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"Only Angels Have Wings"

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"Only Angels Have Wings"

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Character's Name: Jeff Carter
Release Date:  May 25, 1939
Director:  Howard Hawks
Studio:  Columbia
Running Time: 120 minutes

Cast: Cary Grant (Jeff Carter), Jean Arthur (Bonnie Lee), Richard Barthelmess (Bat McPherson), Rita Hayworth (Judith McPherson), Thomas Mitchell (Kidd Dabb), Sig Ruman (Dutchman), Victor Killian (Sparks), John Carroll (Gent Shelton), Allyn Joslyn (Les Peters), Donald Barry (Tex Gordon), Noah Beery, Jr. (Joe Souther), Melissa Sierra (Lily), Lucio Villegas (Dr. Lagorio), Forbes Murray (Hartwood), Cecilia Callejo (Felice)

- by Zoë Shaw
Jeff owns an airplane company, and drives his pilots to make near suicidal trips in decaying planes. Bonnie falls in love with him, but Jeff is devoted to his work, and mostly ignores her. Then Judy, his ex-wife, turns up with her new hubby, MacPherson, who is an ace flier.

- by Eric
Jeff Carter is a "man's man", strong, handsome, and supremely confident; he is a dream for women and a curse for men. As the boss of a South American air-mail carrier Jeff is hard on his men and harder on himself, doing those jobs that no one else will dare. When showgirl Bonnie Lee shows up on a cruise ship stop-over, the boys vie for her attention. So much so, that her "dinner-date for steak" gambles recklessly on a landing and comes up short; paying with his life. This is how Bonnie learns that there is no room for sentiment in this line of work, and, where she begins to love/hate Jeff. Burned by an ex-wife who couldn't handle his lifestyle and ran-out on him, Jeff "wouldn't ask any woman" to do anything for him. This is too bad for Bonnie who finds she is hopelessly in love with Jeff and can't seem to leave him even when he tells her to. Crashing into all this is Bat MacPherson and his wife, Judy, who just happens to be Jeff's ex. Bat comes with a lot of baggage and immediately stirs things up when Jeff's best friend, Kid Dabb, recognizes him as the coward who ditched Kid's brother in a fiery plane crash. So, Kid wants to kill Bat, Bonnie wonders about Judy and Jeff, and Jeff is desperately trying not to care about anything. How this tense situation is resolved will have you alternating between tears of laughter and dread.

IMHO, this is the toughest character that CG plays. Like the stoic hero from a Hemingway novel, Jeff Carter lives on his own terms. I found this character to be powerfully electric, even inspiring. This man GETS THINGS DONE! It is small wonder that Bonnie instantly falls for this man, and in the initial meeting you can feel the immense attraction that Bonnie feels for Jeff even though she is being actively pursued by the boys. CG looks handsome (as always) and almost dangerous; like a glorious, sun-drenched diamond that you know is too hot, but you can't help wanting to grab. Jeff is played to perfection with just enough charisma tempered with a detached coolness. Jean Arthur portrays Bonnie wonderfully, instilling a sense of worldly showbiz experience and, at the same time, showing her indecision about Jeff. In the dialogue, CG and Arthur work well off each other, and the scene at the piano with CG singing "PEANUTS!!" while Arthur is playing is a classic. Flying in with additional good performances are, Sig Rumen, the kind-hearted proprietor, Thomas Mitchell who steals many a scene as Kid Dabb, and, in her big-screen debut, Rita Hayworth as Judy MacPherson, Jeff's ex. It is CG's rapid-fire speech to Judy that is thought to be the origins of his trademark, "Jud-ay, Jud-ay, Jud-ay". Personally, I like to watch this movie as a contrast to CG's lighter comedies. Enjoy!

VARIETY Film Review - May 17, 1939
- by "Abel"
- submitted by Barry Martin
Columbia has a winner in 'Only Angels Have Wings.'  With a good name cast, including Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Thomas Mitchell, Rita Hayworth and Richard Barthelmess, it's certain for big returns.  Story has substance, movement, romance and a somewhat different aviation background.  

Not that flying the South American Andes hasn't been done on the screen before.  In fact, a 1937 RKO release, 'Flight from Glory,' even incorporated the situation of scapegrace aviators who turn up in the South American tropics due to some breach of proper flying decorum in their native U.S.  But the similarity ends there.

Here Cary Grant is boss of the kindly Dutchman's decrepit airline.  The crates are almost suicidal and Grant is No. 1 guy with the other tough boys because he'll take up the planes only when it's too hazardous for the others.  If the Dutchman can fly the mails regularly he's set for a juicy contract.  

Jean Arthur is introduced as an American showgirl en route to a Panama nitery engagement.  She's excellent for the assignment and segues into the hot-piano stuff plausibly when she is pleased to learn that the on-the-make boys, Joslyn and Beery, Jr., are Americans and not nondescript natives as they appear to be.  

Romance basis between Grant and Miss Arthur is predicated on an unyielding independence that he will never ask anybody or any girl to do anything for him.  Frankly telegraphing her romantic acquiescence if he'd relax a bit, Grant is adamant.  His ultimate capitulation is deftly depicted.

Sub-plot has Barthelmess coming on the scene with Rita Hayworth (one of the dancing Casinos family) as his wife.  Latter is the girl who made Grant dour.  Barthelmess is another disgraced aviator, but he more than vindicates himself with some very dangerous flying to a rescue job, and in another sequence when he's transporting nitroglycerine.

Baranca, the locale, is presumably in Ecuador.  This is the basic setting of this sub-tropical aviation romance where treacherous mountain crags, capricious rainstorms and the like do their utmost to worst the mail plane service.  The contrast of aeronautical speed against the sleep background has been effectively captured by director-author-producer Howard Hawks for fullest values.

His original story has been crisply screenplayed by Jules Furthman, whose terse, staccato dialog is a major feature of the behind-the-lens artistry.  Hawks had a story to tell, and he has done it inspiringly well.  

Every facet of 'Only Angels Have Wings' is big league.  The Grant-Arthur cynicism and unyielding romantics are kept at a high standard.  Thomas Mitchell's devoted aide is never permitted to become banal, and there are opportunities in plenty where it might so have been.  Rita Hayworth as Barthelmess' wife is likewise impressive.  She's a good-looking gal with an ah-voom chassis.  Barthelmess is perhaps a bit too deadpan in his performance, but the bitterness is made plausible by his past, due to an unheroic episode when he baled out of a crashing plane and permitted his pilot to crack up.  Barthelmess' new mechanic physiognomy fits the plot situation well.  Incidentally, here at the Music Hall, he was greeted with an individual salvo of applause.

All the performances are fine right down the line.  Melissa Sierra as Lily, the native girl stuck on Noah Beery, Jr., is vivid, as is Manuel Maciste, Mexican exponent of native music, who arranged some of the special Latin background music and who is an interesting screen face.  He's shown doing his guitar specialty in the bistro scenes.  Sig Rumann as the Dutchman, Victor Kilian, Allyn Joslyn, Lucio Villegas and Donald Barry are other histrionic standouts.  

NEW YORK TIMES Film Review - May 12, 1939
- by Frank S. Nugent
- submitted by Barry Martin
Howard Hawks, whose aviation melodramas must, we suspect, drive airline stock down from two to three points per showing, has produced another fatality littered thriller in "Only Angels Have Wings" (even the title is ominous) which opened yesterday at the Music Hall. This once, however, Mr. Hawks has charitably transferred his operations base to Ecuador, presumably having exhausted his local sources, not to mention the patience of the commercial transport people.

In Ecuador, in the banana port of Barranca, he has indulged himself and the vicarious adventures in the audience in a delightful series of crack-ups, close-shaves and studiously dramatic speeches. It is all very exciting and juvenile.

Barranca, says Mr. Hawks, is a sultry little spot boasting a general store and bar, a swampy landing field and Cary Grant as operations manager for a junky air line which must maintain a regular schedule for six months to obtain the mail subsidy. Flying conditions are rarely better than impossible. There are the Andes, there is a narrow pass with clawing crags and a group of pilots who seem to be proud targets for all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, chiefly of feminine origin.

We particularly marveled at one sequence in which a flyer, grounded by failing eyesight, breaks another's arm in a fight and soon is helping probe a bullet from the commander's shoulder. That is known as piling it on.

Not content with this fell set-up, Mr. Hawks, as author, has chosen to add a few dramatic and romantic complications. Miss Arthur enters the scene as a stranded showgirl, and a less convincing showgirl than Miss Arthur would be hard to find. Enter, too, Richard Barthelmess as a pilot with a black blot on his record and a wife, who, by some strange coincidence, used to be Mr. Grant's fiancée.

The brew stirs slowly, as is the way with two-hour shows, tending toward silly romanticism in its dialogue, but moving splendidly whenever the plot's wheels leave the ground and take off over the Andes.

Few things, after all, are as exciting as a plane in flames, or the metallic voices of a pilot in a fog-shrouded plane and the chap in the radio room, or a screaming power dive, or the wild downward swoop of a plane taking off from a canyon's rim.

Mr. Hawks has staged his flying sequences brilliantly. He has caught the drama in the meeting of a flier and the brother of the man he killed. He has made proper use of the amiable performing talents of Mr. Grant, Miss Arthur, Thomas Mitchell, Mr. Barthelmess, Sig Rugmann and the rest. But when you add it all up, "Only Angels Have Wings" comes to an overly familiar total. It's a fairly good melodrama, nothing more.  

