Friday, September 29, 2017

Beauty of Action, Beauty of Character: The Criterion Collection Release of Only Angels Have Wings

Cary Grant and Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings

The opening twenty minutes of the 1939 Only Angel Have Wings are a marvel – emotionally and tonally double-jointed, with a loose, jocular quality and a spontaneous energy, underscored by the overlapping of Jules Furthman’s expert hard-boiled dialogue, that masks the astonishing control of the director, Howard Hawks. A pair of flyboys, Joe (Noah Beery Jr.) and Les (Allyn Joslyn), who work for a South American airmail service, pick up Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), a singer with an evening’s layover before she’s to re-embark on the boat to Panama. They buy her drinks and offer her a steak dinner at the bar-restaurant owned by Dutchy (Sig Rumann), whose money provides the operating budget for the mail company. But their boss, Geoff Carter (Cary Grant), interrupts the meal to send Joe out on a mail run, through the rain and fog that stalled Bonnie’s ship here in the tiny town of Barranca. Joe doesn’t make it. When the weather makes his passage impractical and Geoff radios him to come on back, he’s so eager to resume his courtship of Bonnie that he insists on short-shrifting his landing rather than hanging out in the skies long enough for Geoff and his best buddy and employee Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell) to wave him in safely. Joe’s plane hits a tree and crashes. Bonnie’s devastated – and appalled at what she sees as a lack of gravity among Carter and the other pilots in the face of this tragedy. What she doesn’t understand at first is that their joking is a form of gallantry and their apparent insensitivity is the only way they can keep going when death is always hovering over them; unspoken grief underlines their raucousness. Eventually she gets it: when she sits down at the piano and leads some of the others in a rendition of “Some of These Days,” she cottons onto the feeling of camaraderie at Barranca Airlines. The miraculously extended episode ends with one of those unconventional depictions of community that Hawks is justly famous for.

I haven’t seen many action pictures with such a formidable opening sequence and perhaps none with an opening that is equal parts suspenseful, terrifying physical danger, vibrant and warm group interaction and romantic-comedy banter. (Arthur shares it with both Beery and Joslyn, though her first exchange with Grant – where their immediate discomfort with each other layered on their obvious chemistry presages, in the tradition of that genre, the romance that will follow.) In Criterion’s magnificent 4K digital restoration of Only Angels Have Wings, released last year, the moist dazzle of Joseph Walker’s cinematography showcases not only the beauty of Hawks’s filmmaking technique (Viola Lawrence edited) but also the beauty of his staging. I’ve seen the movie before, but this time I was knocked out by the placement of the actors around the set (Lionel Banks was the art director), which is as dynamic as a Thomas Hart Benton canvas and provides a visual equivalent to the overlapping dialogue. The flying sequences that bookend the movie (Elmer Dyer did the aerial photography) are fantastic, but to my mind “action” in this picture also means the movement of the actors in the frame.

Sensationally engaging and entertaining, Only Angels Have Wings features a superb ensemble led by Grant in perhaps the least heralded of his best performances. It comes after Bringing Up Baby, Holiday and Gunga Din and before His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story – what an era for this actor! His portrayal of Geoff Carter is the darkest of this half-dozen and goes in the most unexpected directions. Hawks gets extraordinarily subtle work, too, out of Thomas Mitchell as a flyer whose eyesight is deteriorating and Richard Barthelmess as Bat McPherson, a one-time pilot whose reputation was shot after he bailed out of his plane and left his co-pilot to perish in flames. Bat arrives with his gorgeous wife Judy (Rita Hayworth, early in her film career) to find that he’s in the company of the brother of the man who died in that plane (it’s Kid Dabb). Moreover, Judy turns out to be an ex-lover of Geoff’s. Barthelmess, who distinguished himself in silent movies under D.W. Griffith’s direction, keeps very still and conveys his character’s conflict through physical tension and the tiny shifts in his always-alert eyes. In a first-rate essay that is one of the extras Criterion has provided with this disc, Michael Sragow points out that Hawks used several of the actors (Arthur, Beery and Joslyn) against type. Everyone knows that in an action picture, action is character, but in Only Angels Have Wings it’s not the only form that character takes. Hawks and Furthman fill the screen with distinctive personalities. The actors must have had a field day; anyone who takes a look at this movie will too.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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