Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks, 1939)

"I'm hard to get, Geoff. All you have to do is ask me."


Recently, Top Gun played at The Prince Charles Cinema and, writing a review of the film, it is clear that the success of Top Gun is in the aeriel sequences of brutal, streamline fighter-jets swooping and speeding across the sky. Both Top Gun and Only Angels Have Wings were nominated for Special Effects at the Academy Awards but are separated by almost 40 years but Only Angels Have Wings still portrays flight sequences that 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 under the direction of Howard Hawks. But it is Rita Hayworth that the BFI are celebrating this month, showing a retrospective of her entire career with sold out screenings already for many of her films - and in Only Angels Have Wings she steals every scene she's in.

"Calling Barranca,.. Calling Barranca..."

Showgirl Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) arrives at Barranca Airport by boat and is pursued by two flirtatious pilots - denying their advances and showing her independence, they arrive at a bar and we are introduced to their Captain - Geoff Carter (Cary Grant). Carter manages the flights that deliver mail through treachourous terrain but, in an attempt to woo Bonnie, the two pilots both travel through rough weather leaving only one to survive. Bonnie is horrified to find how casually the men take it - laughing and joking and, even repeating "Who's Joe?" when she begs them to think about the deceased pilot. These men are used to such horror and have developed a way to bury it deep down and move on quickly so they can live another day. This carefree attitude - and Geoff Carter - ensure that Bonnie stays for a little longer.

We are also introduced to a pilot who is frowned upon for choosing to parachute from a plane, leaving the remaining mechanic on board to die. This is Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess), married to Judy (Rita Hayworth), a woman who previously had a relationship with Carter. Despite the Golden Hollywood edge, this dark story places Cary Grant in the middle of two women - but with the clear intention of setting up Cary Grant with Jean Arthur. In that regard, Rita Hayworth is the sexy, seductress - the drunken, attractive lady who Grant could have... but chooses not to, because he appreciates the homely Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur).


It is interesting to note how Cahiers du Cinema believed Only Angels Have Wings was an example of auteur Cinema. Written, directed and produced by Hawks, it has all the trademarks of the theory but the crucial connection is how it manages to marry together elements of both his pre-1939 career and hints at the future. Dave Kehr writes for The Chicago Reader how Only Angels Have Wings depicts "themes he was developing throughout the 30s [that reach a] perfect clarity ... without yet confronting the darker intimations that would haunt his films of the 40s and 50s".

Howard Hawks is a fascinating figure in cinema through his varied career, directing hit-after-hit to the mainstream while retaining a freedom of creativity and independence when choosing each project. Contemporary directors such as Ang Lee and Danny Boyle could be compared to how eclectic his mix of genre's were including Westerns such as Rio Bravo, Gangster films in Scarface and comedies in Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. Even Only Angels Have Wings can't be easily pigeon-holed into a genre and instead seems to successfully move between drama, romance, comedy - and ultimately adventure shown through the majestic, free-falling planes that drop and curve in the sky.

The airplanes are front-and-centre for many audiences - myself included. Kim Newman writes how the sequences are "remarkable, exciting, stunt-heavy flying sequences" but it is the drama and tension in the airport that dominates - and it does through playful banter, enjoyable sing-a-longs and heartfelt dialogue. Geoff Carter is a man that cannot be tamed and Bonnie soon realises that her love for him needs to tolerate his "need for speed".

Only Angels Haves Wings is all about balance - balancing love and loss; balancing stasis and change; balancing stoicism and grief. It's clear from the start that is is Bonnie who balances Geoff - and Rita Hayworth is the unforgettable, sultry one that got away. Lucky for us, this was only the start of her career...

The next screening of Only Angels Have Wings is on June 14th 2013 at BFI Southbank - click here to buy tickets!

This was written/published for Flickering Myth on 11th June 2013

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