Barnes & Noble currently has a 50% off sale on Criterion collection Blu-Rays and DVDs. One of the Criterion collections I picked up was Howard Hawk’s 1939 film Only Angels Have Wings, largely due to a review by Mike D’Angelo in the AV Club who asked if it’s the best Hollywood movie ever made.
That this glorious amalgam of romance, adventure, melodrama, and musical doesn’t have a loftier reputation is to some degree understandable—even more than most of Hawks’ films, it’s an ode to pragmatism and professionalism, dismissing almost any powerful display of emotion as a distraction from the task at hand and/or an admission of weakness. That sensibility only appeals to a very particular mindset… but for those viewers, Only Angels Have Wings achieves a seismic force that conventionally open-hearted movies can’t hope to match. With any luck, its forthcoming release as part of the Criterion collection will yield new converts.
I watched it yesterday for the first time, and it was a perfectly fine movie, that I’ll likely watch again at some point, even if it might not be the year’s best supporting performance for Thomas Mitchell (he won an Oscar in the same year for Stagecoach), one of the top five films from the year (competition includes Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, The Rules of the Game, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights, Intermezzo and Young Mr. Lincoln) or one of the two best Hawks/ Grant collaborations (they also had Bringing Up Baby, and His Girl Friday.) Narratively, it seems quite modern, focusing on the many people involved in a South American outpost, with Jean Arthur’s female lead disappearing for large stretches, and Cary Grant’s male lead appearing after the introductions of two other suitors for Arthur’s character. There are conflicts, fights and amazing set pieces, as well as a clear goal for the pilots, but no real villains. The main story engine is the danger of the profession.