Only Angels Have Wings (1939): Hawks’ Greatest Adventure Movie

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Howard Hawks always had a knack for creating worlds and subsequently building camaraderie between his characters simply by stringing scenes together one after the other. Only Angels Have Wings sets up a premise — revolving around a South American outpost — then settles in on two flyers.  But for all intent and purposes, Joe Souther (Noah Berry Jr.) and Tex Gordon (Don Barry) exist in the periphery of the story.

Despite all this, we’re instantly interested in what they have to do in this world and they’ve got their eyes on a woman (Jean Arthur) exiting a recently landed ship, only to strike up an instant connection as they’re a trio of Americans. A sequence that almost feels ominous initially does a rapid about-face to settle into something a great deal more amiable.

In truth, the introduction of a female heroine fresh off the boat in a foreign land hearkens back to Miriam Hopkins in Barbary Coast. She too was a tough character who was capable of surviving in a rough and tumble boomtown out west. Jean Arthur does much the same in Barranca. Except the difference is Arthur seems adept at showing her flaws with that quirky comic edge of hers.

The other added benefit is Howard Hawks seems about as invested in this picture as he could be due to his own intense preoccupation with big birds in the sky. His surname never seemed apter. The flight sequences follow in the path of Test Pilot exuding a certain authenticity while the narrative itself is unparalleled thanks, in part, to the entire framework built around it. The fascinating assemblage of characters is a testament to the best of what old Hollywood has to offer.

In 20 minutes he’s already enveloped you in an entire cinematic reality full of people, atmosphere, stakes, and danger. The genial owner Dutch (Sig Ruman) is slowly going broke trying to keep the establishment afloat. His last chance is to come through on a 6-month contract of mail deliveries without a failed drop.

Everything he has is riding on it but he’s a man who cares about people and their lives. It’s not merely a business endeavor. It’s about relationship and that’s why everyone likes the man. Even with this kind of impetus, it remains a harrowing life or death operation that Hawks documents with immense clarity.

Lives are still lost because flyers are foolhardy, proud, and daredevil types and yet when you put them up in a plane fighting against the elements and geography, they don’t always come out on top. Modern man and especially the modern aviator of 1939 is far from infallible.

But it’s one of the most gripping flight films buttressed by Hawk’s capacity for lulls and interludes which layer on character to the plotline. It’s imbued with the same spellbinding aura of a Casablanca or To Have or Have Not. There’s a certain ambiance pervading those classics of old and ironically, the moments that give us impressions of the world and the people walking around in them are the ones I’m most likely to imbibe. They speak in basic, visceral terms about men and women and how we cope with one another. How we emote: laugh, cry, get angry, and bury our emotions to avoid getting hurt.

Cary Grant is hard and fierce as ace flyer Geoff Carter who runs the airmail service for Dutch, willingly deferring to him in all matters due to Geoff’s history and expertise. We get the impression our protagonist is embittered by the years of such a tough vocation. His personality at times proves as severe as the brim of his hat.

When I watch Only Angels Have Wings I remember where Devlin came from in Notorious (1946). Because Grant reveals a side of his persona like a double-sided coin. There’s something different hidden under each side and he’s a tortured soul struggling to reconcile the life he leads with feelings he is so inept in expressing. Because the danger of any type of human attachment is that the same person could just as easily be taken out of your life a moment later. Far from despising him for his callous attitudes, it makes him all the more intriguing as a human being. Because every other character brings something out of him.

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Though his career had all but tanked after immense successes with D.W. Griffith in the silent era, Richard Barthelmess has a crucial role as a recently arrived flyer who has an ignominious history under a different name. In a single moment, he broke the unwritten code of the skies, never bale out and leave your copilot high and dry. It’s followed him everywhere he goes like a Scarlett Letter.

What makes it particularly volatile is the fact that the dead man’s brother, The Kid (Thomas Mitchell), a 22 year veteran of the business, is Carter’s right-hand man. This past tragedy causes the aging pilot to seethe with anger as his ill-will toward Macpherson burns under the surface. There is a great deal of unresolved ire between them waiting for release.

In fact, that’s the trait of many of these characters. Because Macpherson has picked up an attractive young wife in his travels. Though Rita Hayworth is in a smaller role as Judy, it’s still significant because most every player is given a piece of the pie. Her connection being the fact she knew Geoff in a former life. They don’t admit it right away but it becomes clear enough. And of course, there’s this uncomfortable chafing as Grant keeps the disgraced pilot in his back pocket to do all the dirty work. He’s handsomely paid for it but there’s no sentimentality or camaraderie.

