Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) is an entertainer who has wound up in South America, Barranca to be exact which is a sea port also known for its airport in the same location. She is catching the next boat out of there the following day, but wonders what to do in the meantime so as she disembarks she starts wandering through the crowds and revellers, enjoying the music but noticing she is being followed by two men. They are pilots who have been captivated by this attractive new arrival, and she is doing her best to put a distance between them until she realises they are Americans whereupon she is delighted to see them and ends up going to a bar with them for a drink and, she hopes, a steak dinner. But duty calls for the men of the mail service, as their boss Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) indicates...
"Calling Barranca... Calling Barranca..." This was director Howard Hawks' attempt to have a success at the box office after a dry spell, and he settled on a theme that had served nineteen-thirties Hollywood movies well, that of the bravery of pilots: surely the public wouldn't turn their noses up at that? No they did not, and a very fruitful forties arrived for the filmmaker, here not so inadvertently appealing to the general American moviegoers' interest in visiting exotic locations through the medium of entertainment rather than actually showing up in those places to see what they were genuinely like. The apex of such cinema would be Casablanca three years later, but one year after that Hawks did it again with To Have and Have Not.
Indeed, Only Angels Have Wings was a definite precursor to the production best known for introducing Humphrey Bogart to Lauren Bacall, except Hawks had a bit of trouble with his would-be Bacall back in '39. Jean Arthur, never one of the most easygoing of actresses, didn't sympathise with Hawks' trademark style, and refused to comply with anything he asked of her, leaving her Bonnie character sticking out rather more than she should have, not because she was trying to talk sense into these men who put their lives on the line every time they take to the skies, but because her exacting approach was at odds with the loose, conversational manner of her fellow cast members. One now wonders what the young Rita Hayworth, a Hawks discovery of sorts, would have done with Arthur's role.
Not that there was much wrong with Hayworth as she was, getting into Hawksian rough and tumble with Cary Grant as Geoff tried to sober her Judy up by pouring a jug of water over her head. But hers was a supporting part as the partner of shamed pilot Bat MacPherson, played by a silent star seeing his stardom winding down Richard Barthelmess, surely cast at least partly because he had appeared as a flyer in a hit movie or two beforehand. He remained stony-faced throughout, which you could interpret either as Bat's need to be professional, or his memories haunting him as he tries to move on from the mistakes he made that saw someone die, but which everyone else is reluctant to allow him to forget. Add in some familiar faces from this era to fill out the cast of pilots and locals, and the stage was set for adventure.
Yet that adventure only arrived in fits and starts as Hawks was more enamoured of watching his characters converse, which they did at great length. On one hand, fair enough, we got to know the leading players very well and to an extent what made them tick, on the other hand, this was supposed to be about the courage of flying in dreadful conditions and there were only about three such flights in the whole film. Not to say they were not dramatic, we are under no illusions these men were risking life and limb daily and that throws their relationships into sharp relief, but when the stunt flying was so impressive much in the way that the silent blockbusters about fighter aces would be, you did hanker after something more to be made of it, especially when you had the measure of just about everyone in the story by the first quarter of a two hour experience. Of that support, Thomas Mitchell was a stand out as a pilot whose eyesight is tragically failing, but you wish Grant and Arthur had the chemistry that Grant and Hayworth promised, even though as a tribute to the mail service which was indeed almost suicidally dangerous at times this was very fine; it's just as a story it needed more work. Music by Dimitri Tiomkin.