Film review: Only Angels Have Wings, 1939

Only Angels Have Wings

Only Angels Have Wings - Credit: Archant

It might be politically incorrect, but Cary Grant shines in this classic piece of slick Hollywood entertainment, says Michael Joyce.

Down South America way, a community of daredevil pilots make a living piloting rickety rackety planes out of the Baranca airfield, delivering the mail between the hazardous mountain passes. Every day is a dice with death for these hardy, hard bitten men, and the hardiest and hardest bitten of them all is Cary Grant. Grant wouldn’t be your first choice for cynical daredevil flying boy but if you’re Cary Grant you can play pretty much anything you want as long as the film itself is slick entertainment and this is the slickest of old Hollywood entertainment.

Only Angels Have Wings is ludicrous potboiler tosh, made marvellous by the combination of Grant, director Hawks and just about every performer who puts their head around the door. Nobody could give the superficial such depth and feeling like Grant while Hawks always seems to know the exact merit and worth of any given cliché, and how to get an audience to buy into it. He took the corny and gave it a snappy grace and elegance.

The film is full of attitudes – to race, to women – that jar with modern audiences (no doubt when it plays at the BFI they’ll hand out leaflets to explain this to delicate modern sensibilities). But possibly the hardest thing to adapt to are the rudimentary special effects. You see shots of real planes in the air, flying above barren plains and mountainous landscapes but when they come in to land they become tiny model planes arriving in a lush miniature jungle backdrop that suggests King Kong may jump out at any moment and crush them.

Rating: 4/5 stars