Only Angels Have Wings

Recently I’ve been introducing Lily to the films of Howard Hawks, which is also an excuse (not that I needed one) to watch some of my favorite films. So far we’ve seen Bringing Up Baby (1938) – which I mentioned in my previous post – His Girl Friday (1940), and last night, Only Angels Have Wings (1939).

Only Angels Have Wings was my introduction to Howard Hawks as a director and, as such, it holds a sentimental place in my cinephilia. I probably saw some of his other films earlier in my life, but in the grand cinema survey course I took in college this film was the Hawks film we saw. And that’s when I really began to learn about Hawks. At that time I was blown away by the film. I don’t know if I was just in the right mood then, even so I still love the film today.

I have been trying to find a DVD version of the film, but haven’t. I did find, to my delight, that TCM was showing it and it was listed in the Comcast on-demand free movies. So, voila!

For me the critical scene is when, after a pilot has died upon crash landing his plane, some of the men divide up his few things – trinkets really: his wallet, some coins, maybe a ring. In effect that scene boils down the value of a person’s life to a few insignificant things. For Hawks life was like a pick-up song among strangers in the midst of a crazy world. One can choose to live a life of courage or of safety. In the end it’s not what one left behind so much as how one is remembered, and even that is mostly vapor because behind it all is an unknowable absurdity.

This is in stark contrast to the films of John Ford.

Ford saw great value in the traditions of society: weddings, burials, a man taking his hat off when going indoors, etc., and these things symbolize the significance of human beings, their actions, and the society they create. Hawks, or at least his characters, valued courage, but did not overly emphasize the inherent worth of a human being. Ford was more the romantic, Hawks more the existentialist. (Note: I write this off the cuff without having examined these two director side by side for 20 years, so I am happy to be corrected.)

Of course, I love the films of both directors. They both speak to the human situation, but from different angles.

And speaking of John Ford, soon on the docket for Lily and I are Stagecoach (1939) and Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). Wasn’t 1939 just an amazing year for cinema?!

3 thoughts on “Only Angels Have Wings

  1. >Wasn’t 1939 just an amazing year for cinema?!I was watching Wizard of Oz on DVD the other day, for the first time in a long time, and documentary on it as a bonus feature where they mentioned all of the other great films that were released along with it in 1939 (including, but not limited to, Gone With the Wind, Gunga Din and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I think it’s fair to say that Hollywood “peaked” in 1939.

  2. >…and there are a lot more films we could add to that list. For example The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Destry Rides Again, Ninotchka, Dark Victory, etc. – not all of which I’ve seen, but they are on my “must see” list. Also, outside Hollywood great films were made in 1939, for example Rules of the Game is, maybe, my all time favorite film. 1939 has got to be one of the greatest years in cinema history.

  3. >There’s an amazing Cary Grant Collection (called “The Cary Grant Box Set”)that you can find on Amazon(in fact, I just did) With Holiday, Only Angels have Wings, His Girl Friday, Talk of the Town, and The Awful Truth. That’s two of the movies you mentioned wanting to find on DVD and if you haven’t seen Holiday it’s worth 100 watches. Right now the box set is 26.99 – a good price for 5 movies. Just thought I could help with all Cary Grant viewing. 🙂

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