Only Angels Have Wings

Only Angels Have Wings is a 1939 American drama film directed by Howard Hawks, and starring Cary Grant and Jean Arthur, based on a story written by Hawks. The film also marked the first significant role in a major film for Rita Hayworth.[1] It is generally regarded as being among Hawks' finest films, particularly in its portrayal of the professionalism of the pilots of the film, its atmosphere, and the flying sequences. The supporting cast features Thomas Mitchell and Richard Barthelmess.

Only Angels Have Wings
Theatrical poster
Directed byHoward Hawks
Produced byHoward Hawks
Written byJules Furthman
Story byHoward Hawks
StarringCary Grant
Jean Arthur
Rita Hayworth
Thomas Mitchell
Music byDimitri Tiomkin
CinematographyJoseph Walker
Paul Mantz (aerial scenes)
Edited byViola Lawrence
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release date
  • May 15, 1939 (1939-05-15)
Running time
121 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$1,000,000

Only Angels Have Wings was based on a number of real incidents witnessed by Hawks, and although Air Mail (1932), Night Flight (1933), Ceiling Zero (1936, also directed by Hawks) and Flight From Glory (1937) have similar stories, they are not related.

In 2017, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[2]


Geoff Carter (Grant) is the head pilot and manager of Barranca Airways, a small, barely solvent company owned by "Dutchy" Van Ruyter (Sig Ruman) carrying airmail from the fictional South American port town of Barranca through a high pass in the Andes Mountains. Bonnie Lee (Arthur), a piano-playing entertainer, arrives on a banana boat one day. After making her acquaintance, Joe Souther (Noah Beery Jr.) crashes and dies trying to land in fog later that day. Bonnie becomes infatuated with Geoff, despite his fatalistic attitude about the dangerous flying, and stays on in Barranca (not at his invitation, as he insists on telling her).

The situation is complicated by the arrival of pilot Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess) and his wife (and Geoff's old flame) Judy (Rita Hayworth). McPherson cannot find work in the United States because he once bailed out of an airplane, leaving his mechanic — the brother of "Kid" Dabb (Thomas Mitchell), Carter's best friend — to die in the ensuing crash. When Geoff is forced to ground the Kid because of failing eyesight, he hires MacPherson on the understanding that he will get the most dangerous assignments.

Dutchy will secure a lucrative government contract if he can provide reliable mail service during a six-month trial. On the last day of the probation period, bad weather closes the mountain pass. Geoff decides to try to fly a new Ford Trimotor over the mountains instead. The Kid asks to go with him as co-pilot. Geoff refuses, but then lets the Kid toss a coin to decide the matter. When it lands on the floor, Geoff discovers that the coin has two heads. Geoff still agrees to take him along. Just before leaving, Bonnie tries to talk Geoff out of going. She takes his gun out of his holster and points it at him. When she realizes that she cannot stop him, she drops the gun on the table, but it accidentally fires, hitting Geoff in the shoulder.

Unable to fly, Geoff lets MacPherson take his place. However, MacPherson and the Kid are unable to climb high enough; the plane stalls and drops thousands of feet before leveling off. Geoff tells them to turn around, but they decide to try to fly through the fogged-in pass. In the pass, they encounter a flock of condors. One crashes through the windshield, paralyzing the Kid; another hits the No. 1 engine, setting it on fire. Later the No. 2 engine also catches fire. The Kid tells MacPherson to bail out, but he refuses. He turns around and returns to Barranca, managing to crash-land the burning Trimotor on the field. The Kid dies from a broken neck, but not before telling Geoff what MacPherson did. As a result, MacPherson is finally accepted by the other pilots.

Bonnie is torn between leaving and staying, and confronts Geoff in the hope he will ask her to stay. However, Geoff does not. Then, with mere hours to spare on the trial period, the weather clears and Geoff has to rush off to secure the all-important contract. Before he goes, he offers to toss a coin to decide: heads, she stays; tails, she leaves. Discouraged, Bonnie gives up. As he leaves, however, Geoff gives her the coin as a "souvenir." At first, she is distraught, but then she discovers that the coin has heads on both sides.


