Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) disembarks the San Luis after it docks in the small South American port of Barranca. An unemployed showgirl and looking for company, she falls in with two fellow countrymen, Les Peteres (Allyn Joslyn) and Joe Souther (Noah Berry Jr) – American airmail fliers who frequent the, seemingly, only bar in town. Ran by ‘Dutchy’ (Sig Rumann), the bar/restaurant/general store/hotel/gathering place and headquarters of Barranca Airways is the place to be, where a toss-of-a-coin can get you a steak or the chance to be in the air.
Geoff Carter (Cary Grant), steely boss and general chauvinist makes his presence heard and seen; dressed flamboyantly in high waisted trousers, a gun belt and a large Panama hat worn on a jaunty angle, think saloon-dwelling Indiana Jones type. It is a quintessentially glamorous and sensitive Grant, however; there is an underlying darkness which is rare. A man, as the film’s original trailer declares, who has a “propeller blade for a heart and an eye for a pretty girl.” The pretty girls in question, although as per the Hawks way far are from just that, are Arthur and Rita Hayworth (looking far less Spanish than she had previously) and they are ably supported by Thomas Mitchell (Gone With the Wind, It’s a Wonderful Life) and Richard Barthelmess (Broken Blossoms, The Dawn Patrol).
If anybody can make an aviation adventure-dramedy with real levity and musical numbers blend in such a way it is Howard Hawks. The plot is slight but the dialogue; pacing and verbal wit, superb special FX and lighting (oh how Hawks could light a movie) flesh out the otherwise simple story, accompanied by a wonderful score by Dmitri Tiomkin. What carries it is the maverick machismo of these high flying men, their friendships, loneliness, camaraderie and even love. Love for each other and love for the air, there is little glory in what they do and certainly no flag flying but they are there day-in-day-out regardless of the peril. Not unlike all of those other men preparing to forge their own close barracked friendships following the Only Angels Have Wings release in 1939.
The Criterion Collection launched in the UK on April 18th 2016 with a small, yet defined, assortment of filmic goodies on Blu-ray for the discerning cinephile – this film included – and has continued to grow. Only Angels Have Wings is the Hawks not often discussed; a hidden treasure made all the more valuable by the love and attention shown by Criterion’s beautiful restoration. The crisp sound and perfect transfer/picture quality will make an audience believe they are in that South American Port of Barranca.