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Thursday, August 20, 2009

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 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 barely apart. 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 takes but once to know gist of even the most brilliant movie plotting. Where is need of seeing a thing play through again once you know the outcome? Hawks would have been the wrong man to direct Charlie Chan mysteries. I like the way he seizes on fun events to be revisited where occasion permits. Cary Grant tells cracked-up pilot Thomas Mitchell that his neck’s broken in Only Angels Have Wings. We remember the exchange and so would Hawks, thirty years later doing a variation for his final film, Rio Lobo. John Wayne delivered the line for that occasion, and it had a same impact. Reusing action bumps worked better for Hawks than when comedy was encored. 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 lack of skill on the part of 60’s players who could not measure up to vintage stars like Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn.

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. Furthman’s China Seas model contributed to all the shows he would write for Hawks, and I wonder if he doesn’t deserve a lot more credit for devices we call Hawksian. Surprising too that a seemingly ideal HH lead, Clark Gable, never once worked with the director. They were friends and rode motorcycles together. Maybe 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, a loss to both for not having teamed. As to Angels’ Cary Grant, he is more effective for me as a Hawksian action hero than in comedies they did together. I wonder that Grant engaged so little as an authority figure and man of movement, as he commands well, is believable on planes and subs. Hawks said he based Angels incidents on real-life aviation drama he had come across during WWI. It wasn’t uncommon for he-man directors to adopt been there-done that attitude where staging action, evidence of having walked the walk, William Wellman and Raoul Walsh among others who'd claim membership in a 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 betray a director’s impatience to get past flights and crashes so he can focus on character’s reactions to same. I have actually grown fond of those toy planes. There is variety in seeing them interposed with real aircraft occasionally utilized. To Hawks’ credit, he avoids bogging down with realism we neither want nor need. 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 moment in a Hawks film, everyone participating and narrative points made as we listen. Few had accomplished this outside of musicals. My issues with Jean Arthur as leading lady have been assuaged with repeat viewings, each to his own as to what annoys. I could submit names that would have suited her OAHW part a lot better, but where is point in that? Of casting ideal, there is post-stardom Richard Barthelmess bidding for renewed status enjoyed from the late teens into earlier years of talkies. His Angels character is battered and resigned to exile, much as was this actor by a facelift noted 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. Barthelmess threw a post-opening party for the Angels cast/crew (above), this a last sustained effort to get back in the game. Angel’s trailer emphasized the return of a great star. RB's disgraced pilot achieves 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 for having salted enough cash to manage a dignified retirement.


Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Another excellent post, John, but help me with one thing: On my computer screen, lines of text are occasionally superimposed on pictures. Usually no problem, but the pic of Hayworth and Barthelmess whites out a line: "...fond of those toy planes. There's [illegible] interposed with real aircraft..." Can you fill in the blank for me?

As for possible replacements for Jean Arthur in OAHW: Hmmm, that's a good one. I'm going to suggest Ginger Rogers. On second thought, how about Karen Morley? Hawks worked wonders with her in Scarface.

12:36 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Sorry you're having that screen problem, Jim. Everyone's computer seems to behave differently, it seems. The line you mentioned is this: "Actually, I’ve grown fond of those toy planes. There’s variety in seeing them interposed with real aircraft occasionally utilized."

12:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello John

I came across your site quite by accident and what a surprise I got.
It's an absolute treasure trove of film lore and knowledge.
Have you any plans for another Errol Flynn section? Or any more rare photos of Flynn?

1:32 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Will probably rest Flynn for a while, but will come back at some point on individual films of his, as there are many of those on my Favorites List.

2:32 PM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

When I first started getting into old movies years ago as a tot, I always used to get Richard Barthemless and Richard Dix mixed up. They have similar features and have the same type of vocal inflections.

Watching "Stagecoach" recently, I think Claire Trevor would have been a good foil for Cary Grant in "Only Angels Have Wings", but perhaps she wasn't considered a big enough star. Perhaps Ann Sothern as well?

I think Rita Hayworth is quite good in her role and can only fantasize about the sparks that would have flown if a Gilda-Age Rita Hayworth had found herself at that South American airfield with Cary Grant. That would be a dynamite combination.

I always chuckle when I see Vernon Dent as a ship's captain in this. It's always odd seeing Three Stooges stock company players in big-budget Columbia films.

3:37 PM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

Love the Taras Bulba header pic!

12:13 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

What Jim states is correct. But that happens only when using Mozilla Firefox, not Internet Explorer.

One surprise that I had with Howard Hawks was to have access to one of his few silents: FIG LEAVES, despite that the Technicolor scenes are lost. The opening and the ending of that Fox film is hilarious because we are allowed to see a sort of forerunner of THE FLINTSTONES.

