A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks, 1939)

Thomas Mitchell had begun his acting career on stage, making his Broadway debut in 1916. It would be 20 years before he decided to leave the stage for Hollywood, and three years after settling there he found himself performing in no fewer than five of 1939's top movies: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (William Dieterle), Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra), Stagecoach (John Ford), and Only Angels Have Wings. He won an Oscar for Stagecoach, and four of the five films in which he appeared were nominated for the best picture Oscar. As it happens, the one film that didn't get nominated, Only Angels Have Wings, is my favorite of the bunch. That it wasn't nominated may have had something to do with its director, Howard Hawks, who refused to be tied down to any one of the major studios, feeling that he had been burned by a dispute with production head Irving Thalberg at MGM. For the rest of his career he made the rounds of the studios, producing and directing (and often writing without credit) some of the most enjoyable movies ever made. But he was nominated for the best director Oscar only once, for Sergeant York (1941), which has its Hawksian touches -- fast-paced dialogue and deft use of character players like Walter Brennan, Margaret Wycherly, Ward Bond, and Noah Beery Jr. -- but is more sentimental than typical Hawks films. In fact, Hawks must hold some kind of record for classic films that received no Oscar nominations at all, including the great gangster film Scarface (1930) and the dizziest of screwball comedies -- Twentieth Century (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938), and His Girl Friday (1940) -- as well as the definitive Marilyn Monroe vehicle, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and the films that stand as landmarks in the careers of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). He finally got an honorary Oscar in 1975, after having been discovered by the French critics of Cahiers du Cinéma and American auteurist critics like Andrew Sarris. Only Angels is prime Hawks, with a sterling cast that includes not only Mitchell, as the aging pilot known as "Kid," but also Cary Grant and Jean Arthur. They bring a touch of the screwball comedy at which they excelled to what is essentially a serious story about the grace under pressure shown by fliers in a small South American port town who have to battle the weather to fly the mail across the Andes. Hawks and screenwriter Jules Furthman take the familiar "you can't send the kid up in a crate like that" premise and turn into something both funny and moving. The key is that that they refuse, like the pilots in their movie, to take anything really seriously, so the light touch keeps the peril and loss from bogging the film down. There is a startling moment near the end when we see tears in Grant's eyes, but the movie swiftly moves to a lighter-hearted conclusion. There is some corny artifice in the settings and flying sequences, and perhaps a little too much about the relationship between the characters played by Rita Hayworth (pushed on Hawks by Columbia studio head Harry Cohn) and Richard Barthelmess. Some see Only Angels as a kind of rough draft for To Have and Have Not, and Jean Arthur, who clashed with Hawks about her character, said she didn't understand what he wanted until he saw that later film. But Only Angels Have Wings stands on its own.