Thursday, July 28, 2016

Only angels have wings 1939


              Lost in the shuffle of Hollywood’s golden year was Howard Hawk’s beautiful movie about airfreight pilots working in a banana republic’s isolated port of nowhere, Barranca. The opening of the film flows across the nice Columbia back lot set following two of the pilots played by Noah Berry Jr. and Allyn Jolyson, both sharky, smart and terrific as they come across Jean Arthur a cabaret singer tearing down the runway of a freight ship and immediately start hitting on her.
             The dialogue like many of Hawk’s films comedy or drama is fast, loose and overlapping and much of the credit must go to his frequent collaborator the great screenwriter Jules Furthman whose impeccable scripts dot the Hollywood landscape from the 20’s right up to the late 50’s. 
               Arthur is not interested in them and there is the black eye worn by the captain of the ship that attests to her feistiness and her no fooling around with fools. She changes her tune or at least her attitude towards them when she finds out that like her they are Americans and off they go to the local cantina for a few laughs and drinks.  The cantina located in a low decor hotel is run the a Dutchman who is also the owner of the rundown and last legs airways, and is played by the great and wonderful Sig Ruman who brings depth and feeling to his small but potent role.
               The boss of the operation is Geoff Carter played by Cary Grant who a few minutes into the film makes his entrance through a door in the cantina and it is a startling entrance because he is so striking in his male beauty that he takes your breath away. Hawks loved making movies with him, and treats him as lovingly as a female movie star, maybe even more so, and there is no doubt (certainly in my mind) that he was the most beautiful male star ever to appear in films.
                 He’s like a rich expensive delicious desert and  Arthur of course immediately falls head over her heels for him.  Dressed in a silly gaucho hat and baggy pants, it makes no difference he controls the movie from this moment on. The film is so enjoyable and tangy that it will curl your toes, even though there are some dead spots and the film’s special effects including the models are cheap looking but charming, they’re like a model railroad setup.
                 Columbia who made the film was finally rising out of property row, (the film opened at Radio City Music Hall and was big hit) and was now posed to take its place with the other major studios. Hawk’s themes here male bonding, courage under fire, faith and bravery were common themes in his films, and added to his mix was the woman intruder into the male universe who usually proved herself as tough and courageous as the men. It’s vivid here with the great Jean Arthur who shows her soft feminine side (we need that) but is also as strong as the men who come to love and respect her which is another common thread in Hawk’s films.
              Arthur who began making movies in the silent period was known to be a difficult co-player, but she was also one of the unique actresses ever to appear in films. Maybe it was her voice (they had voices then), or her off kilter beauty that attracted and appealed, I always adored her discovering her in my childhood in the forgotten little gem “The Devil And Miss Jones” that played on the early show, a local movie program that played old movies which were generally butchered and cut to fit in the one hour time slot.      
                       Also in the great cast is Thomas Mitchell as Grant’s once star aviator now winding down his flying days because of his failing eye sight.  Mitchell unbelievably  appeared in five films in 1939 winning a best supporting actor Oscar for “Stagecoach” but he could have easily won for this film as well.  Playing Kid Dabb he’s part of a coincidence plot twist that also features the once big silent screen star Richard Barthelmess and the young and beautiful Rita Hayworth who finally started to hit it big with this film as his Barthelmess’s troubled wife. Controversary was no stranger to Hawk who was known as a man’s man director and was accused by Lauren Bacall as being an anti-Semite and a homophobe but who pepped his films with homoerotic images and scenes. The Criterion transfer is stunning, with crisp and atmospheric cinematography by the great Joseph Walker.  


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