Only Angels Have Wings (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – If you love movies, I mean really love the glory of Hollywood moviemaking and star power and the joys of wondrous stories, then you love Howard Hawks. And if you love Howard Hawks, then you must love Only Angels Have Wings (1939), the quintessential Hawks adventure of male bonding and tough love in a world where there may be no tomorrow. If you haven’t fallen for it yet, it may be that you simply have yet to discover it.
Cary Grant is Geoff Carter, the charismatic, uncompromising leader of a fledgling air mail service in a South American port town, a business run on rickety planes and the nerves of its pilots. They call him Papa. He lives out of a bar, never lays in a supply of anything, and never sends a man on a job he wouldn’t do himself. Jean Arthur is Bonnie, the spunky American showgirl with a “specialty act” who gets a crash course in flyboy philosophy when a pair of pilots (Allyn Joslyn and Noah Beery Jr.) swoop in as she steps off a ship docking for supplies. Her first contact with Geoff creates sparks, the kind you get when a runaway car scrapes the wall of an alley. He’s all arrogance and lust when he sends Beery off on a mail run and moves in on Bonnie with a smile like a fox finding a hole in the henhouse. She’s outraged and appalled. Of course they are meant for each other, which is news to Geoff, who’s only interested in the moment and has no use for romantic commitment.
[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.
[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977. This essay on Bringing Up Baby is a chapter of the author’s University of Washington doctoral dissertation Howard Hawks: An American Auteur in the Hemingway Tradition.]
Bringing Up Baby‘s narrative and thematic directions have much in common with those of Shakespearean comedy. Positing the green world of the forest against the restrictive refuges of civilization, Hawks moves from a rigid and sterile old order into an arboreal milieu of enchantment and mistaken identity, and thence to a new order which synthesizes the best of both worlds. David Huxley is caught up in a midsummer night’s dream (or nightmare) in which identity, time, direction, and traditional modes of communication are lost or changed utterly. Hawks, like some cinematic Prospero, invokes the power of music and nature to effect the existential regeneration of comic hero and heroine.
David Huxley (Cary Grant) is introduced in the pose of Rodin’s “Thinker,” perched on a scaffold overlooking a brontosaurus skeleton that requires just one crucial bone to be complete. As a paleontologist, his “business” is a variation on taxidermy, the construction of bones into the shape of an extinct animal. He works in a museum where legacies of the past—nature’s and civilization’s—are displayed. As Hemingway said, “Chasing yesterdays is a bum show”: David is physically and intellectually immobilized by the weight of time into a sterile imitation of life. Momentarily stirred to joy by the promised arrival of the last brontosaurus bone, an intercostal clavicle, he spontaneously attempts to embrace his primly-coiffed and -suited fiancée, Miss Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker). Repressed and repressing, she rebuffs him with “There’s a time and a place for everything.” Not only does she see “time and place” as inviolably absolute categories; it is also clear that those categories will always preclude sexual spontaneity. David’s work will leave “no time for a honeymoon” and Alice proudly gestures toward the brontosaurus skeleton, announcing “This will be our child!” Sexuality and procreation, ordinarily signs of life in motion in the here and now, are frozen into images of “no time” and an unfleshed casualty of past time.
Rather than resenting and attempting’ to defy temporal realities, as do most Hawks and Hemingway code heroes, David Huxley is forced to worship time’s power to deaden and terminate life. Miss Swallow, a walking stopwatch, reminds David that “it’s time to play golf with Mr. Peabody,” whom he is to persuade to donate a million dollars to the museum. Almost in unconscious rebellion against her maternal discipline, he boyishly exclaims “I’ll show him! I’ll wow him! I’ll knock him for a loop!” His fiancée predictably objects to the slang—language in playful motion—and cautions, “Remember who and what you are. And let Mr. Peabody win!” Who and what you are, for Miss Swallow, are further static classifications in contrast to the potential for professional and personal development, particularly in competitive play, that is always present in Hawks’ dramatic films, For David’s fiancée, nothing must be left to chance. As David departs, he absentmindedly confuses Alice with an elderly, male colleague, almost giving him a parting kiss; for as a result of her killing categorizing, Alice has managed to confound David’s ability to recognize or respond to her as a woman. He is as unmanned in his existential refrigerator as are Francis Macomber and Robert Cohn, Hemingway men trained and enervated by women.