Directed by: Howard Hawks
Written by: Howard Hawks (story), Jules Furthman (screenplay), William Rankin (contributor), Eleanore Griffin (contributor) (both uncredited)
Starring: Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Richard Barthelmess, Rita Hayworth, Thomas Mitchell, Allyn Joslyn, Sig Ruman
Howard Hawks' To Have and Have Not (1944) has often been described as the director's answer to Casablanca (1942), an adventurous and witty love story/drama set in an exotic location. However, Hawks more successfully captured that spirit of passion and outlandish adventure in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), a romantic, screwball comedy-style love story born amid a tense, exciting and epic aviation adventure. Hawks was evidently fond of story lines centred around aviation, considering he had already produced The Dawn Patrol (1930) and Ceiling Zero (1936), and the film's screenplay by Jules Furthman was expanded from Hawks' own 1938 short story, "Plane Four from Barranca." The film explores themes of male camaraderie, professionalism, and bravery, and the amusing consequences that arise when an independent woman arrives to disrupt this closely-knit community of men. The drama unfolds in the small port at Barranca, Ecuador, a village bordered by the might and majesty of the Andes Mountains, and where tropical storms are a regular but treacherous occurrence.
Only Angels Have Wings was filmed in Los Angeles, and does an excellent job of evoking the exotic tropical environment of South America. The characters always appear beleaguered by the overwhelming heat and humidity of the Ecuadorian jungle, and the frequent storms bombard the landscape with stifling fog and rain. The scenes of aviation, largely produced using elaborate model-work, remain mostly convincing, and those few shots that aren't have a likable charm about them. Roy Davidson (photographic) and Edwin C. Hahn (sound) received an Academy Award nomination for their special effects work, the first time that an Oscar had been offered in that category. One particular aviation shot, apparently involving no effects of any kind, follows Richard Barthelmess' mail-plane as he attempts an extremely risky landing on a perilous plateau. Filmed from adjacent aircraft, the long shot follows the plane as its swoops around the makeshift runway and comes in for the landing, coming to a stop just metres from the edge of the cliff. It's an elaborate and meticulously-staged moment that really makes you appreciate what cinema is all about.
The story involves Geoff Carter (Cary Grant), who manages a air-mail business from the small port-town at Barranca. Though he has been romantically-involved with many women, Geoff has basically given away all chances of happiness, being unwilling to place any woman through the stress and fear that besieges any wife whose husband has such a dangerous occupation. Spirited and intelligent Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) arrives at the town, and, despite her initial aversion towards Geoff, slowly finds herself caring about him. Geoff's repeated attempts to rebuff Bonnie's advances ultimately prove futile, and he discovers that the woman who truly loves him will never allow herself to be affected by his rejections, however selfless and noble his intentions. Forming the film's dramatic heart is the character of Bat Kilgallen (Richard Barthelmess), a disgraced pilot who finds himself aggressively slighted by his comrades for ejecting from his aircraft and leaving his navigator, the brother of Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell), to die. Even when offered only the most dangerous missions, Kilgallen's unwavering desire for redemption earns him the respect of those who had formerly denounced him as a coward.
Currently my #2 film of 1939:
1) Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (Frank Capra)
2) Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks)
3) The Wizard Of Oz (Victor Fleming, Mervyn LeRoy, Richard Thorpe, King Vidor)
4) The Hunchback of Notre Dame (William Dieterle)
5) Another Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke)