Every Cary Grant fan can identify either a favorite role or a favorite aspect of Grant’s persona accentuated on film. Charm, humor, and elegance are all part of the Grant mystique. In his more dramatic roles, like Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 “North by Northwest,” Grant often gently pokes fun at “Cary Grant.” But Howard Hawks’ 1939 “Only Angels Have Wings” stands out as a unique “Cary Grant” film because it’s not just about Cary Grant. Hawks brings out a rough demeanor in Grant but he is not at the center of the action. Rather, Hawks chooses to focus on a group of people thrown together under horrendous difficulties.
“Only Angels Have Wings” tells a story about American airmail service in South America and the pilots who made it happen. Grant plays Geoff Carter, a pilot and head manager of the airmail service. He provides structure, schedules, and discipline for the flyboys who put themselves in danger daily, delivering mail. Grant is rough and masculine, even possibly a bit tyrannical in dealing with the pilots: “The mail goes on schedule, and so do the pilots.” His usual humor is absent, yet he’s not a tortured character. On the contrary, his sensitivity is made of a complete avoidance of emotion.
Joining him is Kidd Dabb (Thomas Mitchell), an older pilot, who doesn’t want to admit he is past his prime. Kidd is Geoff’s right hand man. They have an unspoken friendship that’s only possible between pilots: an understanding that the job is the most important thing and nothing can get in the way of completing the task.
Often, women are purely accidental in Hawks’ films, yet they do end up playing an important role when they appear. He had no time for women who were superficial and what he might consider, empty-brained. He valued straightforwardness in his storytelling and filmmaking, including in women. Jean Arthur plays Bonnie Lee, arriving freshly off the boat in Barranca. She’s an entertainer, not really sure what she’s looking for. This makes her an ideal candidate to join the rough and tumble community of pilots in Barranca. But do they want her?
More importantly, does Geoff want her?
Hawks inserts a bit of romance into this masculine adventure in which Bonnie and Geoff go back and forth in their interest for each other. Goeff is attracted to her but shrugs it off. He’s not about to get distracted by something like love. Bonnie presses on and decides to stay in Barranca, knowing that she may not be wanted.
There’s also Judy MacPherson (Rita Hayworth), Geoff’s former flame and now wife to Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess), a pilot who has lately joined the crew but is unwanted because of his less than honorable and questionable actions in the past. Hayworth is the complete opposite of Arthur. This was Hayworth’s first role to attract serious attention, and she exhibits that sultry warmth and innocence that becomes a trademark for her.
Jean Arthur, on the other hand, is a funny tomboy, yet still very feminine, including in recognizing her need for a man. Throughout the film, she continuously pushes Geoff to recognize her affection, until he eventually gives in. Still, even at the end, flying is the thing that will undoubtedly continue to drive Geoff, as he flies not into the sunset, but into pitch black darkness.
Bonnie’s character serves as an emotional counterpart not only to Geoff, but to the rest of the crew. When one of the pilots dies, Geoff and the crew shrug it off. Another one bites the dust. Hawks is anything but predictable. When the pilot fails to land properly and dies, Bonnie is astounded by the coldness and indifference of other pilots. But as she wants to be part of this group, she recognizes she needs to change. In the local bar, she turns to piano. One might expect a sad tune, a cinematic device to let us know that pilots deal with emotions in their own masculine way. But instead of pure emotionalism, Arthur plays a silly tune, while Grant almost flatly yells, “Peanuts!”
The film takes place, almost entirely, at night. This emphasizes the alienation and separation the characters experience from the rest of the world. In some ways, the pilots revel in it. They all have pasts they are trying to escape. Hawks implies that Geoff (and possibly others) were World War I pilots. The war may be over, but not for these men. They must keep going, seeking adventure, escaping from themselves.
Yet they are never alone. Hawks rarely frames one character only. Except for a few shots of pilots flying solo, there is always a grouping of actors. They are inextricably connected by something even they cannot comprehend.
One thing Hawks is known for is incredible technical accuracy. Being a pilot himself, Hawks presents flying and the airplanes with impeccable accuracy. Every detail, down to the gauges in the plane, is perfected. The story of these pilots is connected to real life and history. Hawks may have set the action in South America but pilots who delivered airmail across the United States are very much real and, in fact, were engaged in daring work.
The U.S. Post Office was eager to prove to Congress not only that mail delivery by air was possible, but that it was essential. The first transcontinental flight and mail service started in 1920. None of it would be possible without the courageous men who took this task very seriously. One such man was Jack Knight (one could say that Grant’s Geoff Carter may be partially based on Knight), who accomplished an impossible task of mail relay through fog, night, and a blizzard before landing in Chicago in one piece, mail delivered.
Knight and other pilots were relaying mail, and their group was dubbed “The Suicide Club,” for the obvious reason that these were potentially deadly missions. Pioneering and pushing the planes to the limit wasn’t the only thing these pilots did. They essentially changed the way mail was delivered—but none of this came without a sacrifice. Many have signed up, but as one article illustrates, “Of the roughly 230 men who flew mail for the Post Office Department between 1918 and 1927, 32 lost their lives in plane crashes. Six died during the first week of operation alone.”
In the early days of aviation and post by air, airplanes did not have navigation instruments as we know them today. There were no airstrips or landing lights. But the mail had to be delivered. Pilots’ navigation relied on geographical and “terrestrial features—mountains, rivers, and railroads—to guide their way.” Nothing was automatic, and everything was based on knowledge, experience, and possessing a cool head and intestinal fortitude.
Yet despite these risks, aviation and the mission to deliver the mail captured the imagination of Americans. Before the space age, there was the aviation age, and Americans saw the change in culture. There were cover stories in the Saturday Evening Post and Mickey Mouse cartoons and board games, all in some way capitalizing on the excitement of these brave aviators. At that time, it was in American nature to strive for something big, to innovate, and to push the boundaries at any cost.
Howard Hawks was of that culture as well. There is a quiet confidence in Hawks. He was a man of few words, but plenty of images. “Only Angels Have Wings” proves to be an example of what courage and foolishness look like. It may have even set the stage for the great action/adventure films that would come much later (particularly in the 1980s when the American story and optimism was revived by Ronald Reagan). But Hawks wasn’t trying to do that, or to be an auteur. He just wanted to tell a good story, and what’s more American than that?