Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

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Flying Down To Rio

Only Angels Have Wings is the culmination of the 1930’s aviation pictures (and boy there were a lot of them), helmed by director Howard Hawks who previously directed The Dawn Patrol and Ceiling Zero and even features the casting of Richard Barthelmess, star of such flying pictures The Dawn Patrol, The Last Flight and Central Airport. With World War II on the horizon this genre would never be the same again. Like in The Dawn Patrol, the pilots in Only Angels Have Wings have methods of dealing with reality as the film really examines the psychology of early aviators and the danger they went through to get the job done; Hawks called Only Angels Have Wings the truest film he ever made. Why do flyers do what they do? As Kid (Thomas Mitchell) puts it, “I couldn’t give you an answer that’d make sense”.

The first 30 minutes of the movie takes place in real time in what is my favourite section of the film in which a whole host of emotions are presented with a short period of time; a real piece of film magic. As we are introduced to the cast and become attached to pilot Joe Souther (Noah Beery Jr.) as he and his buddy become friends with an American tourist Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) only for him to be killed in a flying accidents moments later when he’s called on short notice to deliver mail. Death is such a normal occurrence that the squadron leader Geoff (Cary Grant) has no problem eating the steak ordered by Joe prior to his death only moments ago while the pilots even sarcastically ask each other “who’s Joe?” when Bonnie questions them on their ability to carry on like nothing happened; a denial of reality in order to deal with reality. Just how healthy is that? Well as Bonnie puts it, “All my life I’ve hated funerals, the fuss and bother never brings anyone back, just spoils remembering them as they really are”. This 30 minute section of the film successfully goes from one emotion to the polar opposite from joy to tragedy and back to joy again. I still however can’t find myself fully engaging in the joy of Jean Arthur and Cary Grant playing the piano knowing one of their flying comrades just died a horrible death. Likewise at the beginning of the film we also see an interesting method of getting free drinks from a bar if you’re friendly with the owner; I must try that one out some time.

Jean Arthur’s role of Bonnie Lee, a lone adventuress from Brooklyn is a change of pace for the actress as she leaves her usual urban dwellings. Arthur differs from other Hawksain women due to her absence of sex appeal, she’s simply not that kind of an actress but rather more inherently innocent and sweet hearted. Hawks wanted Arthur to play Bonnie subtly sexy way with Arthur stating, “I can’t do that kind of stuff”. The scene in which she invades Geoff’s room in order to take a bath was never going to be Clark Gable or Jean Harlow in Red Dust with Arthur playing the role, resulting in a scene which is playful without being flirty of sexual. Just listen to her as speaks of how “It’s so cold and rainy outside and nice and warm and cosy in here” – it couldn’t be delivered in a more innocent manner. I feel Jean Arthur represents the way young boys will innocently feel about women before hitting puberty.

I feel the rest of the film doesn’t reach the emotional heights which the first forty minutes accomplished partially due to the lack of the Jean Arthur touch with her being absent for lengthy portions of the film but it is still blessed with a great cast of players. Cary Grant plays a Clark Gable type role, a no nonsense leader under extraneous pressure in the part of Geoff Carter while silent era star Richard Barthelmess uses his greatly expressive face which carries the baggage of his character. Plus what’s a Hollywood movie from the 30’s without a central to east European comic relief character in the form of Sig Ruman. The one cast member who doesn’t do anything for me is Rita Hayworth whom I’ve never particularly been a big fan off but there is still the bizarre amusement of Grant pouring water over her hair.

Only Angels Have Wings even opens up the potential to be The Wages of Fear of the air when Barthelmess is required to transport nitroglycerine by plane but the movie doesn’t take this far creating a missed opportunity. Regardless the aerial footage of the plans is an impressive sight with long uncut shots as the camera moves along with the aircraft. The film doesn’t identify what country the story takes place however I like when classic films leave details like that ambiguous; let your imagination fill in the blanks.

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The Dawn Patrol (1930 + 1938)

Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines

The 1938 version of The Dawn Patrol is one of those remakes which is a perfectly fine film in its own right but you do have to question is it necessary especially when it is largely a shot for shot remake with various changes made to the dialogue. The original Dawn Patrol from 1930 is a superb film to begin with and one of the better films of the early sound period. But do the technological advancements between 1930 and 1938 make the remake the better film or does the original still come on top? While I like both these films, I have to side with the original over its more famous counterpart. However when your remake has Errol Flynn, David Niven and Basil Rathbone, I can’t be too critical on its existence.

