Cary Grant, Rita Hayworth, and Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings (1939)


(director/producer: Howard Hawks; screenwriters: Jules Furthman/based on the story “Plane from Barranca” by Mr. Hawks; cinematographers: Joseph Walker; editor: Viola Lawrence; music: Dimitri Tiomkin; cast: Cary Grant (Geoff Carter), Jean Arthur (Bonnie Lee), Rita Hayworth (Judy MacPherson), Richard Barthelmess (Bat MacPherson), Thomas Mitchell (Kid Dabb), Sig Ruman (John ‘Dutchy’ Van Reiter), Victor Kilian (Sparks), Allyn Joslyn (Les Peters), Noah Beery Jr. (Joe Souther), John Carroll (Gent Shelton), Don ‘Red’ Barry (Tex), Rafael Corio (Ship Purser); Runtime: 123; MPAA Rating: NR; Columbia Pictures; 1939)
“Though everything about it is improbable, it still makes for an immensely entertaining magical film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This Howard Hawks old-fashioned adventure/romance story reunites him with star Cary Grant, who a year earlier teamed to make “Bringing up Baby.” It’s based on the story “Plane from Barranca” written by Mr. Hawks and the screenplay is by Jules Furthman. Rita Hayworth has a small part, but it’s a step up from her previous inconsequential roles and a good start to her future stardom which came as early as in the 1941 “The Strawberry Blonde.” This was silent screen star Richard Barthelmess’s last role, and he fits into the macho setting very well. The film is set in the Peruvian Andes, where a group of devil-may-care Yankees have the risky job of delivering mail to remote locations in horrible weather conditions, over rough terrain and with unsafe old planes.

The setting is a banana port city in Peru, called Barranca, where Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) runs the shoestring mail plane airline with a small crew who are willing to take risks and have a macho attitude about work and women. When unemployed Brooklynite nightclub entertainer Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) stops overnight on her cruise ship, she’s followed by two of Geoff’s wolfish pilots, Les Peters (Joslyn) and Joe (Noah Beery Jr.), and invited to John Van Reiter’s (Sig Ruman) bar for drinks and a steak. She only accepts when she finds out they’re Yanks, as she’s homesick for anything American. The good-hearted bar owner is called affectionately Dutchy, and he bankrolls Geoff’s operation. While at the bar Geoff informs the men that one of them must immediately fly the mail despite the thick fog, and Joe pulls the short straw. Unfortunately he dies when his plane crashes, as he fails to make the runway. But the hearty crew, consisting of veteran flyer Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell), pilots Peters and Shelton (Carroll), and radioman Sparks (Kilian), instead of crying at their loss hide their grief by stoically drinking and singing. Their blase credo is that ‘what’s his name’ died because he wasn’t good enough. In this short span of time, Bonnie first is repelled by the cold attitude but soon falls for the cavalier Geoff and purposely misses her boat connection even though he makes no promises. Bonnie now has to wait another week for the next boat, as Geoff ungraciously snubs her after returning from a dangerous mission– telling her he makes no promises to any woman.

Geoff is desperate for another pilot to keep his operation going, and Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess) and his wife Judy (Rita Hayworth) respond to the urgent call for a pilot. Bat is recognized by Geoff as a pilot who changed his name after he disgracefully bailed out of his plane with a parachute and left his co-pilot to die. That person happened to be the brother of Kid Dabb. Judy doesn’t know about her husband’s past and no one is willing to tell her, but she feels uncomfortable that he’s snubbed by the men. MacPherson gets a chance to prove himelf, as he’s given some dangerous flights that the other pilots are not asked to take. He proves that he’s a good pilot and not afraid of taking risks, and he’s kept on because the airline might fold unless it lives up to a six-month contract it signed to deliver the mail on time over that period no matter the conditions.

The daredevil action is only interrupted briefly for the romance story, as we learn that Judy was the girl who previously broke Geoff’s heart and left him so bitter. MacPherson doesn’t know this. But Judy learns with Geoff’s help to trust her spouse. Geoff discovers he really might love Bonnie but doesn’t know how to show it without acting macho. The eventual romance between Geoff and Bonnie is halted for the moment when the near-blind Kid Dabb flies with MacPherson on a mission that will save the airline from going under. The reason MacPherson is flying is because Bonnie accidentally winged Geoff in the shoulder when fooling around with his revolver. It was a frustrated attempt to stop him from taking the dangerous flight in a soupy fog.

It’s an action-packed type of film Howard Hawks is noted for where the only men respected are macho men. The crisp acting (especially by Cary Grant) and great special effects for the aerial scenes make this an above average film. Though everything about it is improbable, it still makes for an immensely entertaining magical film.