Only Angels Have Wings 1939 Howard Hanks

Only Angels Have Wings

Cary Grant     Directed by Howard Hanks   with   Jean Arthur


Cary Grant (Born 1904 and aged 35) and Jean Arthur (Aged 39) in the contrasting DVD cover and post for the 1939 Howard Hanks movie; “Only Angels Have Wings”.  The Bright blue and iconic palms trees might lead you to think this was a happier picture than it actually was.  The only clue to suggest otherwise is the worried looking Rita Hayworth Cradling the head of Richard Barthelmess.

I mention Cary Grant age just to place him where he was in time, his carer and endurance of this popularity being enormous.

This dark film is far better represented by the DVD cover; Cary Grant’s character Geoff Carter attempting to remain cold and distant from Jean Arthur, playing Bonnie Lee whose bouncing positive nature rattles Geoff Carter from the start.


This Columbia poster sums up the movie better; although to give credit to the performance of Jean Arthur she be the one holding the swooning Grant.  The film is dominated by dark night scenes; dark rain scenes and death.  With pilots dropping from the skies like files.

Now I bought this film due to two recommendations.  One that the Iconic ‘Indiana Jones’ outfit – the Fedora and leather working jacket; or in this case flying jacket (similarly to Alan Ladd in China) was inspired by this film.  A perfect description as far as wardrobe goes for these pilots.  The bar where these ill fated pilots gather looks like an ‘Indiana Jones’ convention!  The sight causing me to spluttering and snort my coffee all over the place.  Have got over these I must add the movie is in no way spoiled by this association.  Nor does the second recommendation as a possible inspiration for ‘Tales of the Gold Monkey’ – a favorite series from my childhood – whose humor and  characters could easily walk from the Monkey bar in Bora-Bora, South Pacific, into the Barranca Bar, South America!

‘Only Angels have wings’ was directed by Howard Hanks; supposedly based on personal experiences.  This followed his previous success with Cary Grant in the comedy ‘Bringing up Bady’, called the “the screwiest of the screwball comedies” by critics – defining the genre of screwball comedy.  Howard would work again with Cary revisiting the style.  However Howard, as did throughout his carrer.

The idea for the film was developed with Jules Furthman who work ed with Howard Hanks on many successful, and style defining movies such as ‘To Have and Have not’, ‘Rio Bravo’,  ‘The Big Sleep’.  ‘To Have and Have Not’ it self made by Hanks and Furthman out of Hemingway’s “worst book” for a bet.  Furthman and Hanks make an prefect team; if you are studying either direction or scene writing – both are worth study – especially together – or in seeing the development and reuse of ideas and progression of style and how both writing and director drives a plot with a smooth realism.

Bonnie Lee opens the story, looking lost in the foreboding docks on some unknown distant shore.  The setting dumping the Vacationing show girl, Bonnie, in foreign immediately sets a scene which the viewer is uncomfortable with.  Bright attractive blonde – at risk of being marooned, robbed or worse in a setting which at first is difficult to place, and then is not all together pleasant South American trading port – with poor communication and wholly unreliable transport links.  Yet Bonnie fixes to stay a while attracted to Geoff; in the opening scenes a voice at the back of your head screams no!  Get the next boat out of there, but then events hook you – drawing you in.

The events of the movie are staged around Geoff Carter’s Air Freight business – strangely it appears to be run pretty much of a bar.  Where Bonnie observes the stresses of the pilots, and their boss as aircraft crash, smash – get stuck in driving rain, snow and worse.  All the while Carter pushes to keep is business running, determined to get a lucrative contract to keep his fright company going.

Bonnie involves herself, Carter shuns her all the while diverting his glassy eyes, then to complicate things a misfit pilot – with glamorous wife appears on the scene.  No one trusts the pilot – who risks his life for pay; whilst his wife, who happens to be Carter’s old flame starts stamping in Bonnie patch.

On a knife edge the business, the pilots lives, the stuttering relationships, the poor weather and Carter’s future all balance.  The combination of characters and flaws swing until something has to give.

Bonnie resolutely gives up on Geoff, with some fine dialogue, and bids him farewell.   Carter offers to toss a coin to help her decide: heads, she stays; tails, she leaves.

A break in weather causes Geoff to rush out to secure the all-important contract.  Bonnie is still unwilling to be pushed in to making a choice between Carter, who’s now flown to certain doom with the clouds returning, and the next boat home?   Emotionally she says, “I’m hard to get, Jeff — all you have to do is ask me!”  But Carter stubborn as a mule, and has the dialogue to prove it, gives her the coin to make the toss.

All is resolved, much to Bonnie’s thrill when she discovers that coin is a double header.  Proving Carter might not be able to talk about his feelings, but he really does want to be a likable Bastard?

The endings although not spectacular by today’s standards is satisfying, but you wonder was Carter really any good for Bonnie?  Which goes to show that in the end you have connected with the characters, not be put off by the plot, not doubted the credibility of special effects – which hamper most of todays movies, and in the end you shared part of the emotional journey the pilots went through.  Who ‘won’ is not quite answered – the dead pilots have their wings now.  In the end Carter has a showgirl and a contract; he’ll be looking for more pilots then?



About Max

Poet, Creative Writer, Essayist, Political Opinionist and Reviewer. Rock and Roll fix it man with two guitars, a spanner, some glue and Myalgic Encephalomyelitis! Michael aka Max struggles to balance his continued ill luck with the limits of his condition. He also is acutely aware of the difficulties facing M.E. suffers who are abused by the system. In addition to poetry and historical fiction Michael also writes delightful and original children’s stories. He is also considering the completion of the first installment of his imaginative historically accurate stories of ex-pats stranded far from home in Asia during War World II, ‘The Orange Dragon of Old Hanoi’ (Copyright 2007, 2014). ‘The Long Hard Highway’ is a collection of poems by aspiring British poet, writer and researcher of historical fiction, and children's author Michael J. Wormald. Self published for the first time on Amazon Kindle 2013. The Call of the Thunder Dragon Novel out now View all posts by Max

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