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USA 1939
Directed by
Howard Hawks
121 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

Only Angels Have Wings

Howard Hawks’ musty adventure romance is often cited as a paradigmatic example of gender stereotyping in studio-era Hollywood – on the one hand a loyal brotherhood of men doing manly things, on the other, the women who fear for their safety and want them to stay home and get proper jobs. That may well be true, but it doesn't make it a good film

Cary Grant plays Geoff Carter, the boss of a shoestring airline operating in Ecuador. With his long-time friend,  Kidd Dabb (Thomas MItchell), some broken-down planes and a rag-tag team of pilots, he's trying to win a long-term contract to fly mail over a difficult route and so help Dutchy (Sig Ruman) put his business on a solid footing.  When stage artiste Bonnie Lee (an improbable Jean Arthur) shows up (as showgirls apparently did in those days) she starts to question the sanity of the operation and is pretty much proven right tho’ this isn’t going to stop these good ol’boys from risking their necks for a sack of mail.

Scripted by Jules Furthman, the film is pretty much a by-the-numbers affair with an exotic location and colourful (even if the film is in black and white) natives providing the setting for a tale of pioneer bravery that suffers badly from a limited budget. Most of the film takes place on a couple of studio sets with often shoddy-looking pokey-jiggery to represent the actual flying business, Hawks having little option other than having his cast swaggering on and off set as the plot goes through its highly predictable if largely implausible motions.  

Grant looks uncomfortable with the flagrant machismo, particularly in the early scenes when he doesn’t have an opportunity to play the ladies’ man.  When an impeccably-dressed Ms. Arthur turns up that alleviates his awkwardness somewhat, and he gets really comfortable when, in a remarkable plot development, an old flame (played by Rita Haworth in her first significant screen appearance) turns up as the wife of a disgraced pilot (a glowering Richard Barthelmess).

Intended to be in the spirit of The Right Stuff before that concept or film existed, if Hawks, who has much better works to his name, hadn’t directed this film it would long ago have dropped out of sight.




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