Category Archives: 1939

Only Angels Have Wings (1939, Howard Hawks)

The first forty-five minutes of Only Angels Have Wings is mostly continual present action. Jean Arthur arrives in a South American port town, looking around–followed by two possible ne’er-do-wells (Allyn Joslyn and Noah Beery Jr.)–and the film tracks her experience. Great direction from Hawks, beautiful cinematography from Joseph Walker. Pretty soon she discovers they’re not ne’er-do-wells but ex-pat American fliers doing mail deliveries.

It actually takes a while to understand the mail outfit, with Jules Furthman’s ingenious script taking its sweet time to reveal everything. Arthur with Joslyn and Beery–then meeting adorable entreprenur Sig Ruman–seems like its doing character introduction on Arthur and maybe some setting setup, but it’s not. Arthur’s going to get character introduction and ground situation stuff done, but not in these opening moments. And while it’s establishing the physical setting, it’s only hinting at it. It’s moving the action to it without actually establishing it. Arthur’s only on layover, after all. Her boat leaves before dawn the next morning.

Instead, Hawks and Furthman are subtly using this time to acclimate the audience to the setting. All that stuff about the town and the boat, it’s not really important, what’s really important is the hotel slash bar slash airport. Ruman’s co-owner is Cary Grant, who shows up about eight minutes in. Hawks and Furthman have already done an extraordinary amount of work in those eight minutes. And there’s no time to establish Grant when he does arrive because it’s time for the mail to go out and so there’s an airplane action sequence. Hawks excels at the airplane action sequences. The miniatures are always spot on, the actual airplane footage is breathtaking (and terrifying).

It’s after the twenty-five minute mark–so twenty minutes left in the opening “prologue”–before real character work on Grant starts happening. There’s a lot of exposition and implied stuff. There’s the entirely functional introduction of Thomas Mitchell during that first action sequence; he’s one of the main characters, but he’s a stranger to Arthur and the audience for the first ten minutes he’s on screen. Because Hawks has got a tense action sequence to do and it comes first.

Once Arthur and Grant finally do start getting talking and flirting, Wings momentarily becomes almost a romantic dramedy. Furthman’s dialogue, Arthur and Grant’s chemistry, it’s a break from everything going on in this microcosm Hawks and Furthman have submerged the audience in.

But Only Angels Have Wings isn’t some short subject about Jean Arthur’s layover with some ex-pat fliers before she continues on her way. It’s not even about what happens when she decides to stay because, well, she just found Cary Grant in the jungle and he’s single. At the forty-six minute mark, the film shifts protagonists. Those first forty-five minutes were to transition to top-billed Grant taking over from second-billed Arthur. Hawks and Furthman have gotten the audience acclimated and it’s time to get into everything else, like Ruman and Grant’s business failing and the constant danger of the mail delivery.

The next section of the film, which really runs to the end as far as pacing goes, but the next big event in the film is the arrival of Richard Barthelmess. He’s got history with Grant and Mitchell, but Grant needs a new pilot, leading right away to some great action sequences. But Barthelmess isn’t alone it turns out, he’s got wife Rita Hayworth with him. And Hayworth’s got some history with Grant.

Furthman and Hawks are able to get away with the one-two punch of Barthelmess and Hayworth and all their baggage with the existing cast and it never comes off contrived. It’s even gently foreshadowed. So the whole thing then becomes about this group of people–Grant, Mitchell, Barthelmess, Hayworth (and the other pilots to some degree)–figuring out how they’re all going to exist in this place. Because even though everyone’s flying around, they’re all stranded. The passenger boat only comes every couple weeks, which means Arthur is still around, moving through the film–mostly removed from the subplots save for her now prickly relationship with Grant.

The film resolves the romance stuff by the end of the second act. Furthman’s script always takes the time to do the scenes right–there’s other stuff going on too, Wings gets away with bubbling up subplots whenever it wants, specifically ones involving Ruman and Mitchell.

Then the third act starts with a bang, only to keep intensifying to almost excruitatingly intolerable levels, both through action and drama. The drama then moves on to echo and resolve items introduced at the beginning and during the character setup. It’s a phenomenal script.

All the acting is great. Grant’s able to toggle between his nearly screwball romance with Arthur to the weight of being this flier in a constantly dangerous situation to being a manager. He’s got a slightly different relationship with every one of his pilots, something the film never stops acknowledging. Arthur gets this big stuff at the opening–in the forty-five minutes–and then has to share the rest of the film, only her story isn’t always the most interesting since she’s basically just waiting, so her scenes have to count. They do. Apparently Hawks hated her performance but she’s what makes Grant work the way he does. She unsettles him.

Barthelmess is awesome. He and Mitchell have the hardest parts in the film, but Mitchell gets to be both lovable and sympathetic. Barthelmess gets neither. Until Hayworth somehow makes him sympathetic. She and Grant have these complex, layered scenes together–basically all of their scenes together–and they give Grant some very different character development.

But never at the expense of Hayworth or Barthelmess. They get their character development too. Hayworth getting it a lot less dramatically than Barthelmess.

