How It Is

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]

Only Angels Have Wings is one of Hawks’s “male adventurer” films, but it is also one of his comedies—and is perhaps best understood as such. It’s comedy in the sense that it has its share of wisecracks and a hint of slapstick—but also, and more importantly, in that it gives humor a place as a value and subtly undercuts “masculine” toughness in a way that parallels the rug-pulling comedy in Bringing Up Baby, I Was a Male War Bride, and other more obviously comic Hawks films.

The story, to be sure, seems familiar enough, even routine. The characters are mostly brash and glamorous, the setting—a tiny landing field in a South American port—is exotic, and the action includes two plane crashes, a whirlwind romance, and a seemingly successful attempt to make a spit-and-bailing-wire airmail service financially viable. The ingredients of conventional melodrama are unmistakable. But, as some commentators on Hawks have noted, the melodramatic elements do not necessarily prove deadly. Robin wood admires this film’s sense of “urgency in contact” between characters and sees this as a response to “all that is valid in the genre'” Even Peter John Dyer seems fascinated by its success in moving “through a plot as heavy as concrete until it has taken on “a rich, mossy life of its own.” And beyond that we have the endorsements of Jacques Rivette, who sees intelligence as Hawks’ prime concern, and of François Truffaut, who has called Hawks the most intelligent American director. Moreover, Only Angels seems a perfect model for study of this auteur—especially since the male adventurer’s code is developed more explicitly and extensively than in most of Hawks’s films.

But as Manny Farber has implied, a discussion which takes the film’s philosophical side too seriously is doing an injustice to more noticeable (and less paraphrasable) aspects of the film’s vitality. And such problems are central to any discussion of Hawks: references by Rivette and Andrew Sarris to Hawks’s bitter view of life are definitely illuminating, and yet the sheer fun of the film(s) remains—and dominates—long after the bitter view has been discovered. Only Angels frequently plays as comedy, even when the darker elements are most explicit, and the result tends to elude both the “pure entertainment” tag and the comparisons to Hemingway and the Existentialists. The film’s jubilant, upbeat air is impossible to miss most of the time, and this élan (all the more moving, as Wood notes, for its proximity to death) gives the film strengths it would probably never have in a more straightfaced rendition. And yet the film’s “entertainment value” has been so unmistakable that Pauline Kael was (and probably still is) incredulous at the thought of there being some “meaning” to it in other critics’ eyes.

But Only Angels Have Wings, which is such an exceptionally good example of the Hawksian adventurer’s code, is also an exceptionally good index to both the immediacy and difficulty of Hawks’s work. Among other things, it may be Hawks’s first genuinely personal masterpiece, and it is the first of his adventure films to move beyond a somewhat shrill concern with courage and male friendship to a broader sense of his characters’ ways of behaving. A good deal of this may have to do with the presence of a richer comic vein than had appeared in his previous adventure films; one almost feels that Hawks had to achieve the non-heroic comic perspectives of Twentieth Century and Bringing Up Baby in order to pass from the very nearly suicidal desperation of The Dawn Patrol, The Criminal Code, Scarface, The Crowd Roars, Tiger Shark, Today We Live, and The Road to Glory to the more vibrant and resilient desperation of Only Angels. In any event, Hawks’s last film from the Thirties seems one of his richest, both because of its vigorous and appealing surface and because of the undercurrents of feeling and knowledge which put its characters and events among the most resonant and provocative of Hawks’s creations.

The “undercurrents” of a Hawks film are often barely discernible to critics who take a reductive view of genre films, but a little reflection often yields quite a lot. In Only Angels and other Hawks films (most notably El Dorado), an important part of this has to do with duplications. Hawks’s interest in couples is readily apparent, but some of his films have events, actions, gestures, and remarks which occur in pairs also. Duplications are especially important in Only Angels because of the ways in which Hawks uses, and even flaunts, some of the dramatic shortcuts of the popular genres. “Coincidence,” after all, is notoriously an ingredient in genre films which find too easy solutions to their conflicts, and it is just such an effect that some critics claim to find objectionable in this film. But coincidence is also an important and well-established ingredient in comic narratives where, as is the case with this film and others by Hawks, the repetitions tend to complicate rather than facilitate the characters’ attempts to cope.

