Monday, January 14, 2008

- Only Angels Have Wings

While in college, I worked as a movie projectionist, and had an opportunity to show many great films for the various film courses being taught. But one film left a distinct impression—over the course of five days I had to show it eight times. I got to know it pretty well. Its name is “-Only Angels Have Wings” and it was directed by one of the great director-producers, Howard Hawks.

Hawks directed all types of movies, many of them classics of their genre: westerns (
Rio Bravo, Red River); mystery/noir (The Big Sleep); adventure (To Have and Have Not, Hatari!) and comedy (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday). He even produced one of the first truly classic science fiction films (The Thing! [From Another World]), and an iconic musical (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). Despite the genre, and despite the decade in which it was produced each film is unmistakably a Hawks film – a group of men (and women, but usually men) of diverse talents must come together to achieve a singular goal, be it to drive a huge herd of cattle to Missouri, or contain the alien threat, or capture a live rhinoceros, or get the bad guy to the Marshall (alive if possible) or ferry the refugees to safety, or find the dinosaur clavicle, or land a millionaire.

Conflict is achieved by introducing a newcomer to the mix who doesn’t understand the synergy of the group and who must learn “the code” to belong, and to keep the group in cohesion. And so much the better if they do it without talking about it much.

That’s the Hawks formula, and he was able to create enough variations in the design that his films all seem different, even though they’re always telling the same basic story—a story that’s a metaphor for movie-making.*

“Hello, professional”

Why “-Only Angels Have Wings” out of all those classics? It’s the ultimate Hawks movie. Watch any of those others and you’ll hear similar lines and see similar situations, but in “Angels,” everything is distilled to the basic essence of the tale to become the best Hemingway story Hemingway never wrote. Distilled? The majority of the film takes place in one set! For this band of professionals, the goal is to fly the mail from the port city of Barancca through a narrow passage in the Andes utilizing one of a number of prop aircraft in need of repair. All the men realize they’re merely links in a chain getting the mail…or a doctor…or a shipment of nitro-glycerin…to its destination with the threat of death flying right alongside. So hazardous is the job for these civilian-pilots that their base is a revolving door for the new blood who have to prove themselves. It’s "The Right Stuff” twenty years before Tom Wolfe popularized the phrase.

And it’s prime Hawks. For instance, watch the cigarettes. In a Hawks film, they’re visual short-hand for relationships—who’s in need, who can provide, who’s giving, who’s dependable. More than any other Hawks film, except perhaps “Rio Bravo,” the flame that’s there when you need it is a gambit that crams twice the information into the film, and reveals more about the characters than their deliberately circumspect dialog—what
Frank Capra called Hawks’ “three-corner dialog”—was allowed. To come right out and say things point-blank, well, not only would it be corny and unbelieveable…it just wasn’t done.

Hawks also liked to use music to convey mood. But it usually isn’t a Hollywood background score but indigenous music—in this case, the bar band at Dutchy’s bar/mercantile and air terminal (this is a couple of years before “
Casablanca”). They set the mood, provide a little extra entertainment value, some local color for a set-bound movie and when the time is right and there’s a meeting of minds it’s reflected in a musical number in which everyone
participates. Again, no one has to come out and say ”We’re all thinking the same way.” They’re all singing the same song, so it’s understood.

"Boy, things happen fast around here, don't they?"

There’s also the unspoken ethos of the professional—you do your job to the best of your ability and you don’t talk about it. You don’t brag. You don’t cut corners and you don’t dwell on it. You do your job, you move on. You do your job right and people will notice. Do your job wrong and everyone suffers. In this way the group can depend on each other while staying out of their debt. In this movie-atmosphere, bit-players are allowed to shine. Yeah, the movie revolves around Cary Grant (the only role where he’s more stoic than he is here would be playing the icy spy Devlin in Hitchcock’s Notorious”) and the delightful Jean Arthur--she could turn on a dime from tragedy to comedy and not miss a step, but even the lowliest of character-actors get great moments of screen-time. Also of note are a very young Rita Hayworth at the start of her career and Richard Barthlemess—a former silent screen star who didn’t make the transition to “talkies.” He plays a pilot who must prove himself to the others and that he can “cut” it in their world. Art imitates life.

And then there’s
Thomas Mitchell, who might well be the greatest character actor to never achieve name-above-the-title status. A veteran of many a Frank Capra comedy—and whose most prominent role would be as Scarlett O’Hara’s father in “Gone with the Wind”—here he plays a character with the title “The Kid,” even though he’s the oldest of the pilots. So much of the movie centers on him that his one character fulfills every plot device except love interest, although with Hawks one could never be too sure of that, either. **

Ultimately it’s Mitchell’s Kid who provides the means for Grant’s character to express his feelings, which, typically, he does without really having to, and in a way that makes it obvious to everybody involved. And as if anybody missed the point how dependent everyone is on each other, most of the pilots wind up injured, “winged” so that by the end of the movie, two pilots have to perform the job of one to fly each mail-run. Perhaps the better title may have been “-Only Angels Have Two Wings.”

It’s all done so economically, so breezily and with so little in the way of “action” that one may get through the entire movie before realizing that mostly everybody just talked…without really coming out and saying what they mean. Everything is shot at eye-level. There’s nothing fancy in the camera-work. The story is the King, and everyone is working towards making it work…like professionals.

*Hawks was well-known for taking different stories and turning them into the Hawks formula, sometimes rewiting the entire film on a day to day basis to get there. The most extreme example of this is “El Dorado,” which after ten minutes of one story suddenly veers into becoming a remake of the earlier Hawks-Wayne western “Rio Bravo.” When Hawks called John Wayne to ask if he’d star in yet another western, “Rio Lobo,” Wayne knew exactly what he was getting into. “Do I get to play the drunk this time?” he drawled.

** Someday, someone far more intelligent than I is going to go through the Hawks filmography with an eye towards sexual politics—whether it’s the leering banter between
Montgomery Clift and John Ireland in “Red River,” or Cray Grant in drag in “Bringing Up Baby” (“I went GAY all of a sudden!!”) and “I Was a Male War Bride,” or some of the more bizarre stagings of musical numbers in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” And then there’s the long line of husky-voiced women in his movies who are one of “the boys,” from Rosalind Russell to Lauren Bacall all the way up to future Paramount Studios exec. Sherry Lansing. For all the macho posturing exhibited in his movies, there are hints that Hawks never completely “bought” into it and is enjoying winking at it. He may well be second only to James Whale in sneaking so much gay subtext into his movies.

Cary Grant needs a match. Jean Arthur carries a torch.

Anytime Movies are movies I can watch anytime, anywhere. If I see a second of it, I can identify it. If it shows up on television, my attention is focused on it until the conclusion. Sometimes it’s the direction, sometimes it’s the writing, sometimes it’s the acting, sometimes it’s just the idea behind it, but these are the movies I can watch again and again and never tire of them. There are ten. This is Number 4.

IV: -Only Angels Have Wings

V: The Searchers

X: Goldfinger

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