The Dawn Patrol from 1930 was Howard Hawks’ first feature length talkie. Although his trademark overlapping dialogue is absent (The Criminal Code made the following year would be his first film to feature this trademark) it still has the Hawksian themes male bonding and the tensions created from a small group of people being forced together under an impossible strain. In both movies the squadron use humour to combat tragedy and drink to deal with reality, which does raise the question of how they are able to fly if they drink so much? But I digress. There are also no women in sight; both films are a man’s movie through and through. There was no shortage of aviation films in the 1930’s, a world in which death was always around the corner. Simply put, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Both versions of The Dawn Patrol are close to the history they are recreating. Cast and crew from both productions had been involved in the war including Howard Hawks and Basil Rathbone. Watching a film about an armed conflict made by people who saw it first-hand really adds that extra element.

Hawk’s Dawn Patrol is an early talkie which I believe benefits from being just that. I know many dismiss early talking pictures as being static but some films from this period would not have been as effective in my eyes if they had been made a few years later; films which benefit from the rough and gritty nature of early talkies such as war movies like All Quiet on the Western Front, Hell’s Angels and War Nurse or others like the prison drama The Big House. Due to this the original Dawn Patrol feels more intimate to me than its counterpart, not to mention the sets here really do feels like they’re being lit by the candles which appear on screen. The remake on the other hand is more shinny and less gritty, not there’s anything wrong with that as it is a beauty of a film in its own right but original gets my vote when it comes to aesthetics. Surprisingly however The Dawn Patrol is one pre-code film which appears to be absent of any pre code material making the process of remaking it in 1938 easier.

Who succeeds more in the role of the Squadron’s leader Courtney; Errol Flynn or Richard Barthelmess? Barthelmess has a more gentle and more sensitive persona yet still commanding; expressing so much through his eyes as he was a distinguished actor of the silent era after all. As strong as Flynn’s performance is, the contradictory traits in Barthelmess’ Courtney makes for a more interesting performance in my eyes.

The Dawn Patrol would be one of Basil Rathbone’s few outings as one of the good guys, well kind off; he still has to perform the dirty work. It’s interesting to see him playing a character who shows sympathy towards others and even gets revenge on Errol, one upping him when he gets promoted to wing and names Courtney in the new in command of the patrol. Rathbone also has my favourite moment of the remake (a moment which isn’t in the original) in which his assistant Phipps (Donald Crisp) speaks of how wonderful it would be if they had a dog at the squadron headquarters, only for Brand to be completely zoned out that he doesn’t hear him, only to then look over at him and ask him why he’s pretending to play with a dog – a great piece of dark comic relief.

But who comes on top as the better Major Brand; Basil Rathbone or Neil Hamilton? Rathbone’s Brand is more commanding and more in control even though we still see signs that he is at breaking point. Hamilton is less commanding and in control but this itself I feel makes for an interesting character dynamic as someone who in this position of reasonability but clearly can’t handle it. If I was to choose however I would go with Basil Rathbone. While Hamilton’s performance does have more to it, Rathbone is simply a far more charismatic and cool screen presence.

Who makes for the better role of Courtney’s closet friend Scott; David Niven or Douglas Fairbanks Jr? Fairbanks is an actor I’ve long had trouble even remembering in any role. I don’t find him an engaging screen presence and will forget about his performance in a film as soon as it’s over. David Niven on the other hand is an actor I have great esteem for while his real life friendship with Errol Flynn translates into the film, making the friendship aspect is stronger and more endearing in the remake than in the original. Fairbanks is my only big complaint with the original Dawn Patrol so it’s David Niven all the way.

The aerial footage from the original is reused in the remake and there is a noticeable difference in image quality between reused footage from original and the newly filmed material. Still is it an interesting side by side comparison how movies evolved within less than a decade. The aerial action sequences are exciting to watch helped by the impressive quality of the footage while the lack of a music score and reliance on sound effects heightens the tension. I do have to ask though but can a single plane cause so much damage to an entire factory? It’s still exciting stuff none the less.

There are no good guys or bad guys in The Dawn Patrol. The movies don’t take a side such as when the downed German soldier is brought back to the squadron headquarters. He speaks in German but from what I’ve gathered in the original version of the film he calls them friends and how the fighting has “absolutely nothing to do with personal hate” and that “it is a sport/game and our duty as soldiers is clear”.

Would The Dawn Patrol be classified as an anti war film? I’m very dubious of the term anti war film and I feel throwing the term around willy nilly as is often the case comes off to me as a form of virtue signalling. As Francois Truffaut stated; war movies inherently glorify combat when they portray the adventure and thrill in combat. In other words, there is no such thing as an anti war film. Watching the action scenes in The Dawn Patrol I do feel the same kind of feeling I get when I watch an action/adventure film but then I have to remind myself of the horrors of war. Is The Dawn Patrol condemning war altogether or just the tactics used during this war such as the use of young inexperienced pilots? Or is it merely showing at the end of the day war just a necessary evil?