It always takes a second to remember that Cary Grant plays assholes. The pleasure of watching him onscreen somewhat mitigates the fact that there’s this bullishness, a kind of ruthlessness to his characters—he might be good and he’s sometimes nice, but most importantly he’s just right. You might forget, say, that his romantic interest broke up with him for his unrepentant alcoholism, or that he’s engineering an entire media circus (and possibly a hanging) in order to get his best reporter to come back to work. It gets glossed over by his sharp appearance and sharper diction, a somehow gummy and staccato cadence which engages like the rom-com equivalent of bullet time. Cary Grant walking into a room activates the same kind of visual pleasure and spatial mastery as someone leaping between buildings. It’s kind of crazy.
But there is a film which doesn’t go to any trouble to hide Grant’s inner jerk or down-the-nose sharpness. It’s the one he made with Howard Hawks right before their more famous, much more screwball collaboration, His Girl Friday. By contrast, Only Angels Have Wings is a little bit of everything, wrapped up in a series of contradictions: a melodrama that constantly downplays the importance of expressing emotions; a rom-com that ends with one party walking out on the other; an action film in which the protagonist spends most of his time talking over a radio; a gritty workplace ode to professionalism in the face of terrible odds—with more than one musical number. By all rights, it should be a complete mess.
And yet the film coheres, in that way Hawks has of making his movies feel like motorized airport walkways—life, but a little bit quicker, a little bit smoother than normal people can manage. Genres stuck together with bubble gum and duct tape, a thoroughly stoic Grant at the helm and a thoroughly charming Jean Arthur sidelined a third of the way through the film, and still it coheres. The film works, in large part, because it’s not centered around Grant, Arthur, or the mail deliveries the former is flying through a dangerous mountain pass. Even looking past your Hawks Sparknotes keywords for “ethos,” “professionalism,” and “shared shorthand,” what Only Angels Have Wings really cares about is how we are defined by what we do. And it cares about how that definition is the one thing we have in the face of knowing that what we do is going to kill us.
The film pulls off what should be an absurd tonal shift in its first 20 minutes. It begins with two pilots casing an incoming boat to the fictional South American port of Barranca, and being thoroughly surprised when Jean Arthur steps onto the docks. She is enthusiastic although wise as to why the pair is after her, interested in the local nightlife, and generally game for an adventure. A lot of flirting and a coin toss over who gets to take her to dinner later, and it looks like we’re in solid screwball terrority. Then in comes Grant, who—in the act that is perhaps most against his type—cockblocks both dudes (being the boss has its privileges). He sends one to a warehouse and one up in a plane, even given the iffy weather, to handle one of the many mail deliveries his barely-in-the-black airline is contracted for. The unlucky flyboy, Joe, an aw-shucks, corny-as-the-Iowa-Caucuses Noah Beery Jr., goes up, quickly gets stymied in the mountain fog, and in his rush to touch back down and make his date with Arthur, crashes his plane into a tree and dies. It is an incredibly tense, thoroughly masterful action sequence that plays with the edit to put you as the viewer with the crowd on the ground, rooting for Joe, not sure if he’s gonna make it until he might until oh shit. But it is also, tonally speaking, nuts—like if Lost had actually decided it wanted to kill the first character the audience meets midway through its pilot.
The scene in which the film completes its shift into something that’s much knottier and more opaque than the simple pleasures of most Hawks’ professionals, and a lot of Grant’s characters, happens right after. Once everyone’s cleared off from the accident, Grant meets with the owner of the airline, one of Sig Ruman’s numerous Comedy!Germans, here named Dutchy. Dutchy is torn up by the death, and tells Geoff he used to sleep better before he got into the airline business, to which Geoff replies that his trouble now is he’s about to collect big on the mail route contract or lose his shirt. But Dutchy says, “I am not thinking about that. I just can’t go on killing nice kids like that, not if I lose a dozen shirts… then why do you send them up for in that kind of weather!” When you look at the shot, Grant seems like he’s actually about to turn his back, away from the conversation, and he spins around, as if what’s been said is so ridiculous he needs to turn and double-check. “Because I’m running an airline, and I’m not running it any different than anybody I ever flew for!” Geoff snaps. “Now look, Dutchy: Joe died flying, didn’t he? And that was his job. He just wasn’t good enough, that’s why he got it.”
It’s nice to know that the obituary we’re all terrified awaits us as we scroll through other people’s vacations on Instagram was at least written by a competent screenwriter. But more importantly, the trick of Only Angels Have Wings is taking what, on the surface, is a callous denial of human agency and feeling, and turning it into an acknowledgement of human agency and feeling. Much like the Cinnamon Roll of The Onion lore, Geoff’s inner emotions about Joe’s death are too good, too pure for this world. Speaking them would sully them, and slow him down besides, so instead he says, “Joe died flying, didn’t he?” Or, in the parlance of our own age, he did the thing.
When Bonnie meets Geoff and the other fliers in the bar later, the group refuses to acknowledge they even knew the not-yet-10-minutes-dead guy, to her great bafflement and distress; Grant even eats the steak Joe had had ordered for himself when he got back, which approaches Disney Villain territory. However, Arthur steps outside and talks to one of the guys about this, and concludes, after hearing how deadly the route that the men traverse is, that they must love it: “It must be like being in love with a buzzsaw.”
