Tag Archives: Thomas Mitchell

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.


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It's a Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)

It’s a Wonderful Life is going to be a tough one. When I was a kid, during the public domain days, Wonderful Life was omnipresent. It became a joke because of that omnipresence. But also because it’s undeniably sappy. And it has angels in it. It’s so saccharine, I didn’t even notice my eyes tear up for the finish. It’s so devastating, I also didn’t notice when they teared up at Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed on the phone. Because It’s a Wonderful Life has all these things going on and some of them don’t actually interact with the other, which might be director Capra’s greatest achievement with the film. It’s well-intentioned, feel-good, historically relevant character study as epic. It’s a Wonderful Life is an epic. It’s a short one–the film speeds by in its 130 minutes–but it’s an epic.

The film has four credited screenwriters–including Capra–and a legion of uncredited helpers. The film has the rather expedient structure of heavenly intervention. Let’s face it–God magic is the best magic–and Wonderful Life is aware of the promise it’s making with God magic. A Greek chorus would probably be less awkward, especially since there’s angel bickering. Mind you, angel bickering shows up before Jimmy Stewart. Jimmy Stewart doesn’t appear until twelves minutes into the picture. And it’s all about him. Jimmy Stewart doesn’t start his character–Robert J. Anderson starts the character and it’s great. The opening scenes of It’s a Wonderful Life are phenomenal. Capra goes all out with it.

Because most of It’s a Wonderful Life concentrates on Stewart and Reed, which is great because they’re amazing together and if it weren’t for the the last third of the film, Reed would easily give the best performance. The way she watches Stewart is exceptional. It’s a Wonderful Life has some strange cuts–apparently Capra even processed zoomed for emphasis–but the sound design always carries it. The film’s setting is about its sound, about its residents’ voices. Capra brings characters back in at just the right moment, in just the right scene, so the nightmare sequence at the end even scarier. Anyway, the sound and Reed. Capra will go for these different takes, jarring the viewer and forcing a reconsideration of the character. With Reed, it’s a little different. Capra’s direction of Reed during the courtship is about making her the film’s center.

Once Stewart and Reed get married, there’s a handoff to Stewart. Reed literally disappears. Capra figures out a way to show she’s still essential, but she doesn’t have to be omnipresent. There’s a lot of frantic qualities to It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s like the screwball comedy came home from the war.

So around halfway in, the film enters a different relationship with its protagonist. After Stewart being crushed again and again in the first half, the film has to show him get some reward. It’s a Wonderful Life is a mix of pragmatism, hopefulness, and cynicism. Stewart has to live up to the promise of the character before he showed up on screen.

Stewart has to make the viewer dislike him. The scene where he terrorizes the family is so freaky. The architecture designs, given room with the family’s things, are tragic. It answers a question It’s a Wonderful Life told the audience to ignore–sure, Reed’s actually perfect, but would Stewart have made it if he’d gotten away from home? Yeah. But he’s not even angry right, because when he’s angry, he’s supposed to be telling Reed he doesn’t need her and everyone knows he’s lying and is supposed to know he’s lying. He’s betraying the viewer’s expectation–and Capra knows how to do it too. The film’s a wonderful mix of sensibilities. Capra changes the pace, the tone. He introduces memorable characters in the second half. He doesn’t care. It’s awesome.

The nightmare part–does it even have an agreed upon term (it better not be some alternate timeline thing)–is this great twist. We’d been promised God magic and what did we get. Henry Travers, who looks as adorable as he sounds. Travers gets very little screen time and a phenomenal introduction. Capra still has these amazing scene constructions for the finale. And I think It’s a Wonderful Life, in terms of acts, fits Dan O’Bannon’s second act to third act transition mark better than anything else. The bridge. It’s Capra trying some things he’d tried before without success and scoring, time and again.

Very off track, which is the thing about It’s a Wonderful Life–there’s too much. There’s so much to process, so much to appreciate, so much to consider. It’s impossible for me to watch it without thinking about it in terms of anticipation and recollection. I don’t even think I watched it in order when I first saw it. Or it had been cut down to fit a two-hour block and was missing a bunch. I’ve been thinking about how the film works since I was a kid. It’s brilliant. Capra does it. He goes for it, he does it.

Great supporting performances from Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, especially Gloria Grahame. Frank Faylen and Ward Bond are awesome. H.B. Warner, Samuel S. Hinds. Everyone else but especially those people.

Technically outstanding, especially William Hornbeck’s editing and Clem Portman and Richard Van Hessen’s sound. They make Capra’s forceful moves work.

Dimitri Tiomkin ’s score actually doesn’t help with those forceful moves, but enables them further. Only then that great scene construction brings it through. It’s a Wonderful Life is like shifting plates in perfect rhythm.

And now I’m never going to write about it again because it’s all I’d want to do.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Jo Swerling, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Capra, based on a story by Philip Van Doren Stern; directors of photography, Joseph F. Biroc and Joseph Walker; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring James Stewart (George Bailey), Donna Reed (Mary Hatch), Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter), Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy), Henry Travers (Clarence), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Bailey), Frank Faylen (Ernie), Ward Bond (Bert), Gloria Grahame (Violet), H.B. Warner (Mr. Gower), Todd Karns (Harry Bailey), Samuel S. Hinds (Pa Bailey), and Robert J. Anderson (Little George).


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The Long Voyage Home (1940, John Ford)

John Wayne gets first billing in The Long Voyage Home, but the picture really belongs to Thomas Mitchell, Ward Bond and Ian Hunter. The film’s a combination slash adaptation of four one-act plays–which is somewhat clear from the rather lengthy sequences tied together with shorter joining scenes–and while Wayne gets one of his own, it’s Mitchell who’s the constant. I remember the first time I saw Mitchell in something besides It’s a Wonderful Life and was astounded he was in other pictures (to save a little face, I’ll point out I was fifteen or sixteen at the time… hopefully). But I don’t think any other film of Mitchell’s I’ve seen really showcases him the way The Long Voyage Home does. The film ends when Mitchell leaves; it’s impossible to imagine it without him, something Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols must have realized. The film begs for one ending–the John Wayne ending–but doesn’t give it, maybe the only time the film betrays its ominous foreshadowing.

The foreshadowing’s only a problem in the last act, when The Long Voyage Home gets tedious. There are some narrative surprises, but they come after ten or fifteen minutes of scenes Ford would have done better to cut or somehow recap in expository dialogue. They’re predictable and boring… there’s occasionally flourishes of life, but only because the cast is so strong. The film’s a downer, but it’s such a continual downer–following the opening sequence, involving the crew’s shipboard soiree with some Caribbean prostitutes (it’s frequently amazing how the film is able to depict code-prohibited ideas clearly), which is just a slice-of-life piece–it’s hard to get upset at any point. The ominous foreshadowing, even if it doesn’t ripen, slams the viewer so constantly, it’d be impossible to get the heart rate up. It’s clear nothing good’s going to happen in the picture.

I love John Ford’s films with cinematographer Gregg Toland (a friend once scoffed at this appreciation, telling me to compare it to Toland’s work for Welles) but The Long Voyage Home is better-looking than any other Ford film I can think of. The composition is so continually stunning, it turns the picture into a more abstract piece of visual art–the narrative isn’t important, just the way the film looks. I accidently muted the film for thirty seconds and didn’t even realize it. The visuals are incredible. It’s such a deliberate film (and knowing Ford was not someone to lollygag around when composing shots, it’s unbelievable to think he was able to pick these shots with any speed).

All of the acting is good. Wayne plays a Swede (something he was worried about) and doesn’t get a lot of lines until the end, when it wouldn’t matter if he were good or not (he’s fine), just because he’s such a familiar face as the character. Ward Bond and Ian Hunter are fantastic, Hunter with the more difficult role, though Bond does get the one of the film’s monologues. Barry Fitzgerald and John Qualen are both good. Wilfrid Lawson is also good as the captain, who doesn’t get a name. It’s a solid, familiar Ford cast all around.

At some point in the first twenty minutes, when the film’s established itself as being narratively sturdy and visually stunning, it’s clear it’s never going to pick up. It’s a tad boring (in, unfortunately, the pejorative sense) but still a fine film.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by John Ford; screenplay by Dudley Nichols, based on plays by Eugene O’Neill; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Sherman Todd; music by Richard Hageman; released by United Artists.

Starring John Wayne (Olsen), Thomas Mitchell (Driscoll), Ian Hunter (Smitty), Barry Fitzgerald (Cocky), Wilfrid Lawson (Captain), John Qualen (Axel), Mildred Natwick (Freda), Ward Bond (Yank), Arthur Shields (Donkeyman), Joe Sawyer (Davis), J.M. Kerrigan (Crimp), Rafaela Ottiano (Bella) and Carmen Morales (Principal Spanish Girl).


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