12:24 AM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

I read a bio of Hawks (don't ask which one, I forget) and came away with the impression of a not especially nice guy who really didn't seem terribly interested in making movies. But, like you say, his stuff is eminently watchable and re-watchable. (though some of the later comedies can be cringe-inducing) If I come across one n TV, I can't not watch.

I should make a point to watch El Dorado again--my only experience was seeing it on some kind of sponsored Craftmatic adjustable bed theatre--a 3+ hour block on a rainy Sunday afternoon, with breaks every 10 minutes for interminable sales pitches. By the end, I was ready to kick in the picture tube.

10:54 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Thanks for the tip, Radiotelefonia. I checked and you're right, it's a Firefox thing. Now I know.

It's a little late now, but I want to add my own thanks for running that Taras Bulba header yesterday; that movie's always been a slightly-guilty pleasure for me.

And finally, to go entirely off topic, your readers who can make it to L.A. next month (Sept. 8 - 10) have a chance to see This Is Cinerama and/or How the West Was Won in all their three-strip glory. Click HERE for details.

12:06 PM  
Blogger Axe said...

Always enjoy "Greenbriar Picture Shows", but I must disagree with the anti-Jean Arthur sentiment. I like her in anything I've seen her in.

1:11 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

My good friend Dan Mercer e-mailed some thoughts on "Only Angels Have Wings":

Gable would have been a fine Hawksian hero, especially when you consider that Only Angels Have Wings is just a variation on Red Dust. Yes, a “variation.” I think that that’s a much nicer way of putting it than “a copy,” though the essential themes and many of the plot points are quite the same. Both deal with an outpost beyond the bounds of civilization, commanded by a strong man who hides a sense of honor and even a tenderness of heart behind a cynical mask. Into this self-contained world comes sexual temptation, first in the form of a young woman of uncertain means, then the wife of another man who joins the group. At this point, however, the stories diverge as Hawks plays up the angles that are more interesting to him. The men at the outpost in Only Angels Have Wings are aviators and involved in work that challenges their courage and professionalism in more obvious ways than simply putting up with the heat, vermin, and recalcitrant natives that go with running a rubber plantation. Also, the man and his wife are not the naifs of Red Dust. The man is seeking to redeem himself from disgrace, the woman has a past the leader of the group is well aware of. Another difference is perhaps due more to casting than anything else. Of the two Jeans, Arthur is never as sexually procative as Harlow, and reminds one of nothing other than a nice girl who got off at the wrong stop. But of Gable and Grant, I think Grant is better suited for Only Angels Have Wings. Gable has strength and humor, and he can get angry, especially when he needs to put it on the line. There is no sense of suffering or inner turmoil, though. He tends to take things in stride, and if there’s disappointment or tragedy, well, that’s tough. Hawks’ special insight, however, is that when the going is hard, a good man will still do his job, not because he hasn’t any feelings, but because he has to be able to transcend them if the job is to be done. With Grant, tragedy finds a certain resonance, not so much in what he says, but in a silence that might be abreviated by a sudden gesture, as though his body is convulsed by the feelings he cannot bear to put into words. But since he is a professional, the job will be done, regardless. So, Gable would have done well with Hawks, but not so well as Grant in this particular role.

6:28 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon e-mails on "Only Angels Have Wings":

You and your instincts are dead accurate, I think, in isolating the common element in all the best Hawks pictures, that being the sense of comfort you feel being with the people in them. It's half writing, half acting (i.e., charisma), the old joke goes....half directing! Some of the badinage in "Rio Bravo" and "Hatari!" is getting a little precious for me by now, but I remember it seemed wonderfully relaxed and enjoyable when I first saw these films. The old guys also took their time, and "Rio Bravo" gets away with an INORDINATELY-long running time! With, as you say, quite sparse action. But, how can you beat Wayne walloping a guy so hard with the butt of his rifle that it spins HIM around in a full pirouette? They must've LOVED working this stuff out. You're so right, the bits are what keep you coming back: Bogey, doing his 'fey' act in the bookstore, in "The Big Sleep", or firing the gun to force the bad guy out the door where he'll be mistaken for Marlowe (Bogart of course) and shot full of holes. I even like "Man's Favorite Sport", with its daringly idiotic sight gags (a bear riding a motor scooter?!). And, if he borrowed the ripped dress bit from "Bringing Up Baby", it wasn't quite as flagrant as borrowing the entire PLOT from "Rio Bravo" for "El Dorado"!

8:43 PM  
Blogger Kurt Burgess said...

John, great posts and info on the period of Hollywood I most enjoy. Would you consider switching to a different design/color format? The black background adds great contrast for the photos, but the white type on black background (why do they even offer this option?)provides more than sufficent eye strain. I see stripes after I leave the monitor! Just a thought.

6:18 PM  

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