Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

“It’s like being in love with a buzzsaw.”

While waiting for her boat to sail from the South American town of Barranca, showgirl Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) falls for the head (Cary Grant) of a small postal flying company. Meanwhile, Grant’s old flame (Rita Hayworth) appears with her new husband (Richard Barthelmess), who is reviled by his fellow pilots for having bailed out of a plane and left his co-pilot — brother of Grant’s best friend, “The Kid” (Thomas Mitchell) — to die.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Airplanes and Pilots
  • Cary Grant Films
  • Expatriates
  • Howard Hawks Films
  • Jean Arthur Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Machismo
  • Rita Hayworth Films
  • Romance
  • South and Central America
  • Thomas Mitchell Films

Only Angels Have Wings — made during what is generally cited as Hollywood’s finest year, 1939 — may not be as famous as Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz, but remains a highly enjoyable romantic adventure flick. Cary Grant and Jean Arthur are excellent in the lead roles, and exhibit genuine screen chemistry together: Arthur is both strong and sexy (convincingly playing a woman who finds herself smitten despite her better judgment), while Grant — performing his 34th role in just seven years of filmmaking — perfectly embodies Hawks’ masculine ideal. Notice how he strides away from emotional situations without hesitation, and justifies the death of his colleague by stating flatly: “Joe died flying — that was his job. He just wasn’t good enough; that’s why he got it.”

The supporting performances in Only Angels Have Wings are uniformly excellent as well. Rita Hayworth is appropriately seductive in her first major role (though she doesn’t appear on-screen all that often); Thomas Mitchell (who co-starred in no less than five noteworthy films in 1939) is sympathetic as an aging pilot who is losing his sight; and former silent-screen-star Richard Barthelmess is perfectly cast as a pilot hoping to redeem his past cowardly actions.

Although the film’s Oscar-nominated special effects don’t come across as all that impressive today, the actual footage of planes flying over the Andes is thrilling, and conveys both the danger and the excitement of this risky job. Note that … Angels bears some resemblance to Casablanca (1942): both center on ex-patriates who frequent a special bar; both feature a man who has become embittered by love; and both tell the stories of people whose survival is inherently dubious.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Cary Grant as Geoff
  • Jean Arthur as Bonnie Lee
  • A chilling portrayal of the dangers of flying
  • Thomas Mitchell as “The Kid”
  • Arthur taking over a jazz tune on the piano, and showing off her chops
  • Joseph Walker’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes. This film perfectly embodies many of Howard Hawks’ favorite themes: machismo, male bonding, and women who struggle to understand their men’s need for adventure.


  • Important Director

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


One thought on “Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

  1. A must. One of those examples of solid, old-time Hollywood filmmaking that there’s little to say about except that it has to be seen. A simple, character-driven tale of men who live to fly and the women who love them – vintage Hawks – often evocatively shot, and with a terrific cast, all of whom exhibit good chemistry with each other. Though no one needs to be singled out, it’s easily one of Grant’s best performances; same goes for Jean Arthur – it’s particular fun to see her swing out on the piano (playing ‘One of These Days’), and she gets two of the best lines: (in response to Grant’s very cool character) “Say, somebody must’ve given you an awful beating once.”; (influencing Grant into breaking his shell) “I’m hard to get, Jeff. All you have to do is ask.” A thoroughly satisfying film.

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