May 21, 2006
Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
Grade: 61/100

Director: Howard Hawks
Stars: Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Rita Hayworth

What it's about. Daredevil pilots tote the mail back and forth between two third world airports. Stage performer Jean Arthur shows up, and promptly falls for Cary Grant, the bossman of the bottom barrel airline. Grant's old flame Rita Hayworth arrives, to create further friction. Thomas Mitchell is Grant's over-the-hill pilot friend.

How others will see it. An entertaining if somewhat incredulous film. Those who choose to overlook its problems with plot and characters (which will be hashed out promptly) will enjoy this movie, partly for its action and tension, but mostly for its cast. Grant and Hayworth are the big names today, although Arthur was a big star at the time. This was Hayworth's first significant movie role.

Needless to say, most non-classic film fans will reach for the remote once they see the first old-timey black and white frame. Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

How I felt about it. Plucky good girl Arthur puts on her choir school act to quickly make friends in the backwater South American village. Her role as tourist, then dinner date, then guest, then romantic complication evolves around her attraction toward risk-taking pilots. Heck, if they're about to die flying blind in clap-trap antiques, then the least she can do is give them some feminine encouragement. Or so she must be thinking.

Naturally, the pilot she likes best is the good-looking one at the top of the pecking order, Grant. The fact he proclaims himself unavailable only gives her further incentive to win his heart. If it were easy, there would be no challenge, no tension, no story.

The problem is Grant loses a pilot (one way or another) every twenty minutes, and since he has only a few to start with, his airline is reduced to a trio by film's end. Should he land the contract, at the rate he's going, to keep it they'll have to put Jean Arthur behind the controls, hence the sequel to Only Angels Have Wings, to be called But Sweet Britches Can Fly Too.

We will only briefly mention the remarkable coincidence of the new pilot's wife also being Grant's most enduring former flame, while the pilot himself is the one who caused the death of Thomas Mitchell's brother. He later has a run that kills off Mitchell himself, but he's seen as a hero this time anyway, which goes to show that results don't count if you show the right attitude.

As for Grant, he has the best of all scenarios: two beautiful women at his beck and call, while playing manly bossman in a dangerous third world jungle. (Fortunately, the natives only wish to serve Bwana.) It's a lot like Red Dust, only with a more likeable cast.