Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Someday I’ll get a straight answer from you, and I won’t know what to do with it.

 

Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings is full of individuals lost in underlying turmoil but manage to dig themselves deeper, rather than find a way out. Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) is a pilot and co-owner of a mail air line, who knowingly sends his men and himself in danger, accepting hazardous weather and unsafe working conditions as part of the job. Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) is a former showgirl bound for home, who decides to put her trip on hold and stick around for Geoff, who admits he would never ask a woman for anything. Judy MacPherson (Rita Hayworth), Geoff’s old flame, chooses ignorance over learning the truth about her morally questionable husband Bat.

All of these characters, and more, are swirling around Barranca, South America (no country is given), in a world somewhere between Casablanca and Gilda (though it was made before both landmark films). Barranca is a bustling banana port o’call, and Geoff’s airline carries mail back and forth over the Andes. The large troupe of Americans who call Barranca home are seeking some sort of escape: from responsibility, from home, from their pasts.

This might sound like the perfect recipe for film noir, but Only Angels Have Wings doesn’t fit cleanly into any easy genre. It is part adventure thriller, with well-constructed, often heart-stopping, sequences of flight and their sometimes-tragic aftermaths. It is part romance, as Geoff and Bonnie become acquainted, and the feelings that echo back as Bonnie shows up. It’s even part western, with the standard themes of escape from traditional society, isolating oneself in a “man’s world,” and dropping domestic responsibilities.

To be honest, a lot about this movie is weird. Early on, we get cues that Brooklyn-born Bonnie is right at home in Barranca, engaging with the locals (despite referring to Spanish as “pig Latin”), and wildly playing “Some of These Days” on the piano in a scene that had me giggling nonstop. Later on in the movie she whips out a gun and shoots him in the shoulder. And, in an interesting subversion of gender norms, Geoff never has a lighter on him, and needs Bonnie or Judy to light it for him. The macho fella who wouldn’t ask a woman for anything, still needs them to get through the everyday.

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Would you like Rita Hayworth to light your cigarette?

But a well-rounded, genre-bending (albeit sometimes confounding) film suits Hawks well. The man who later brought us a subversive, challenging western in Red River and the excellent, tongue-in-cheek screwball comedy musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes proves his mastery of and flexibility within genre pieces, so a film that touches so many avenues is a perfect fit for a man of his talents.

In addition to the strong directing and crazy choices, we also get great performances, particularly by Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth. Jean Arthur plays what appears to be her usual “type” as the plucky pal, bringing on the gravitas when appropriate. Early on in the film (spoiler alert!) a pilot has a fatal crash, igniting a firestorm of emotions for her: desperate grief at the loss, anger and frustration at the men for (she believes) not caring, then tepid complacency as she learns that’s just the way things are in Barranca. Her complex, layered reaction both highlights her adapting to her new environment, as well as an early sign that she’s not just some fast-talking gal: she has depth and real emotion.

Rita Hayworth, in her too-few minutes onscreen, sets everything ablaze with her piercing eyes and deep, seductive voice. She’s not quite a fully-fledged femme fatale in this one, but she makes some gusty moves, even visiting her former flame in his bedroom. Jean Arthur even pops up at the end of this scene but scurries away, which is unfortunate — I would have loved to see some screen time between two archetypes during this era of film.

Only Angels Have Wings is an exciting, genre-bending film taking us into exotic locales, entrenching us with questionable characters, and dazzling us with complex performances.

Ball of Fire (1941)

 

Boogie!

You hear the rhythm rompin’.

Boogie!

You see the drummer stompin’.

Drumboogie, drumboogie.

Boogie!

It really is a killer.

Drumboogie, drumboogie.

The drum boogie woogie.

So begins the siren song by “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (played to perfection by the one and only Barbara Stanwyck) to her soon-to-be-smitten beau, Professor Potts. Sugarpuss, a nightclub singer mixed up with the wrong crowd, is not only the titular “Ball of Fire” but also the “drumboogie” itself – a “rhythm rompin'” force to be reckoned with.

Like the best comedies, Ball of Fire is more than a witty script, but features a genuinely funny story. Potts is one of eight scholars (all older, stuffy men) who have been living in virtual exile for years compiling a new encyclopedia. Working A to Z, alphabetically, they’ve come to “S” and Potts (the youngest of the bunch, a roughly 40-year-old Gary Cooper) realizes he is out of touch with Slang. He hits the streets, train cars, and a nightclub (where Sugarpuss is performing) to study the contemporary jargon of the day.

After the memorable number “Drumboogie” (performed by Gene Krupa & orchestra), rich with language Potts doesn’t comprehend, he visits Sugarpuss in her dressing room, requesting her help in his studies. She’s in a jam herself, a witness and possible accomplice to criminal Joe Lilac and his gang. She agrees, as a means to keep herself off the radar of the police.

As the professors, especially Potts, fall more in love with her, she grows increasingly weary of her plot with Joe Lilac to jump ship and abandon the old men. Her true alliance is the heart of the drama and leads to a warm and truly satisfying ending.

Beyond its two terrific leads (Stanwyck a well-rounded leading lady and the well-meaning buffoon Cooper) Ball of Fire also features a strong supporting cast of characters, including the charming seven professors (many of whom you may recognize) plus Dana Andrews playing “tough guy” Joe Lilac. These “types” all culminate in a manic finale sequence that would make Preston Sturges and his notable ensembles proud.

While Ball of Fire loses some steam by the end, its clever premise and genuine characters strike a chord through all the narrative chaos. This is a screwball comedy with real heart, further cementing Stanwyck as a true Ball of Fire in classic Hollywood.