Only Angels Have Wings (1939 with Cary Grant and Jean Arthur)


Director: Howard Hawks

Writer: Jules Furthman (based on a story by Howard Hawks)

Cast: Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Richard Barthelmess, Rita Hayworth, Thomas Mitchell, Allyn Joslyn, Sig Rumann, Victor Kilian

Howard Hawks and Cary Grant worked together on five movies (including Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, I Was A Male War Bride and Monkey Business ), but this, their second collaboration, was the most typically ‘Hawksian’. It’s set in the machismo-fuelled world of a ramshackle airline company operating out of South America, and the director conceived the idea while flying around Mexico with a local bush pilot. Thankfully, his working title of ‘Plane No.4′ was swapped for the far more enigmatic-sounding Only Angels Have Wings .

Grant plays the hard-boiled and insensitive Geoff Carter, the boss of an airline that runs hazardous missions across the Andes. In order to land a lucrative mail subsidy contract from the U.S., Carter needs to ensure that the airline runs a regular schedule from the banana republic of Barranca for six months. Two arrivals complicate proceedings: a showgirl, Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), who is immediately drawn to Geoff despite his misogynistic ways – his motto is never ask a woman for anything; and Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess) and his wife Judy (Rita Hayworth).

Bat’s a pilot who, years earlier, inadvertently caused the death of the younger brother of Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell), in a flying accident. Kid is Geoff’s best friend and also a pilot for the airline. Although the other pilots object to Bat’s presence, Geoff is short of pilots and hires Bat on condition that he fly the most dangerous missions.

As the six months pass, Bonnie is constantly on the verge of declaring her love to Geoff but is always interrupted by airline business. Finally, with the contract almost secured, one last flight needs to be undertaken. With a storm raging, two pilots are needed to volunteer for the extremely hazardous journey. Who will put their lives on the line one more time?

Howard Hawks’ comedy-drama is a celebration of magnificent men in their flying machines, with Grant and Arthur perfectly cast as the equally strong-willed, would-be lovers. Look out for a line of dialogue towards the end of the film when Arthur says to Grant, “I’m hard to get, Geoff. All you have to do is ask me.” The exact same line (with a name change) was also used five years later by Hawks when he made To Have And Have Not , with Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart.