ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (Howard Hawks, 1939)

This is the one about a Panama airflight company that braves often impossible weather to transport mail in the 1930s. It stars Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Richard Barthelmess and a pre-hair dye Rita Hayworth.
     It is an overwhelming (if a bit long) chronicle of frustrated, unhappy, suspended lives. Howard Hawks’s film reeks of the Depression. It is a film about dislocated lives, and individual, social and economic survival on a perilous edge.
     Thomas Mitchell, who won the year’s best supporting actor Oscar as the drunken doctor battling unkindness and social bigotry in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), gives here his most brilliant performance, as the going-blind pilot, Kid—a heart-piercing role.
     The impression has remained that Jean Arthur’s performance is a failure, that the role of stranded Bonnie Lee from Brooklyn waited upon the discovery of Lauren Bacall for fulfillment. Nonsense; along with Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), this is the performance of Arthur’s career. She is stunning, and Grant is excellent, with Geoff’s flippancy gradually revealing itself to be emotional scar tissue. Barthelmess, who, incidentally, almost seems a midget alongside Grant, is terrific as the ostrasized pilot out to grab redemption from the clouds. Ah, but only angels have wings.
     I have no defenses against this film. The aerial photography (by Elmer Dyer, of course), Viola Lawrence’s bravura editing, Hawks’s embrace of people “doing their job,” whatever the dangers, without self-pity or grandstanding: all this gratifies. And Hayworth delights the senses.
     This is devastating cinema. However contrived, the romantic finale works like gangbusters.
     Wouldn’t it be wonderful if unlucky lives could be keyed to that coin?

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