“Only Angels Have Wings” Soars In The Clouds

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Cary Grant and Derring-Do Make a Natural Pair


The 1930s was a time of great pioneering in aviation, and also one of its most dangerous. What seems routine today — flying in stormy weather or high over mountains — was routinely hazardous and terrifying on occasion back then. In this 1939 movie classic directed by action specialist Howard Hawks (great last name, by the way), we’re given an action-filled thrill ride of a movie that also examines how we lose character and sometimes get it back through great acts of personal heroism. Only Angels Have Wings stars Cary Grant and Jean Arthur as a pair thrown together by happenstance and later deliberate calculation on the part of Arthur’s character Bonnie, who’s a piano playing cabaret entertainer newly-arrived in the South American port city of Barranca, Columbia, which nestles up against the Andes Mountains. Carter is the leader of a gang of airmen, who fly just about anything through and over the Andes range, most of the time successfully and with little drama, but sometimes not-so-successfully and with A LOT of drama.

Ably supporting the main effort by Grant and Jean Arthur (her Bonnie is smitten with Grant’s Carter, though Carter initially rebuffs her advances at almost every turn) Rita Hayworth and Richard Barthelmess play Bat and Judy Kilgallen, who show up in Barranca looking for flying work for Bat. Kilgallen is a pilot who once failed in a test of character and is now treated like a pariah by the other aviators in Geoff Carter’s circle. Hayworth delivers a fine performance as Judy, Carter’s ex-lover, who prevails upon Geoff for a big favor. Through a series of events, we’re shown how redemption can be possible, even at the cost of personal sacrifice on the part of others. And the way in which Geoff and Bonnie decide upon their own relationship will leave you pleased and wondering why they never made a sequel.

This would not be the last movie in which Howard Hawks and Cary Grant worked together, but it’s certainly one of their best. Though known more for his skilled employment of wild action to move a film along, Hawks is an under-appreciated maestro for the way he could use character emotion and mood to give us an insight into human relationships. Only Angels Have Wings is a sterling example of this skill, and also deservedly famous for its action scenes and the realism of the flying world of the 1930s. All in all, this film is a classic movie well worth watching or owning.

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