As appearing in Only Angels Have Wings, (main roles and screen credits identified):[3][4]


Pre-production and casting

The film's original script outline was written by Anne Wigton; the working title originally was Plane No. 4. Howard Hawks re-wrote the film's scenario himself, based on a story that he wrote in 1938 titled Plane from Barranca.[5] While he was scouting locations several years earlier, for the filming of Viva Villa!, Hawks had been especially inspired by the stoic aviation personnel that he had met in Mexico.[6] The film's final script was written and re-written throughout the film's production, mostly by Hawks and Jules Furthman, but also with contributions by Eleanore Griffin and William Rankin.[7]

Hawks had previously worked with Cary Grant the year before on Bringing up Baby and this was the second of five collaborations between the director and star.[8]

He cast Jean Arthur in the leading role of Bonnie Lee after appraising her acting in several films made by Frank Capra.[9]

Hawks then hired silent film star Richard Barthelmess for the role of Bat MacPherson. Barthelmess's career had gradually diminished since sound films became popular in the late 1920s, and he was a controversial choice, mainly because he had recently had a botched plastic surgery operation on the skin under his eyes that resulted in permanent X-shaped scars under both of his eyes. Barthelmess usually wore heavy make-up to hide the scars, but Hawks wanted to use the scars for the character.[10]

Hawks had originally cast Dorothy Comingore in the role of Judy MacPherson, but studio head Harry Cohn had been grooming a young starlet that would be advanced for the role. With backing from Cohn, her agent then insisted that Hawks give Rita Hayworth a screen test, which eventually resulted in Hayworth being cast in the role.[11][N 1]


Shooting of Only Angels Have Wings began on December 19, 1938 at the Columbia Studio Ranch[11] and Hawks shot the film in chronological sequence whenever possible.[12] Hawks and Arthur initially found working together difficult and Arthur would often argue with Hawks on set.[1] Hawks was attempting to coach Arthur to play a variation of the classical "Hawksian Woman Archetype", but Arthur often felt uncomfortable with his direction.[13] Eventually, she unhappily agreed to play the role as he directed her. Years later after Arthur saw Lauren Bacall's performance in To Have and Have Not, Arthur apologized to Hawks and told him that she finally understood what he had wanted from her (epitomized in Bacall's repetition and emphasis on the paradoxical line "I'm hard to get ... all you have to do is ask.") Hawks later said that he considered Arthur to have been good in the film.[12]

Initial shooting was completed on March 24, 1939, 31 days over its shooting schedule. This was followed with several weeks of second unit shooting of aircraft flying in various locations in the western United States. A few re-takes were shot in April with Cary Grant and Victor Kilian. Two days of re-shoots with Rita Hayworth were also shot, but were directed by Charles Vidor.[14]

In a 1972 interview, Arthur revealed, "I loved sinking my head into Cary Grant's chest".[15]

Aircraft used in the production

The "cast" also starred a 1929 Hamilton Metalplane, Ford Trimotor and TravelAir 6000 single engine monoplane. All of these types accurately represented the types of aircraft flying in the period depicted by the film. The Metalplane was the airplane Joe Souther crashes while trying to land in heavy fog, and was only used for ground shots. In 2008, one of the movie prop Hamiltons used in the simulated flying scenes for this aircraft was discovered to still exist.[16] The Pilgrim was used in the exciting mine rescue flying scene, while the Ford Trimotor was featured in another dramatic landing that ends in a fiery crash. Midway through the film, Paul Mantz flew a Boeing Model 100 biplane in a spirited aerobatic performance, reprising his earlier scene in Flight From Glory. Only Angels Have Wings has become very popular among enthusiasts of the aircraft of the golden age of aviation.[17]

Release and reception

Twelve days after the film's final re-shoots were completed, Only Angels Have Wings premiered in Los Angeles at the Pantages Theater on May 10, 1939. Its official world premiere occurred the next day at Radio City Music Hall. It was heavily promoted by Columbia Studios and ended up making $143,000 on its initial two-week run at radio City Music Hall, and earned over one million dollars overall. It was the third-highest-grossing film of 1939. The film was also Rita Hayworth's breakout role and helped make her a major Hollywood star, with Hayworth appearing on the cover of Look magazine after the film's success.[18]

