Program Notes: Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Before the 1950s, movie companies rarely filmed in exotic locations. If a script called for a Welsh mining village, a Medieval castle, or a steamy jungle, it was all created on a soundstage or the back lot of a Hollywood studio.

Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings is set in a South American coastal town from which daredevil pilots take off to fly the mail over mountains and into the continent’s interior. It wasn’t shot in South America but on a sound stage in North Hollywood, California.

Creating an entire world on a studio soundstage was all in a day’s work for the designers, artists, and craftsmen on the payroll of every studio in the 1930s. How good were they?

Watch the first 10 minutes of Only Angels. The film begins with a nighttime shot of a ship approaching the dock through the fog. (I’m pretty sure a model boat was employed.) Then the camera begins wandering along the pier alongside the ship, following a couple of flyers who are looking for a little after-hours action. There’s a cacophony of voices and sounds, a swirl of busy movement.

Film Screening:
Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
Saturday, Jan. 25 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

The off-duty flyboys meet a young woman getting off the boat (Jean Arthur), strike up an acquaintance, and retreat to a smoky bar where local music is being played and conversations held over drinks. The atmosphere is so rich you can practically taste it, the result of a near-perfect blend of black-and-white cinematography, costuming, and art direction.

It’s so good, so visually and aurally rich that director Hawks takes his time introducing leading man Cary Grant, who plays the tough (or is he?) leader of this bunch of aerial daredevils. Only with his entrance does the story proper kick in.

With the exception of a couple of astonishingly effective aerial sequences, the entirely of Only Angels Have Wings was made under studio conditions. Yet it doesn’t seem artificial. The emotions feel real, the overlapping dialogue sharp and authentic (it sounds casual but has been as carefully choreographed as a Fred Astaire dance routine), the characters interesting.

It’s a classic example of how “Hollywood phony” can be more satisfying than realism.

The excellence of the film is only magnified when you realize that it really hasn’t much of a plot. The biggest question is whether Grant and Arthur’s characters will fall into each other’s arms...and we already know the answer, right?

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The tiny universe of Only Angels has no villains – human baddies would be superfluous when the weather, the mountains, and mechanical breakdowns conspire daily to kill or maim our protagonists. Instead of intense plotting screenwriter Jules Furthman gives us the seemingly carefree camaraderie of men who share a dangerous profession. Rather than a big narrative arc the movie gives us a whole slew of characters and jumps from mini-plot to mini-plot.

This might have proven too much for an average director, but nothing about Howard Hawks was average. He excelled at any genre, be it screwball comedy (Bringing Up Baby, Ball of Fire, His Girl Friday), Westerns (Red River, Rio Bravo), film noir (The Big Sleep), biography (Sergeant York, Viva Villa!), or musical comedy (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes).

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. Keep your eyes open for a fourth-reel appearance by a very young Rita Hayworth.

Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: The Comedies (Part I)”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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