Only Angels Have Wings

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(1939, directed by Howard Hawks)

- inducted 2017 –

“Howard Hawks has long been celebrated as an exemplar, perhaps the exemplar of the auteurist impulse in American filmmaking , by the French critics of the Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s, and then, picking up from the French, by Andrew Sarris in his influential 1968 book The American Cinema. But as critic Michael Sragow has pointed out in his excellent essay on Only Angels Have Wings (1939), found inside the Criterion Collection’s stunning Blu-ray of the film released last year, James Agee may have gotten the jump on them all. In his enraptured review of Hawks’ Red River, Agee observed: ‘When people discuss the real artists in picture-making, they seldom get around to mentioning Howard Hawks. Yet Hawks is one of the most individual and independent directors in the business… Hawks obviously likes and understands men, grand enterprise, hardship, courage, and magnificent landscape.’ Hawks had made notable movies, and even a couple of great movies, in the years from 1926 leading up to Only Angels Have Wings, but it is arguably in that picture, Hawks’ magnificent paean to camaraderie, freedom, loyalty, personal courage, the fear of growing up, and even the sexual politics embedded in accepted concepts of professionalism, that the notion of who and what Hawks is, for auteurists as well as general audiences, seems to have coalesced.

“The South American port town of Barranca into which a cabaret singer, Jean Arthur’s Bonnie, disembarks temporarily (she thinks), yet another stop on her way back to the States, is a steamy, atmospheric jungle of humanity. When Bonnie bumps into a couple of American flyers they lead her into the company of the denizens of Barranca Airways, a ragtag airmail service headquartered in a run-down hotel. The owner doles out drinks from behind the bar and tries to keep a handle on his none-too-risk-averse employees, headed up by Cary Grant’s Geoff, donned in gaucho pants and a flamboyant but functional, broad-rimmed gaucho hat to match, who warms to the appeal of the independently oriented Bonnie but bristles at the effect she’ll likely have on his own preferred lifestyle of independence. These pilots charged with flying mail over the treacherous terrain in often dangerous and deadly conditions, as well as the women who love and challenge them, and often suffer for and because of them, will over the course of the film be subject to various perils, tests of character, loyalty, endurance, and romantic necessity. They will also flesh out the personal and professional codes which Hawks has become renowned for examining and celebrating.

“But it’s worth noting that for a director so celebrated in ever-widening critical circles as an individual, an artist flourishing under the restrictive conditions of the American studio system from the ‘30s through the ‘60s, Hawks’ films, especially Only Angels Have Wings, were just as notable for their collaborative elements, for the strength of the personalities and talents that combined to not only inform the director’s vision but exist and be recognized on their own merits. In college, I studied Hawks alongside another collaborative artist who thrived on his sense of a community of individuals, Robert Altman. I don’t know that Grant, Arthur, Thomas Mitchell, Richard Barthelmess, Allan Joslyn, Noah Beery Jr. or Rita Hayworth were ever partners in the creation of the film in quite the way Altman’s ensembles could be. But even if the parts were written in exactly the same way, it’s hard to imagine an Only Angels Have Wings minus Grant’s arrogant yet thoroughly charming insouciance; or the way Arthur combines vulnerability with headstrong will; or the mix of self-hatred and pride that motivates and enlivens Barthelmess, a pilot with a haunted past and an emotionally fraught connection with one of Barranca’s flyers; or Mitchell’s flirtation with sentimentality that instead blossoms into a virtual essay on a desperate, broken man’s dignity; and even Hayworth, whose radiance in this early role might threaten to overwhelm any other setting but here becomes but another welcome, organic strand in the tapestry Hawks so deftly weaves. In fact, one of the most remarkable things about the movie is how it occupies space as both a strong assertion of its director’s personality and a celebration of the fact that Hawks could never do it without such a community of collaborators, including the screenwriter Jules Furthman, who himself would later join with Hawks on a couple of other notable, group-centric adventures, the loose adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not (1944) and, of course, Rio Bravo (1959).