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Everyone else is a part of Grant’s family as it were. MacPherson is just around for his usefulness. Carter’s relationship with the other man’s wife puts him in yet another position of power to show compassion. He surprises us incessantly and a dose of redemption explodes right out of an inferno of tragedy.

But we have yet to consider Grant and Arthur’s relationship throughout the picture, arguably the film’s most integral and constantly evolving asset. He is a man who can never be tied down; he does not share feelings or expect anything from any woman. And yet hidden away and shrouded from view are these threads of decency running through his life. Ways that he cares for people without letting his virile image slide. The final scene is a fine summation.

The pass is clearing up and despite all that’s gone wrong — he’s only got one good arm for goodness sakes and Bonnie’s about to leave him — there’s still a drive to finish what they started. But there’s a chance to make it through and save their contract and as he goes flying out the door he gives his girl a great big kiss and says he’ll flip her for whether or not she stays or leaves.

Of course, we know full-well the coin he tossed her is from “The Kid.” It’s marked with heads on both sides. She’s hurt at first. Injured by this flippancy and lack of commitment. But then she realizes, turning it over in her hands. In his indirect way, he’s saying he wants her to stay.

Why bring this up at all? As best as I can explain it, this individual scene is so beautifully restrained and nuanced in a way that surpasses other lesser films. Meanwhile, Only Angels Have Wings displays all the delectable glories of a deeply satisfying adventure film from Howard Hawks. There’s drama, romance, friendship, tragedy, and a simplicity to the action lines which nevertheless feels deeply indicative of the human condition.

4.5/5 Stars

Heroes For Sale (1933)

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We are inserted, presumably, into a war picture courtesy of William A. Wellman, situated in WWI trenches. The downpour is compounded by the constant hail of bullets as a group of men conduct a near suicide mission. One of the soldiers, Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) proves his heroics on the battlefield while his friend Roger dissolves in fear. But the battle leaves Tom, now a prisoner, with debilitating pain from some splinters of shrapnel lodged near his spine. He’s given morphine to keep it manageable.

He comes back from the war addicted. He gets the shakes at his bank job where he works under his war buddy Roger and the other man’s father. Tom is constantly in need of his fix and it just keeps on getting worse and worse.

Early on, the picture begs the question, how are heroes made? We turn them into near mythological beings and even if it’s well-vested that doesn’t mean that they consider what they did to be anything extraordinary. Imagine if it’s not deserved. Tom and Roger understand exactly what this is like. In the wake of a scandal and his ousting from the bank, Tom gets interned at a drug clinic only to come out a year later a new man ready for a fresh start.

It struck me that in a matter of minutes the film drastically shifts in tone, suggesting at first the dark shadows overtaking a picture like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) only to come out unscathed and don the coat and tails of an industrial comedy-drama. I must say that while the former feels more akin to Wellman’s usual strengths, I do rather prefer the latter, though the picture doesn’t dare end there.

Wellman introduces us to our latest locale with a dash of humor delivered through an array of pithy signs adorning the walls of an old diner. But it’s the people under its roof that make it what it is. Pa Dennis (Charley Grapewin) is the most genial man you ever did meet and he would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. His daughter Mary (Aline MacMahon) is little different though she chides her father for his loose finances.

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Still, her jovial hospitality charms Tom into striking up a conversation and considering renting a room from them. Meeting the disarmingly attractive Ms. Ruth Loring (Loretta Young) from across the hall all but seals the deal. Cue the music as Young enters stage right and let’s disregard it and just say she more than deserves the fanfare.

You would think the inventor with overt “Red” tendencies, adamant criticisms of capitalism, and a chattering habit like a squirrel would be a turnoff for prospective boarders. Not so.  Soon Tom joins the ranks of the local laundry where Ruth also works forging a happy life for themselves.

The mobility of Heroes for Sale is another thing that struck me. It results from a different era but this is also very much a Depression picture in the sense that we are seeing what a man can still do even if times are tough as long as he has a strong head on his shoulders. Machinery is implemented not to steal work away from eager employees but to cut down on long working hours and increase output. All in all, it sounds like a thoughtful and humane objective.

But a heart attack leaves the company in different hands that are looking to work only in dollars and cents, not in humanity. Thus, it looks like Tom’s idealistic enterprising has been turned on its head, now completely sabotaged. All the folks who put their trust in him are bitter with the prospect of losing their jobs. Put out of business with their own funds.  This same unrest runs through the pages of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1940) too as modernity begins to put out all outmoded methods standing in the way of so-called efficiency.

What we have here is a populist picture daring to show the plight of the people. Richard Barthelmess is an affecting lead because he seems almost unextraordinary. His voice is steady and calm. He’s not unkind. But there’s an honesty to him that asserts itself. The fact that he gets a bum steer and takes it without so much as a complaint speaks volumes so he doesn’t have to.

Heroes for Sale feels like a micro-epic if we can coin the term. It’s ambitions somehow manage to be grandiose as it sweeps over cultural moments like WWI and The Depression which underline further social issues including heroism, drug abuse, communism, and worker’s rights. All done up in a measly 71 minutes. Look no further than the standoff between an angry mob and the riot squad for squalid drama. This is no minor spectacle. Nothing can quite express the anguish watching Young frantically run through the violent frenzy in search of her husband.

There is no excuse if this is the standard we put longer films up against. Not a moment seems wasted. Yes, it goes in different directions. Yes, it feels like a couple different films and yet what connects it all is this abiding sense of Americana. Themes that resonate with folks who know this country and its rich history made up of victories and dark blots as well. Most brazenly it still manages to come out of the muck and the mire with a sliver of optimism left over. Heroes For Sale is no small feat.

4/5 Stars

Broken Blossoms (1919)

brokenblossomsBroken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl. How do you deal with such a film coming from modern sensibilities of race and romance? It actually turned out to be easier than you would think, but not altogether straightforward. D.W. Griffith is no stranger to racial controversy in his films. because his archetypal Birth of Nation (1915) is known as much for its influence as it is for its depictions of African-Americans and the KKK.

For Broken Blossoms, he places the microscope on Asians and in this case a “Yellow Man” or “Chink” named Cheng. It’s not necessarily a good start, but it’s important to realize the lens and the times this film comes out of. Those terms are offensive and seemingly insensitive to us, but back in the teens, those terms were commonplace. Thus, if we put that aside for a second, it becomes important to look at actual depictions and objectives.

Cheng (Richard Barthelmess), who was indeed portrayed by a white actor, is characterized as a peaceful and kind individual looking to live in harmony with his fellow man. Bruising boxer and abusive father, Battling Burrows, is our obvious antagonist and the complete opposite of Cheng. It’s not simply a clash of race, but of temperaments, and kindness versus hate. The First Lady of Cinema Lillian Gish plays Burrow’s long-suffering daughter Lucy to perfection. I cannot remember the last time I had so much pity for a single character because with every close-up or piece of body language, Gish seems to suggest her horrible plight. She is so sweetly demure and yet so much tragedy is placed in her path.  As an audience, we cannot help but have compassion for her like Cheng. Her father constantly expects her to perform housekeeping duties and beats her whenever he pleases. In a sense, Cheng is her savior, but Burrows isn’t too happy about that.  The idea that there could be any type of love between his daughter and this “Chink” is out of the question.

brokenblossoms1I suppose in a sense this is a love story and we want both these characters to be happy. One inter-title says of Cheng: “The beauty that all Limehouse missed smote him in the heart.” It’s a beautiful line and suggests the wonderful connection that these two seem to have. Although the dream loses a little of its charm when Gish’s character calls her suitor “Chinky.” It was in this moment where I stopped feeling sorry for simply Gish, but also her character. She seems like a girl like Mayella from To Kill a Mockingbird, who is bred with racism and yet she becomes so lonely in the process. All the abuse leaves her empty and searching for something. In that case, her only outlet was wrongly-accused mockingbird, Tom Robinson. In this case, it’s Cheng, the only person who seems to see Lucy Burrows differently.

I cannot speak for others but I can forgive Broken Blossoms for some of it’s more unfortunate moments and I’m sure Birth of a Nation would require a lot more dialogue. There are certainly numerous outdated, rudimentary views here from Southern-bred director D.W. Griffith. But I think if we look at the bigger picture, this is a film that attempts to point out evil and bring to light a little beauty even if it comes from an Asian and a defenseless young girl. I not sure what to make of it. Can we call it a clear-cut interracial love story? Maybe, but perhaps that’s not the biggest issue. This is a film that tries to move its audiences by evoking emotion and deriving pity for its protagonists. It’s a far more intimate portrait than Griffith had done before. On that level, Broken Blossom succeeds.

4/5 Stars