Only Angels Have Wings received good reviews on its release, with Abel Green of Variety comparing it favorably to Flight From Glory and praised Barthelmess's performance. Frank S. Nugent in his review for The New York Times focused on the excitement found in the aerial scenes, also recognizing the talents of the star-studded cast, "Mr. Hawks has staged his flying sequences brilliantly ... He has made proper use of the amiable performing talents of Mr. Grant, Miss Arthur, Thomas Mitchell, Mr. Barthelmess, Sig Rumann and the rest."[19]

Only Angels have Wings was later selected as one of 12 films representing the U.S. at the first Cannes Film Festival. However, the festival was canceled due to events leading up to World War II.[20]

On Metacritic, the film holds a score of 86 out of 100, based on 10 critics, indicating "universal acclaim."[21]

Radio adaptations

Two weeks after the film's premiere, Only Angels Have Wings was adapted as a radio play for the May 29, 1939, broadcast of Lux Radio Theater. The film's principal actors Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Rita Hayworth, Richard Barthlemess and Thomas Mitchell all reprised their roles, alongside several others. Orson Welles headlined a radio adaptation on The Campbell Playhouse on February 25, 1940, that starred Welles and Joan Blondell.[22]

Awards and honors

Joseph Walker was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Black-and-white, while Roy Davidson and Edwin C. Hahn were nominated for the first-time Best Effects, Special Effects.[23]


Only Angels Have Wings has become thought of as one of Hawks's best films, with Dave Kehr calling it the "equilibrium point" of Hawks's career, bridging themes developed in his early films of the 1930s to some of his darker films of the 1940s and 1950s. Film critics at Cahiers du Cinema also praised the film in the 1950s as a quintessential support of the auteur theory.[24]

See also



  1. Although Rita Hayworth had already appeared in a dozen films with Columbia, she had not made much of an impact until her role in Only Angels Have Wings.[1]


  1. Frankel, Mark. "Articles: Only Angels Have Wings (1939)." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: October 22, 2012.
  2. "2017 National Film Registry Is More Than a 'Field of Dreams'". Retrieved December 13, 2017.
  3. "Credits: Only Angels Have Wings (1939)." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: October 22, 2012.
  4. "Full Cast & Crew: Only Angels Have Wings (1939)." Internet Movie Database Retrieved: September 23, 2016.
  5. "Notes: Only Angels Have Wings (1939)." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: October 22, 2012.
  6. McCarthy 1997, pp. 266–267.
  7. McCarthy 1997, p. 268.
  8. McCann 1997, p. 149.
  9. Eliot 2005, p. 196.
  10. McCarthy 1997, p. 270.
  11. McCarthy 1997, p. 271.
  12. McCarthy 1997, p. 272.
  13. Oller 1997, p. 112.
  14. McCarthy 1997, p. 274.
  15. Flatley, Guy. "From Mr. Deeds Goes to Town to Miss Arthur Goes to Vassar; Miss Arthur Goes to Vassar." The New York Times, May 14, 1972.
  16. " 'Only Angels Have Wings' Model Plane." Roadshow Archive, 2008. Retrieved: October 22, 2012.
  17. Harwick and Schnepf 1989, p. 60.
  18. McCarthy. p. 275.
  19. Nugent, Frank S. "Howard Hawks's 'Only Angels Have Wings'." The New York Times, May 12, 1939.
  20. McCarthy. pp. 275.
  21. Only Angels Have Wings, retrieved 2018-03-07
  22. "The Campbell Playhouse: Only Angels Have Wings". Orson Welles on the Air, 1938–1946. Indiana University Bloomington. February 25, 1940. Retrieved 2018-07-31.
  23. "The 12th Academy Awards (1940) Nominees and Winners." Retrieved: June 16, 2013.
  24. McCarthy 1997, p. 276.
  25. Eliot 2005, p. 197.


  • Eliot, Marc. Cary Grant: The Biography. New York: Aurum Press, 2005. ISBN 1-84513-073-1.
  • Harwick, Jack and Ed Schnepf. "A Viewer's Guide to Aviation Movies". The Making of the Great Aviation Films, General Aviation Series, Volume 2, 1989.
  • McCann, Graham. Cary Grant: A Class Apart. London: Fourth Estate, 1997. ISBN 1-85702-574-1.
  • McCarthy, Todd. Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood. New York: Grove Press, 1997. ISBN 0-8021-1598-5.
  • Oller, John. Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew. New York: Limelight Editions, 1997. ISBN 0-87910-278-0.

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