#2 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
This and Ceiling Zero would make a wonderful case study in how “original” isn’t necessarily a positive quality. Only Angels Have Wings is effectively a remake of Ceiling Zero, and where the earlier film was a perfectly fine little example of quick filmmaking with a focus on a commercial airfield, the latter film takes a similar setting, similar characters, and even similar plot points and creates a far fuller experience that works more completely. It does not matter that Ceiling Zero did it first because Only Angels Have Wings did it better.
In the small Central American port city of Barranca the young female performer Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) stops for the evening as her ship docks for a few hours. As she wanders the little town, she meets a pair of flyers who cheerfully bring her back to their airport headquarters and bar where they argue about who’s going to have dinner with her while the other goes on the evening mail flight. Their efforts come to a halt when their boss, the head of the airline, Cary Grant’s Geoff Carter comes up and sends the scheduled pilot off to fly and the other to a warehouse for some menial task, leaving Bonnie free to have dinner with him.
What follows is one of the tensest moments of the movie when the pilot tries to thread the needle of the mountain pass, the highest the old planes can fly, while a heavy fog passes through. Geoff makes the call to bring the pilot back, but the fog has fallen on the airport as well. Despite orders to stay up for a few hours with his fuel supply, the pilot tries to land in order to have that dinner with Bonnie but crashes horribly and dies. The majority of the sequence is filmed watching Geoff try to direct his pilot down, standing just outside the headquarters with his hand holding onto a microphone attached to a wooden box mixed with some model work of the plane that’s about 75% convincing. The crash is horrible, killing the pilot, and Bonnie feels a certain sense of guilt. He was coming back to see her. Otherwise he would have probably just circled above until a hole opened up in the fog for him to safely land. And yet, when the rest of the airport personnel go back to their headquarters, they’re singing songs, eating and drinking while insisting that they never knew the pilot who died.
How can they go on like this? Callously forgetting their mate in the sky? It’s the only way they can go on. Too many of them die too frequently for them to act any other way. Maybe it is callous, but it’s also a means of survival. Bonnie begins to understand.
It’s here where Bat MacPherson (played by Richard Barthelmess) is introduced. Bat is a pilot who bailed on a failing aircraft, leaving his mechanic to die in the crash. His reputation is in ruins, and he travels with his wife under a false name. She knows nothing of this past, but Geoff does, instantly recognizing him, especially since the mechanic Bat left to die was the brother of Geoff’s oldest friend and fellow pilot at the airport, Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell). The antagonism between Bat and every pilot is obvious from the moment he shows up, realizing his anonymity doesn’t exist in Barranca. He needs out, but he doesn’t have the money, so Geoff gives him a really dangerous job transporting a doctor to a remote mining operation without a landing strip. If he can do it, Geoff will give him the money for the boat ride out.
This is the best air moment in the film in no small part because all of it uses real aircraft in real conditions, as far as I can tell. The landing on the small plateau if dangerous, but the takeoff, where Bat has to carry more weight than expected and use the fall from the cliff to gain momentum to fly is terrifying. It also proves Bat’s worth to Geoff who offers to keep Bat on if he takes all of their most dangerous jobs. This is made a bit more complicated by the fact that Bat’s wife, Rita Hayworth’s Judy, is Geoff’s old flame. This new bit of information, as Bonnie decides to stay for an extra week because she’s drawn to Geoff and Geoff’s old flame coming into his airport, felt like the movie was beginning to add too much too late. He’s balancing two women to certain degrees, Judy, who rejected him because she hated the idea of waiting to see if the pilot would come back at all (made even more ironically worse by Geoff sending Bat out on even more dangerous missions than anyone else) and Bonnie, who wants to love Geoff but doesn’t know if she can handle the fear of never seeing him again anytime he goes up.
What ends up making this work and doesn’t bog down the whole film is that the idea of a proposed rekindling of romance between Geoff and Judy never comes close to materializing. Judy is faithful to her husband through and through, and her purpose in the film is to present the audience and Bonnie with what Bonnie could become if she stays with Geoff. It also helps humanize Bat, which is key to how the final act of the movie ends up playing out.
The backdrop of all the earnest action at the airport is that the owner of the place, Dutchy, is near the end of a six-month contract that, should he complete it, will lead to more money including a subsidy. The airport is in financial straits, unable to even play the clearance fees on a new airplane down at the dock. With the end in sight, Geoff manages to get the last mail flight out and the new plane in. He plans on going up himself, but he sends Bat and the Kid up together. It’s this final sequence that brings all of the different pieces together into one cohesive whole. Bat redeems himself. The Kid forgives Bat. Judy reaffirms her love for Bat. Geoff proves that he can manage the airport. Bonnie proves that she has what it takes to be a pilot’s girl. Dutchy is on his way to his subsidy. It’s amazing how it all comes together, and it’s all tied up in the reality of early pilot life.
Between this, Ceiling Zero, and Hawks’ WWI airplane dramas, it’s obvious that Hawks was fascinated by the life he touched briefly when he flew planes out of combat during World War I. The men, the shared danger, and their community and brotherhood all fascinated him. This combines with The Dawn Patrol as his two best movies about that life, the former from the military perspective and the latter from the civilian perspective twenty years later. Wonderfully acted, especially from Grant, Barthelmess, and Mitchell, Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings is a great little picture about daring men and how they treat with death on a daily basis.