Outside of the movies, Howard Hawks led the life of a high adventurer. He served with the Army Air Corps during World War 1 and his daredevil pursuits including big game fishing with Hemingway and hunting with Faulkner. He became a prop man at Paramount in 1916 – he claimed later it was simply because he wanted a job near his home while school was on summer recess. But evidently something stuck. Hawks was 23 years old when he started making movies and in a subsequent career spanning almost 50 years, Hawks made gangster films, screwball comedies, film noir, Westerns and more. He was the purest example of the journeyman filmmaker. As Jean-Luc Godard, no slouch himself, put it Hawks was “the greatest American artist.” But for all his mastery of multiple genres, Hawks repeatedly returned time and again in his filmmaking career to a particular line of work.
Only Angels Have Wings is one of a slew of aviation films Hawks made – including The Dawn Patrol (1930), Ceiling Zero (1935) and Air Force (1943) – that were explicitly informed by his own experiences during WW1. In …Wings, Hawks cast Cary Grant as Geoff Carter, the operations manager for a rickety airmail service that covers the Andes from a strip in a fictitious South American banana port. The specifics are almost incidental to this typically Hawksian study of camaraderie and courage under duress. Hawks gives Carter a love interest – Jean Arthur as a spirited showgirl – and there is staunch support from Richard Barthelmess as a fellow pilot whose wife (Rita Hayworth) is also Carter’s ex.
Only Angels Have Wings might not have accumulated quite the cachet of some of the other films released in 1939 – Gone With The Wind, The Wizard Of Oz, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights – yet it is quintessentially Hawksian in its themes, while its mix of spectacular aerial scenes and barroom stoicism is never short of gripping.
Criterion Disc Features:
– New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
– Audio excerpts from a 1972 conversation between filmmakers Howard Hawks and Peter Bogdanovich
– New interview with film critic David Thomson
– Howard Hawks and His Aviation Movies, a new program featuring film scholars Craig Barron and Ben Burtt
– Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film from 1939, starring Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Rita Hayworth, Richard Barthelmess, and Thomas Mitchell, and hosted by filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille
– An essay by critic Michael Sragow