Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Movie Exchange of the Day (“Only Angels Have Wings”)

Sparks, radioman (played by Victor Killian): She wants to know why you like flying.

Kid Dabb (played by Thomas Mitchell): I've been in it 22 years, Miss Lee. I couldn't give you an answer that would make any sense. What's so funny about that?

Bonnie Lee (played by Jean Arthur): That's what my dad used to say.

Kid Dabb: Flier?

Bonnie Lee: No, trapeze. High stuff. He wouldn't use a net.

Sparks: Not much future in that, either.

Bonnie Lee: Yes. We found that out.—Only Angels Have Wings (1939), story (uncredited) by Howard Hawks, screenplay by Jules Furthman, directed by Howard Hawks

Recently, while researching a post on Lou Gehrig, I concluded that Teresa Wright, talented as she was, was miscast as the Yankee slugger’s wife Eleanor in Pride of the Yankees. To evoke the real Eleanor Gehrig—someone less wholesome than all-American girl Wright, more inclined to laugh, belly up to the bar with the boys, see through life’s illusions even while contemplating impending tragedy—you really needed Jean Arthur.

Case in point: Only Angels Have Wings, a film likely to get lost in the crowd of classics released in 1939: Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gunga Din, Stagecoach, The Old Maid…and my fingers are tired from typing these already. But don’t pass up your chance to see this terrific action movie.

In the South American port of call of Barranca, in the early, heroic age of commercial aviation, Geoff Carter (played by Cary Grant, at his most virile) and his crew of daredevil pilots live on the cusp of danger, trying to negotiate tricky mountain passes perpetually shrouded in fog.

But they also live in a close communion in which wisecracks and looking out for each other make for a kind of masculine paradise. It’s the kind of Eden, with thoughts unspoken but still understood, without a woman to introduce disruptive passions, that exists for Jake Barnes and Bill Gorton in The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway. (Instead of taking a crack at Papa’s melancholy take on the Lost Generation—one that, admittedly, might have posed censorship issues at the time—Howard Hawks tackled one of the novelist’s worst, To Have and Have Not.)

Change the phrase “novel-writing” to “filmmaking,” and I think Hawks would have let loose with a loud, oath-accompanied “Amen!” to this observation by novelist Willkie Collins in the 1861 edition of his Victorian thriller, The Woman in White: “It may be possible, in novel-writing, to present characters successfully without telling a story; but it is not possible to tell a story successfully without presenting characters; their existence, as recognizable realities, being the sole condition on which the story can be effectively told.”

In other words, the magic of this film doesn’t lie in special effects but in characters we come to care about, driven to their respective fates. The Sheila Variations has a great post on just one scene illustrating this.

Grant being Grant, there isn’t a woman who gets stuck in this godforsaken place who doesn’t swoon at the sight of him—or, in the case of Rita Hayworth, playing a former flame of his, hasn’t done so already. With her hard drinking, clever retorts and hard-bitten attitude toward fate, Arthur’s stranded showgirl Bonnie Lee would seem a natural for this masculine crowd.

But that catch in Arthur’s throat—one used, over the years, in vehicles as diverse as screwball comedies (Easy Living), populist Capracorn (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town), and westerns (Shane)—gives the game away. She’s stuck on Grant, which complicates life for him—something he can’t abide, since he has enough problems with getting the job done and making sure his crew survives till tomorrow.

So rent this to experience the best of character-driven action, or to savor the filmography of the versatile Hawks, or, as many people prefer, to catch the incomparable Grant as, still relatively early in his career, he crafts his persona of the effortlessly attractive, endlessly wry, deeply woman-weary hero.

But watch it, too, for the other great actors—not just Arthur, but Thomas Mitchell, as the visually impaired friend that Grant watches more like a mother hen than a hard-driving, results-oriented boss.

Somebody tell me—did any other character actor besides Mitchell appear in so many all-time great films in a single year? Count them—not just this, but also Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Gone With the Wind, and the film that netted him his highly deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Stagecoach.

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