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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

Only Angels Have Wings: Review

Howard Hawks had a remarkably rich career, and Only Angels Have Wings is just one of the many exceptional films from this some what over-looked, but much admired director.

Like most directors from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Hawks worked in many genres. But unlike other directors his films frequently became the seminal example of excellence within a given genre, strongly influencing the work of later directors and forming the basic structure by which subsequent films would adhere. Case in point: Bringing Up Baby is the screwball comedy by which all others are compared, and Hawks directed it. Hawks had an equal impact on Gangster films with the 1932 version of Scarface, and directed such landmark fare as His Girl Friday, To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep. Although his films are virtually as well known as those of Alfred Hitchcock, Hawks has only a fraction of the public recognition because his work did not stick to one particular style, but ran the gamete from the archetypal Western Red River with John Wayne to the splashy Marilyn Monroe musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (I don’t think any two films by the same director could be more different).

Even though Hawks had made the particularly exceptional flyer film, The Dawn Patrol several years earlier, it was Only Angels Have Wings that really placed him on the map in Hollywood and started him on the path of a wildly successful career. With the some what silly, plot of a sassy American woman held over in an exotic seaport where she falls for a hard boiled ex-patriot living by his own rules, Hawks was able to raise the quality of the film with the help of the extremely popular Jean Arthur and raising star, Cary Grant. The adverse, even combative chemistry between these two stars created a model for male/female relations in films that would be repeated by Hawks himself and mimicked by the rest of the film industry for years to come (in fact, Hawks is responsible for the pairing of the most iconic couple in film history: Bogie & Bacall).

But like every Hawks film there are a lot of relationships happening on screen with much more going on than what meets the eye. Simple male camaraderie is actually a complicated brotherhood, complete with a code of conduct that must be obeyed regardless of the circumstances, and emotional feelings between men are never to be displayed. Leading ladies are lovely, but hard as nails until they run into the one man who warms their cold heart. The hero’s best pal becomes a kind of father/confessor to the love interest, helping her to accept the leading man for what he is, a damaged package unable to change his ways, only capable of loving, or being loved on his terms.

Again, it sounds like a lot of cliches on the surface, but in the hands of a skilled laborer such as Hawks, the typical becomes unique, and the average, special, even timeless. At least enough to become the hallmark of exceptional filmmaking for years to come.

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