“For me, no scene in Only Angels Have Wings better exemplifies the sense of community that Hawks so masterfully evokes than the moment at the piano when Bonnie asserts her talent as a means of entry into and solidifying her status within the group. Bonnie has previously registered her horror when a pilot named Joe (Beery) is killed while attempting to fly through a fog, in order to hastily get back to the port and take her up on a promised date. That horror is only exacerbated when she witnesses his peers, including Grant, dismissing the tragic event as if it meant nothing. ‘Who’s Joe?’ is the refrain from Geoff and the others, a perhaps callous but necessary defense mechanism against the looming dangers of a job which surely has more tragedy in store for those who choose to continue with it. Later, still trying to process what she’s seen, Bonnie makes her way into the hotel bar where, surrounded by some local musicians and a bunch of liquored-up hangers-on, Geoff is clumsily warbling and plunking out ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me, Baby’ on the piano. Bonnie, the seasoned nightclub performer, sidles up and offers the challenge, ‘You wanna hear how it really goes?’ ‘You better be good,’ Geoff grumbles, only to have Bonnie respond, ‘Won’t be as corny as you.’ She then takes a seat, commands the attention of the attending musicians and proceeds to seduce the room (and Geoff) with a hilariously jaunty and delightful rendition of the tune. Geoff is so impressed that he orders up shots for himself and Bonnie, who downs hers without missing a note. The tune ends, the hotel erupts in applause, and Geoff offers Bonnie a bemused grin as well as a genuine ‘Hello, professional!,’ an acknowledgment of her unique skills and talent, and she recognizes the gesture as more than enough from the man who has only previously been cool and inscrutable to her. She turns back to the piano and begins a plaintive melody. Geoff turns to her and asks, with heretofore absent understanding in his voice, ‘Who’s Joe?’ Now recognizing the question’s real meaning, a gesture of support rather than indifference, Bonnie can only reply, ‘Never heard of him.’ And then, before genuine feeling can morph into mawkish sentimentality, she turns to the group and says, ‘Anybody know the Peanut Song?’ The musicians kick in, anchored by Bonnie’s solid, vibrant control over the ivories, while Geoff, previously humiliated by her reaction to his tentative vocals, throws back his head and howls ‘Peanuts!’ with evident delight. She’s in, and what’s more, she deserves to be.

“Then there’s a dissolve to the next scene and the movie continues to glide right along, a gesture that is in its own way the equivalent of ‘Who’s Joe?’ It’s a beautiful transition, and because of those moments, and roughly a thousand others just as beautiful, Only Angels Have Wings seems to me, each time I see it, to rank as the greatest movie Hollywood ever produced. It’s Hawks’ perfect, profound, entirely unfussy fusion of his love of adventure, his admiration of professional aptitude and passion, for simple (but not simplistic) skill, and even his own deftness with strains of melodrama and comic energy, the template for the sort of action experience that seems more and more out of the reach of modern filmmakers with each passing, terminally bloated and self-important season. For us, we know the pilot’s urgent cry, ‘Calling Barranca! Calling Barranca!’ will forever continue to echo through the fog-shrouded hills of Hawks’ South America, and Only Angels Have Wings will always live as the perpetual restorative to spirits soured by movie adventures not a fraction as robustly well-embodied and executed as this one.”

~ Dennis Cozzalio

Click here to read Michael Sragow's essay on the film.

Principal cast: Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Richard Barthelmess, Rita Hayworth, Thomas Mitchell, Allyn Joslyn, Sig Rumann, Victor Kilian, John Carroll, Donald Barry, Noah Beery Jr., Maciste, Milissa Sierra, Lucio Villegas, Pat Flaherty, Pedro Regas, Pat West
Screenplay by Jules Furthman, with additional uncredited contributions by Eleanore Griffin and William Rankin
Based on the story “Plane From Barranca” by Howard Hawks (uncredited)
Photography by Joseph Walker
Art direction by Lionel Banks
Costume design by Kalloch
Film editing by Viola Lawrence
Original music by Dmitri Tiomkin
Special effects by Roy Davidson, with additional uncredited contributions by Edwin C. Hahn, Harry Redmond Sr., Harry Redmond Jr.
Chief pilot and technical advisor: Paul Mantz
Aerial photographer: Elmer Dyer
Makeup by Robert J. Schiffer (uncredited)
Produced by Howard Hawks (uncredited)

Duration: 121 minutes
Languages: English, Spanish
Filmed in black and white
Sound mix: Mono (Western Electric Mirrophonic Recording)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1

Produced and released in USA by Columbia Pictures Corporation
Premiered in New York City, New York, USA on 12 May 1939

Awards and honors:
- Academy Awards (USA), 1939: Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (nominated)
- Academy Awards (USA), 1939: Best Effects, Special Effects (nominated)