‘Only Angels Have Wings’

At one level, the duplications reinforce the Hawksian professional’s sense of an elite community isolated from society at large. These repetitions suggest that the price of the fraternity’s more intense life is a limited variety of relationships’ friendships and love are keenly felt but highly unstable in an atmosphere so imbued with risk, and—more to the point here—the adventurer’s separateness from less specialized forms of life means that he will encounter the same people over and over again. This vaguely claustrophobic sense of profession rebounds on several of the film’s people in that it forces them to deal with painful relationships from which they were more or less hiding. This is true of the paradoxical place of Bat McPherson (Richard Barthelmess) in the lives and deaths of Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell) and his brother. But in an even more personal sense it is part of the relationship of Geoff Carter(Cary Grant) with McPherson’s wife, Judith (Rita Hayworth). Before her marriage, she and Carter had what was apparently a very stormy romance. At the start of the film Carter is still feeling the wounds of the affair, which ended with her leaving him to the life of flying that was the source of their conflict. When she returns to Jeff’s domain, she does so as the wife of another flyer, indeed a sort of pilote maudit. Their coincidental reunion is an especially painful one (though treated with edgy lightness) because it leaves both of them facing the embarrassing but unmentioned fact that she is married to a man whose work is exactly that which kept her from staying with Carter. In this sense as well, the professionals’ elitism results not in protection from life, but rather in direct confrontations with the problems that divide men from each other.

Ultimately, these duplications reflect an intuitive sense of human nature. In Hawks, man is the creature who repeats his mistakes. Sometimes the miscues are only apparent, but Hawks’s characters are often doing things they swore they’d never do again. At its most developed, the realization of this produces the most interesting relationship in the film: Carter and McPherson. McPherson has married Carter’s ex-girlfriend and contributed to the deaths of his best friend and his best friend’s brother. But their relationship is a remarkable mixture of restrained bitterness and a tough, oblique respect. When Judith begins to despair over her husband’s past, Carter’s exasperated reply (“You don’t know what it is to stick”) implies a bond between the two flyers which goes beyond bourgeois ethics and the code of the aviation elite as well. Here especially, although the point is played down in a comic confrontation between Carter and Judith, Hawks’s protagonist reflects a sense of human nature that is both dark and generous. A profound sense of fallibility underlies the Hawksian vigor and stoicism, and in this light the much-discussed professionalism of Hawks’s people becomes less a sign of elitism than a reflection of the need for some stabilizing (and functional) landmark in the unpredictable seas of human behavior. The Hawksian character is an empiricist and, given the proclivity for error that he has found in himself and all men, he opts for “professionalism” as the most workable way of behaving under the circumstances.

Cary Grant and Rita Hayworth

The duplications also reflect a partial deflation of whatever may seem heroic in Hawks’s characters. Carter grouses that he never gets burned twice in the same place, but he does (on one occasion, in the most literal way), and one of the film’s little dramas is the process in which that becomes apparent. The public aspect of the film’s drama is also far less resolved than its surface may at first suggest. When last seen, Carter and another pilot (both with injured arms) are taking off on the last-minute flight that will win a desperately needed contract for the airline. But the situation they are leaving behind is less than promising. Of the six pilots visibly working for the airline during the film, two end up dead, three have incapacitating injuries to hands or arms, and the uninjured one has been fired. In addition, two planes have been destroyed, including an expensive new one which the company had been barely able to pay for. Similarly, Carter’s obsessions with danger and flying equivocate his commitment to the airline. He runs the line on a strict basis, yet in a crucial early scene it becomes clear that he has given continued employment to a pilot whom he considers as a risk, and that he would rather give the pilot a job and chance a crash than ground him. In short, though he grounds another man—his close friend, Kid Dabb—and though the airline owner “Dutchy” (Sig Rumann) is a friend as well, Carter’s devotion to the company is motivated, partially but significantly, by the interests of an adventurer, as opposed to those of a businessman. The same conversation indicates that it is Carter who has talked “Dutchy” into financing the airline, and the overall feeling becomes an uneasy blend of professional discipline and personal recklessness, with an underlying preoccupation with risks and the challenge of death itself. Some of the risks pay off in the business sense (e.g., McPherson’s spectacular rescue operation), yet by the end of the film the group is perilously close to proving Sparks’s remark that “There’s not much future in it.”

McPherson’s redemption, perhaps the most moving aspect of the film, is similarly double-edged. McPherson wins the other flyers’ respect back by refusing to leave his crippled plane, by his efforts to save Kid’s life, and by his enduring a literal test by fire—all in a situation similar to the one in which he had bailed out of a plane and left Kid’s brother to die, thereby earning his “renegade” reputation. But his redemption is complicated a good deal by its circumstances. McPherson’s courage seems real enough and this may be all that matters finally, yet his triumph coincides with Kid Dabb’s tragedy. Kid’s demise, in fact, comes about when their plane is struck by one of the condors on which McPherson had previously jettisoned some nitroglycerine. And all this occurs in a situation where both men are disobeying orders to return to the home field. McPherson is not literally the cause of Kid’s death, yet he is implicated in ii in a way that casts an odd pall over his obvious courage. This network of twists and turns mixes recurrence with change and imbues the film’s narrative progress with a very potent sense of equivocation. As a result, the film’s “resolution” of its issues is at once exhilarating, and very ironic and tenuous.

‘Only Angels Have Wings’

The romance of Jeff and Bonnie (Jean Arthur) is prospering as the film ends, for example, yet there is evidence that Carter might have been better advised to stick to his original feeling that Bonnie is unsuited to a man who is obsessed with the risks of flying. At the outset, Carter is on the rebound from wounds suffered in a romance with Judith who could not cope, emotionally, with his professional .risk-taking. Bonnie wants to be able to live with such a man—partly, it seems, because her father enjoyed risks too—but her actions cast some doubt on her real suitability. Except for an interlude in the group sing, she generally fumbles her outsider’s efforts to enter the flyers’ world; she often needs coaching in her flustered romantic pursuits, mainly from the older, less eligible Sparks (Victor Killian) and Kid Dabb; and in a moment of considerable discomposure, she accidentally fires a shot that comes within six inches of killing Carter. At the start, Carter’s feeling is that women are dangerous, and there is considerable evidence that Bonnie’s mixture of ingenuousness and impulsiveness, however attractive, makes her more dangerous than any girl he may have had in mind in the first place. This “successful” romance is less a resolution than the start of a new drama, as is apparent in a scene where Bonnie promises to love Carter with the same low-pressure tolerance that marks Kid Dabb’s affection for him. “Kid?” says Carter only half-jokingly. “He drives me nuts.”

Carter and Bonnie first become intimate in an argument about the compatibility of male professionalism and female domesticity, and their growing love affair erodes Carter’s code (and toughens hers) a good deal. His rather picaresque notions (“Don’t believe in laying in a supply of anything”) gradually subside in a growing and largely unstated emotional commitment to a girl who is herself rather rootless and given to travelling light (she is an unemployed showgirl, daughter of a circus tightrope walker who died from a fall). Each fills a real emotional need in the other (she associates him with her father, while for him she becomes the object of the affection that sometimes seemed reserved for the ill-fated Kid Dabb; indeed he acknowledges the shift in affection by giving her his late friend’s two-headed coin). Yet each is getting himself into the kind of situation which he has previously had cause to regret. This applies to McPherson too. The net result is a series of processes in which emotional satisfaction and emotional risk form problematical parallels. Here too, the situation worsens and improves almost simultaneously.

