Hawks’ 1939 adventure/drama/comedy/musical (yes, it’s all of those) is firmly
among the director’s best pictures, made at a time when aviation was glamorous,
thrilling, and dangerous. As Hawks himself says in an interview supplement, when
people heard a plane flying in the sky in those days, they’d rush outside to
take a look at it. The job of an air mail carrier, at the time, was something
for only the bravest—or the craziest—of men.
(Cary Grant, in one of his most memorable performances) runs an air mail
operation in a remote corner of South America, and part of the flight routes
traverse the Andes mountains. It’s an extremely hazardous occupation for pilots
of single prop planes, for there are often rainstorms, fog, and other obstacles
to prevent smooth flying. It’s no wonder that his team is a motley crew of
ne’er-do-wells, alcoholics, and daredevils. When Bonnie (Jean Arthur), a
touring entertainer, shows up en route to her next gig, she provides Geoff with
another peril—love. That’s something Geoff doesn’t want any part of. This set
up is classic Hawks, for, along with Frank Capra, he was a primary referee for
the war between the sexes on screen. Only
Angels demonstrates this in spades.
get even more complicated when Bat (Richard Barthelmess), a pilot with a dark
reputation, shows up with his wife, Judy (Rita Hayworth, in one of her very
first screen appearances). Judy happens to be Geoff’s old flame, and Bat was
apparently responsible for once bailing out of a plane and leaving his mechanic
to die in the crash. That mechanic was the brother of Geoff’s best friend and
employee, Kid (Thomas Mitchell).
that weren’t enough plot, Hawks throws in the exotic foreign setting of a small
South American village and its occupants, late night saloon parties complete
with pianist (a la Casablanca, three
years prior to that film’s release), hair-raising flight sequences, and
screwball comedy antics between the leads. It’s pure Hollywood, made in a year
that is often called one of the best in the industry’s history.
Criterion Collection’s new 4K digital restoration looks marvelous, and it has
an uncompressed monaural soundtrack that brings the plane engines into your
living room. Supplements include excerpts from an audio interview between Hawks
and Peter Bogdanovich, in which the director talks about his aviation pictures,
his mixed feelings about Jean Arthur, and other topics; a new interview with
film critic David Thomson, who makes a strong case for subtle homosexual
interpretations of the male camaraderie in the picture; a new documentary about
Hawks’ aviation movies featuring film scholars Craig Barron and Ben Burtt; the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation from 1939,
starring Grant, Arthur, Hayworth, Barthelmess, and Mitchell, hosted by Cecil B.
DeMille; and the trailer. An essay by critic Michael Stragow appears in the
Only Angels Have
an exhilarating look at an era long time gone, and it’s a heck of a lot of fun.
Don’t be late for the flight!