And then Ruman’s great. He’s louder than most of the characters in the film, but it makes him lovable. Also great is Victor Killian as the radio operator. He’s never loud; he steals scenes quietly. He and Arthur have this whispering scene and it’s stunning.

Only Angels Have Wings is this fast, complex, beautifully made–everything about the production is stellar, down to the costumes–wonderfully acted strange little big movie. Hawks has all sorts of ambitions, some he realizes on his own, some he needs the actors for. But damn if he doesn’t accomplish them all. Even if he didn’t like Arthur’s performance.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Howard Hawks; written by Jules Furthman; director of photography, Joseph Walker; edited by Viola Lawrence; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Cary Grant (Geoff Carter), Jean Arthur (Bonnie Lee), Richard Barthelmess (Bat MacPherson), Rita Hayworth (Judy MacPherson), Thomas Mitchell (Kid Dabb), Allyn Joslyn (Les Peters), Sig Ruman (Dutchy), Victor Kilian (Sparks), John Carroll (Gent Shelton), Don ‘Red’ Barry (Tex), Milisa Sierra (Lily), and Noah Beery Jr. (Joe).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE 100 YEARS OF RITA HAYWORTH BLOGATHON HOSTED BY MICHAELA OF LOVE LETTERS TO OLD HOLLYWOOD.


RELATED

Advertisements

The Phantom Creeps (1939, Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind)

For the first few chapters, Bela Lugosi can carry The Phantom Creeps. He’s hamming it up as a mad scientist surrounded by actors who can’t even ham. Creeps has some truly terrible performances, particularly from its other leads, Robert Kent and Dorothy Arnold. He’s the military intelligence officer out to discover what’s happened to Lugosi’s missing research–Lugosi fakes his death because he wants to sell his secrets to foreign agents. Arnold’s the reporter who’s after the story. Kent’s got a negative amount of charm. Arnold’s charm level is extraordinarily low, but it’s not negative. But when the two of them have a scene and banter… the chemistry is toxic.

And then Lugosi’s got this palooka ex-con sidekick, Jack C. Smith. Smith is awful too. Edwin Stanley and Regis Toomey–as other good guys–they’re terrible. Edward Van Sloan–who could be reuniting with Lugosi post-Dracula here–is the leader of the spy ring. He’s terrible. Anthony Averill, as the lead henchman who does all the action scenes, goes from bad to okay. Mostly because by the end of the serial, Lugosi’s nowhere to be seen–literally–and Averill’s just not as patently unlikable as everyone else.

Lugosi’s missing from the second half because he’s mostly being The Phantom, which is what he calls himself when he’s using his invisibility belt. Lugosi has four inventions. He has the invisibility belt, he has an iron robot (remote controlled), he has these discs and mechanical spiders–when the spider crawls to the disc, it explodes and puts anyone nearby in suspended animation–and then he has another suspended animation device, a ray-gun. If there is anything else, he doesn’t use it often. I may have blocked too much of Creeps from my memory already–for example, I can’t remember if it’s a flub when the bad guys know Lugosi’s alias because no one sees him in the half chapter he uses that alias or if someone does see him. It’s not worth remembering.

The serial starts with Lugosi faking his death. But the spies want what he was going to sell them so they go to his house to try to get it. But the federal agents also want what Lugosi was going to sell because his old friend, Stanley, ratted him out for, you know, wanting to commit treason. Stanley’s a square from the start.

Anyway, the first half of the serial–so, you know, six twenty-minute chapters–is the good guys and bad guys goofing off around the house while Lugosi and Smith try to escape. They have to keep coming back to the house because their secret base is underneath it. In the second half of the serial, Lugosi’s secret element–from a meteor, I think–gets traded back and forth between good guys, bad guys, and Lugosi for five chapters. Sure, there are different locations, but rarely any original big action footage. Lots of stock footage instead. Lots of not matching at all stock footage.

And some things about Creeps are just relentlessly bad. Kent’s investigatory reasoning is nil. The way the good guys and bad guys meet is when one of them sees the other driving on the highway, so they then follow them. It happens over and over and over and over again. Even when it’s a different shooting location, it’s just how the screenwriters make these things happen.

There are no gems in the script. There’s no funny bit part. There are no diamonds in the rough, acting-wise. There is some charm to the special effects, but only in the first half really. By the second half it’s all invisiblity stuff (sometimes reusing the same footage) and it’s not particularly creative. It seems creative the first time Lugosi vanishes, not the rest. Mostly because he doesn’t interact with anyone. Occasionally an inanimate object, but it’s not like he’s pantsing the good guys while invisible.

The music is a bunch material of thirties Universal horror scores. It’s kind of cool to hear the music. Not really alongside anything going on onscreen, of course.

The direction’s not good. It’s not atrocious, unless somehow Beebe and Goodkind could’ve gotten better performances out of the cast. It doesn’t seem possible. Technically, nothing stands out.

The cliffhangers in The Phantom Creeps are particularly bad. Usually people just survive disasters. There’s something like one death in the thing; no one’s in much danger, if any. Though at least Arnold never gets used as damsel. She does get used as Toomey’s doormat, which is a particularly tiring affair. She’s going to steal boss Kent away with her feminine wiles or something. Or maybe there’s no reason for it. There’s no reason for anything in Creeps. It just goes on and on and on.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind; screenplay by George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Mildred Barish, based on a story by Wyllis Cooper; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and William A. Sickner; edited by Irving Birnbaum, Joseph Gluck, and Alvin Todd; music by Charles Previn; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bela Lugosi (Dr. Alex Zorka), Robert Kent (Capt. Bob West), Dorothy Arnold (Jean Drew), Jack C. Smith (Monk), Regis Toomey (Jim Daly), Edwin Stanley (Dr. Fred Mallory), Anthony Averill (Rankin), Dora Clement (Ann Zorka), Hugh Huntley (Perkins), and Edward Van Sloan (Jarvis).


RELATED

The Phantom Creeps (1939, Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind), Chapter 12: To Destroy the World

Sadly, there’s not much world destroying in To Destroy the World. Not even when Bela Lugosi, finally reunited with his meteorite and able to escape, decides instead he’s going to steal a biplane and bomb things. Starting with the federal building. Only he drops a bomb on a zeppelin, which does indeed crash and burn, but there’s no sign of a building being destroyed. Then he bombs a warehouse. A small one.

The stock footage really doesn’t match the grandeur of the accompanying newspaper headlines–it’s a busy day for the paper; they get out at least two editions during Lugosi’s wild plane ride. Luckily henchman Jack C. Smith can fly a plane. This wild ride accounts for around five minutes of the chapter’s run time, which is more than enough. Especially given how silly the stock footage of the chase planes gets.

And Destroy the World has already been real silly. The opening has the foreign spies putting on their Halloween masks… and promptly getting caught by good guy Robert Kent and intrepid reporter Dorothy Arnold. Sadly, the chapter also subjects the audience to Kent and Arnold being “charismatic,” which is painful given their terrible performances.

There’s some nonsense where Kent calls in the Army to raid Lugosi’s house–they’re just sure he’s in there somewhere–and the Army does indeed show up. Seeing a bunch of soldiers, complete with WWI Brodie helmets, attacking a giant robot ought to be more amusing. It’s not.

It’s a little more fun watching Smith talk down to the (non-sentient) robot. Smith’s godawful in the scene, but it’s somehow an appropriate moment for the character.

To Destroy the World is pretty bad; all of The Phantom Creeps is pretty bad. There was zero chance it’d end well.

CREDITS

Directed by Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind; screenplay by George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Mildred Barish, based on a story by Wyllis Cooper; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and William A. Sickner; edited by Irving Birnbaum, Joseph Gluck, and Alvin Todd; music by Charles Previn; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bela Lugosi (Dr. Alex Zorka), Robert Kent (Capt. Bob West), Dorothy Arnold (Jean Drew), Jack C. Smith (Monk), Regis Toomey (Jim Daly), Edwin Stanley (Dr. Fred Mallory), Anthony Averill (Rankin), Dora Clement (Ann Zorka), Hugh Huntley (Perkins), and Edward Van Sloan (Jarvis).


RELATED

The Phantom Creeps (1939, Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind), Chapter 11: The Blast

The Blast features some of Phantom Creeps’s most prevalent tropes. Good guys following bad guys because they happened to drive and pass one another. Jack C. Smith’s henchman (to Bela Lugosi’s mad scientist) getting shot and dazed. Smith’s been shot at least three times (and dazed) in the serial. Sometimes even with multiple shots.

Guns work different in Phantom Creeps.

But as the penultimate chapter, it’s got nothing going for it. The cliffhanger resolution at the open is another where there isn’t a cliffhanger. Disaster occurs, people just get through it unharmed. Nothing hurts in Phantom Creeps. I don’t think anyone’s died since they killed off Lugosi’s wife in the second chapter.

The story’s the same as it has been for what seems like half the serial. Spies have the meteorite, good guys want the meteorite, Lugosi wants the meteorite. Oh, and there’s more scenes at Lugosi’s house, which he packed up to leave in the first chapter. But he keeps coming back.

Just like Smith keeps getting shot.

Some particularly bad acting from Regis Toomey and Edward Van Sloan this chapter, enough to overshadow even Robert Kent and Dorothy Arnold.

CREDITS

Directed by Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind; screenplay by George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Mildred Barish, based on a story by Wyllis Cooper; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and William A. Sickner; edited by Irving Birnbaum, Joseph Gluck, and Alvin Todd; music by Charles Previn; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bela Lugosi (Dr. Alex Zorka), Robert Kent (Capt. Bob West), Dorothy Arnold (Jean Drew), Jack C. Smith (Monk), Regis Toomey (Jim Daly), Edwin Stanley (Dr. Fred Mallory), Anthony Averill (Rankin), Dora Clement (Ann Zorka), Hugh Huntley (Perkins), and Edward Van Sloan (Jarvis).


RELATED