CHICAGO DAILY TRIBUNE Film Review - June 11, 1939
- by Mae Tinée
- submitted by Renee Klish

Aviation Film Brings Praise from Critic

Good Morning!

Columbia should be mighty proud of "Only Angels Have Wings"!

It's an impressive piece of craftsmanship, chock full of all that makes for popular appeal and withal honest and informative.  Its warmly human side is given edge by the thrilling spectacle of dangers encountered while flying "crates" over the Andes mountains, through storm and stress of varied sorts . . . For the movie is, primarily an aviation film, back-grounded by a little banana port in South America, which serves as a base for a projected mail transport line.

Here you meet Geoff Carter, boss of the flyers.  A hard, just man, fondly called "Papa" by his pilots . . . Then arrives Bonnie Lee, a chorine, who, on a stopover in Barranca en route to Panama where she homes to find a job, meets and loses her heart to Geoff . . . The stopover becomes permanent . . .

"Kid" Dabb, Carter's right hand man, figures largely in the action, as does Richard Barthelmess.  The latter, returning to the screen after a long, long absence, contributes a moving bit of work as Bat McPherson - a fine pilot trying to make a comeback.  One cowardly act has caused him to be blacklisted by his fellows . . . With Bat is his young wife - who turns out to be the girl who had made a woman hater out of Carter.

"Dutchy," Dutch proprietor of hotel, bar, and general store, is Carter's partner and the two are endeavoring to establish a mail route inland over the Andes . . .

Pretty good set up for drama, what?

I never knew Cary Grant had it in him!  His Carter is one of the most intelligent characterizations I have ever seen.

Thomas Mitchell rings the bell as the Kid.  Strange role for them to hand him, but he knew what to do with it.  Mr. Mitchell is usually one of those dynamic district attorneys or something of the sort . . .

Jean Arthur plays Bonnie with her customary charm and pep.  A trifle too much repetition and sameness to her scenes with Geoff seemed to me the picture's only weakness.

Howard Hawks' direction of his own story was masterly.  Dialog and photography are aces.

"Only Angels Have Wings" is one of those long photoplays that you wouldn't mind having a little longer. [They're rare.]

THE WASHINGTON POST Film Review - June 3, 1939
- by Nelson B Bell
- submitted by Renee Klish

There are so many elements of appeal in "Only Angels Have Wings" that it should engage the interest of every type of theatergoer.  There are adventure, comedy, romance, thrills and tragedy woven into the unique design of the story which Howard Hawks wrote, produced and directed for Columbia Pictures. 

The scene of the play is the small tropical banana port of Barranca, in South America where "Dutchy" is postmaster, hotel-keeper, restaurateur, bar man and proprietor of a flying field adjacent to his hostelry.  All manner of rickety crates take off and come down at this antiquated and ill-equipped contribution to the art of aviation.  The boss man of the field is a hard-boiled woman-hater, embittered by an earlier experience with a girl who found it impossible to adjust her personal selfishness to the life of an aviator.

Wide Range of Characters

So there comes to Barranca one foggy night a show girl, bound north from Valparaiso, for "shore leave" of only a few hours before her boat sails again.  This Bonnie Lee develops an infinite capacity for getting in everybody's hair, but proves, finally, to be the pivotal character around which an engrossing plot revolves.  There is double love interest in the story of "Only Angels Have Wings" - Geoff Carter, airport manager, and Bonnie fight their way to a peculiar sort of belligerent love and when Bat MacPherson, a renegade flier, comes to the field as a supply man, his wife proves to have been the girl with whom Carter originally was in love.  Further complications are projected by the fact that Kid Dabb, Carter's right-hand man, is the brother of the lad MacPherson abandoned to crash alone.  A fine clash of characters and personalities might be expected from all this.  That expectation is completely fulfilled.

Chief interest to many, however, will lie in the flying sequences and the grim business of keeping that little flying field in operation in the face of heavy weather, violent storms and depleted manpower.  This portion of the film has been handled with such skill as Howard Hawks alone seems to possess in the screen visualization of action that goes into the air.  There is never a moment during the long length of the picture - it consumes a full two hours - when interest of the tensest sort is permitted to subside.  There are causalities, catastrophes and tragic death scattered through the progress of events, but the film is in no sense depressing.  Excitement is its keynote.

Is Superlatively Acted

"Only Angels Have Wings" is acted with consummate skill.  Cary Grant and the husky-voiced Jean Arthur, in the costellar roles, are perfect foils each for the other in asperity, crisp speech and, at times, tumultuous action.  Thomas Mitchell, in the role of Kid Dabb, the grounded flier, who finally comes to disaster in an emergency flight in a blinding storm and wants to be alone when he dies, proves again that he is one of the most reliable character actors on the screen.

Richard Barthelmess, as the renegade, makes a splendid "comeback" and enacts a difficult role without flaw.  Rita Hayworth, as his wife, is almost equally effective. Sig Rumann, in the role of "Dutch," Allyn Josly, Noah Beery, Jr, and Victor Kilian are among others who do much for the picture's success.

THE WASHINGTON POST Film Review - June 17, 1939
- by Mary Harrisl
- submitted by Renee Klish

Thrilling Film of the Air is Back at Met
Grant and Arthur Star in Romantic Adventure Story

Though "Only Angels Have Wings," many of the players in this high-flying cinema show the pin-feathers of stars.  They're no cherubs nor seraphs.  They're the gallant generation of flying humans, inexorably devoted to the "bright face of danger," loving peril as a mistress, meeting gaily the Last Big Guess in sunshine or moonshine (latter preferred).

This latest contribution to the hard-boiled gaiety of aviating is definitely descriptive of reality.  The fliers are not decked out in fancy raiment, nor is the airport a place of futuristic luxury as envisioned by a scenario writer.  

Our heroes (many) and our heroines (two) are placed in the murky atmosphere of a South American banana port (and, often, there are no bananas), with the overhanging dangers of sudden death and too-long hangovers figuring as exemplary antidotes.

Stars Really Shine

Jean Arthur shines with table-cut brilliance in this one.  The little Arthur is a bit on the mental side, naturally, but she is mighty human and sweet as the little roving vaudevillian who suddenly goes nuts about Cary Grant and "can't do anything about it."

There's something almost Hemingwayish about the plot development of "Only Angels Have Wings."  Something honest and cold and warm-hearted, at the same time; something modern and primeval, giving the blush to Victorianism and Coolidgeism.

Return of the fabulous Dick Barthelmess to the screen is the big news of "Only Angels Have Wings."  Not that stars Cary Grant and Jean Arthur don't do a swell job.  They are splendid all the way.  But Barthelmess brings in the quality of imagination in his role of the flier who has been a rotter and then goes over the deep end to redeem himself.  His portrayal is infinitely touching.  He is like a dead man who strives to come to life in his pathetic endeavor to appear like a man, in the face of universal contempt.

Mitchell Scores Again

But to Thomas Mitchell go other great laurels in addition to those he has already garnered this year.  Ol' Tom, as in "Stagecoach," gives you a characterization that will twist your heartstrings into sailors' knots.  He rates the biggest "Oscar" of Hollywood's year, and one studded with star sapphires.

LOS ANGELES TIMES Film Review - May 11, 1939
- by Edwin Schallert
- submitted by Renee Klish

Most fascinating and engrossing of air pictures since "Test Pilot" is brought to the screen in "Only Angels Have Wings," story of aviation pioneering in South America.  Howard Hawks production for Columbia, it rates top tributes and superlatives.  It carries interest every foot of the way, is human in its drama and romance, and nicely touched up with comedy.  Unusual besides in atmosphere and setting, which is nothing lightly to be passed over.


Cast headed by Cary Grant and Jean Arthur, who are starred, plus Richard Barthelmess, perform excellently, and in the case of Grant and Barthelmess differently from heretofore.  Miss Arthur's role is a type she has made familiar, and rings manifestly true from that standpoint.  It is good casting.

One can pick out various other players of interest, notably Thomas Mitchell as the friend of Geoff Carter (Grant), SIg Rumann, John Carroll, Noah Beery Jr. and Allyn Joslyn, while Rita Hayworth adds a glamour note besides a very good portrayal.


Grim menace of fog, bad weather and dangerous passages through the mountains pervade the story from the early scenes which witness the death of an aviator who attempts to land through the mists against orders.

Miss Arthur as the heroine, an entertainer, who more or less happens on the scene, stays on fascinated by the life, and by the cynical Grant.

Attitude of the men over the death of one of their group, their effort to forget the whole terrible business are vividly brought out in episodes well marked in their psychology.  

Barthelmess enters the picture, only to be made an outcast because of an act of cowardice while flying.  He is given the most dangerous flights.

Ingredients are well put together and the picture has quality due to personnel and production values.

The catastrophe ensuing when an attempt is made to go through the pass in the mountains in bad weather is a spectacular technical achievement, and the death of Mitchell following is moving.  Even the musical embellishments are well chosen.

In fact, "Only Angels Have Wings" comes pretty near to being a perfect film of the type, rich in romance, realism and thrills, all very convincingly dealt with.

Click here to read Susanna's review of "Only Angels Have Wings"

Click here to read Jenny's Crackpot Reviews at the Cary Grant Shrine

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