She gains her entry into the boys’ club after she steps back inside to join the gang and shows them up playing some ragtime. Grant catches her about to feel low again and asks, “Who’s Joe?” Arthur’s momentary grimace twists into a smile as she replies, “Never heard of him.” Grant, almost imperceptibly, smiles back. It’s such a smart, tender exchange that on the surface is anything but. This is, perhaps, what it actually is to have a “buzzsaw” love—and just from a spectator’s point of view? Seems pretty great. Again, though, this is also the film coaxing you to buy the implicit idea that a quiet denial of some people’s humanity in order to keep going is romantic and noble, instead of, as poor Jean Arthur would put it, a little screwy.
Only Angels Have Wings, for all that it represents the best of Studio Hollywood’s narrative mastery of character; atmosphere; and action, for all that it’s in the running for Best Cary Grant Comedy Door Slam of all time, feels startlingly present. The film’s vaunted, romantic ethos, its shared community of pragmatic-expert-professionals.biz, is in the end a survival tactic, a method towards self-actualization in the face of the hard world of cross-Andean mail delivery and renegade geese (seriously, some geese fly into one of the planes and it’s a point of drama). It’s not just the male bravado that Hawks always gets tagged with, although that’s important; mostly the film’s attitude offers the viewer a way of staring down their own probable demise, defining oneself by one’s work. As long as the planes are flying, there’s something of Joe still around, and it’s the most important thing, the thing he did. That creative use of detachment as a protective measure, the obsessive focus on one salient identity to the exclusion of all others, well, those are the basis of any good meme.
What’s startling is, for as many times as I’ve ended a paragraph by saying something about how crazy this movie is, everyone in the film accepts that that’s just the way the world works. To be successful you have to thrive within the deadly, uncaring constraints, not against them. A profession—whether it’s flying or playing the piano—is how you do that. Just so long as you’re good enough not to be, y’know, killed by it. The only thing that seems strange to Bonnie and Geoff is each other, and in any case, their relationship gets pushed away as abruptly as an iMovie side-wipe in favor of the logistics (and jaw-dropping stunt flying) of medivacing a wounded miner from a nearly impenetrable canyon. The problems of two little people, to put it in Studio Hollywood terms, don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Only Angels Have Wings was released in May of 1939, only months before Europe would burst into flames, and, even though it takes place in a fictional South American port, the ever-present fog on the runway has a hint of smoke to it—if only in how characters are moving through it, ducking their heads so they don’t cough.
Part of the work of being human is finding ways to deal with the fact that we’re not going to be human for very long. Defining yourself by what you do, and the professionalism with which you do it, is the solution that Only Angels Have Wings puts forward, and it’s a hard one to argue with. Paradoxically, the film in which Cary Grant is trying hardest to charm by being tough is also the one he’s allowed to show, albeit obliquely, a depth of feeling that his Walter Burns or C.K. Dexter Haven lack. After Geoff and Dutchy have that hard-bitten conversation about Joe, Geoff makes up that he owed the dead man a hundred bucks, and asks Dutchy to send that to his sister back in the States. When he and Bonnie square off at the end about whether she’ll stay in Barranca and wait for him when he gets back from the last mail run, that oblique way of navigating emotional vulnerability translates into an achingly romantic exchange. Geoff tosses her a coin, and proposes that tails she goes, heads she stays. She refuses to leave it to chance. “I’m hard to get, Geoff,” Bonnie says. “All you have to do is ask me.” He kisses her and leaves, and only then does Bonnie realize it’s a trick coin. Both sides are heads. It is, to be clear, a dick move. It is rigging a rigged system. But even so, in a language entirely their own, he asks and she stays. Be still my heart, Cary.
In Only Angels Have Wings, you can trace some of the cultural strains of how we came to accept a lot of rigging in exchange for romance—the charming nihilist’s personal philosophy so clearly wins over the protestations of the funny foreigner and the showgirl, after all, and inspires us to fly planes with our arms in slings because getting the job done is, literally, the highest of callings. That is a compelling premise, to be sure. But it’s not hard envision how one gets from there to the madhouse exploitation of something like Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You. Mr. ______ would be right at home in the ranks of Barranca Airways, with the self-same imposing physicality, aura of confidence, and impeccably tailored suits that Grant rocks (to say nothing of Omari Hardwick’s eyepatch). He knows what Grant’s Geoff Carter knows—that the path to dignity is to be the best at what you do, and stick to that, or else the world will kill you. That particular universe unpacks, and challenges, the insanity of the premise far more than Hawks ever would, of course. Geoff has the luxury of accepting the virtue, sacrifice, and satisfaction that accompanies the struggle in a way that, say, the Sammee Tong’s Sam the Cook, or Dutchy, or even Bonnie can’t.
Undeniably, there is satisfaction, and a deep, ardent feeling wrapped up in the kind of self-sacrificing professionalism championed by Only Angels Have Wings. It’s beguiling. Geoff and Bonnie will survive until they don’t, and there’s no small amount of pride you can take in that approach to what you do, how you live your life. But thinking that way sure takes a lot of work. And in the end, you’re not left with all that much. Watching the film now, it’s hard to dismiss what happens to the rest of the nice kids.