Part of the dynamics of these paradoxes is that the Hawksian individual, with his adventure lust, tends to thrive on adversity. Hawks almost never shows us a major character, a true “professional,” who simply presses his luck beyond the point of no return—but his stories about adventurers on the high side of their luck gain from the persistent proximity of the low side. Part of being “professional” in a Hawks film is knowing at what point adversity will prove merely destructive; and part of what makes Hawks’s professionals so interesting is that they rarely have total security on that point. In managing the airline, for example, Carter is fastidious enough about regulations to ground Kid Dabb for weak eyesight and to fire another for imperfect devotion to his assignments, yet he also sends two men up together knowing that neither would mind killing the other. And at the end, he and another man take off on a flight when each has a disabled arm. These “violations” of an otherwise celebrated code help to cut Hawks’s heroes down to something more like life-size. But more trenchantly, they point up the ultimate absurdity of the adventure itself. The one-armed pilots, like the redeemed McPherson with his bandaged fists clumsily cradling a glass of whiskey, bring a strange note of the ridiculous to the situations of brave men—and all that is left is the quiet emotion that prevails, an oblique defiance, a precarious dignity.

‘Only Angels Have Wings’

Finally, Hawks’s people confront chaos with only the (often unstated) respect they have for one another and the games they play together. The airline of this film is run more like a rodeo than a business: a score is kept—that’s the business part—but it’s the action in progress that interests most of the participants. There are also the little games played with two-headed coins and the tests of various sorts that the characters administer to themselves and each other. There is a considerable sense of serious play, of life as a sport which counts for everything (once you’ve decided to play), and it is precisely in these terms that Only Angels Have Wings also establishes itself as a comedy in the fullest sense. For the banter which dominates the conversation of a very talkative bunch (Hawks’s protagonists are often the most talkative examples imaginable of the “strong silent type”) is itself a playful survival technique—often by way of an abrasive sort of humor which acknowledges the harrowing side of experience at the same time that, by its very nature , it refuses to be dominated by the futility and destruction which constantly loom nearby. The brusque “sex antagonism” of the Hawksian couple, here and elsewhere, is a kind of foreplay which also reflects the characters’ battle-scarred ambivalence toward the relationships which they nevertheless want to form. This is humorous play, and playful humor, working against and out of the bitter knowledge that underlies Hawks’s work, and it is comedy not just in the entertainment sense of the word, but also in the more profound sense of Suzanne Langer, who sees comedy as “an image of human vitality holding its own in the world amid the surprises of unplanned coincidence.”

Seeing the bitter assumptions, the ambivalent flow of events and the stoic adventurousness of Hawks’s people is surely important to any understanding of this film, but finally Only Angels is not “about” any of these things so much as it is the comedic celebration and embodiment of an earthy, durable kind of vitality of something more electrifying and more elusive than the words for it. Only Angels gives us action, adventure, danger, humor; it establishes a code of behavior and then undercuts it; it leaves us finally with “fun,” that favorite Hawksian emotion. Leaves us, that is, with a sense of elation at having not yet fallen into the ridiculous and deadly darkness, even though the time is as inevitable as ever, and getting closer. It is a film which appears to reaffirm the traditional (and conventional) balances and unities, but which instead represents a dark-humored intimation of the absurdity which, more and more since 1939, has become part of any definitive notion of modern life.

ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939)
Direction: Howard Hawks. Screenplay: Jules Furthman, after a story by Hawks. Cinematography: Joseph Walker; aerial cinematography: Elmer Dyer. Music: Dimitri Tiomkin. Production: Hawks. A Columbia Picture.
The Players: Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Thomas Mitchell, Richard Barthelmess, Rita Hayworth, Sig Rumann, Victor Killian, Allyn Joslyn, Noah Beery Jr., John Carroll, Donald Barry, Lucio Villegas, Melissa Sierra, Pedro Regas, Pat Flaherty, Pat West, James Millican, Forbes Murray, Maciste.

Copyright © 1975 by Peter Hogue


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