Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Viewed March 25th

 

A woman becomes involved in the world of a small Panamanian airport run by Cary Grant.

Only Angels Have Wings is, on the one hand, not so different from many Hollywood adventure romances from the late 1930s and early 1940s. It features some laughs, some dramatic moments, and a lot of brave men vying to impress the women that love them. But on the other hand, it's elevated above much of these more run-of-the-mill films because its indelible cinematic world absorbs the viewer and carries them through parts of the film that would otherwise feel dated. The main entry point into this world is the gaze of star Cary Grant. Grant is one of cinema's most powerful movie stars. He seems familiar yet alien, comfortable yet alluring. He's American, but from where? Is he gay? Is he straight? Is he an intellectual or a man's man? An aristocrat or a worker? He's all of these things and none of them and through it all he never has to change his persona. One could imagine Humphrey Bogart playing this role of the brave pilot and it working fine, but somehow it wouldn't create as strong of an absorbing effect; Bogart fits the type more so you would lose that mystery of "why is this guy here? How did life lead him here?" 

The other thing this film does to keep the viewer absorbed into the world is to commit to the exploration of a single key theme--masculine honor--through each of its scenes. As the film progresses, the viewer watches the plot unfold as they also follow an idea about the world develop until its absolutely perfect culmination in the film's famous final moments.