt been there-done that attitude to staged daredevil-try, that being investment toward credibility as a Hollywood action ace, and evidence of having walked the walk (William Wellman and Raoul Walsh were among others in said real-life adventurer fraternity).
Howard Hawks action movies are less needful of action than any other director’s action movies. You could actually do without it altogether and still have a good show. His best scenes tend to revolve around conversation. Model effects in Only Angels Have Wings are so defiantly phony as to betray a director’s impatience to get past flights and crashes so he can focus on character’s reactions to same. Actually, I’ve grown fond of those toy planes. There’s variety in seeing them interposed with real aircraft occasionally utilized. To Hawks’ credit, he avoids bogging down with realism we neither want nor need (and look at this amazing dock set the director built --- on a soundstage). I think of Only Angels Have Wings and see flight jackets with scarves, coins being flipped, and cigarettes constantly lit. Songs as always find their right moment in a Hawks film, with everybody participating and narrative points getting across as we listen. Could anyone else accomplish this outside of musicals? My issues with Jean Arthur as leading lady have been somewhat assuaged with repeat viewings, though she grates when ramping up for drama effect. It’s each to his own as to what irritates, but I’d say Arthur’s voice at whiny pitch gets me there quick as anything. Suffice to say we could render names that would have suited her OAHW part a lot better (anyone care to propose a few?). Among casting that is perfect, there is post-stardom Richard Barthelmess bidding for renewed status he’d enjoyed from the late teens into early years of talkies. His Angels character is battered and resigned to exile, much as was this actor by a facelift he’d undergone that was Topic A among press and colleagues stunned by Barthelmess’ post-procedure appearance. The actor looks OK in Only Angels Have Wings for a man whose deadened expression bespeaks cosmetic surgery barely off drawing boards. He’s here greeting Hawks and escort at the premiere. Barthelmess threw a post-opening party as well. By all indications, this was his last sustained effort at getting back in the game. Angel’s trailer emphasized the return of a great star. Barthelmess and his disgraced pilot character achieve power and not a little poignancy in a film not otherwise given to sentimentality, but it proved a one-off and no basis for a comeback the actor hoped for. He retired a few years later after modest parts in three more films, relieved perhaps for having accumulated enough cash to manage a dignified retirement.