In an age where entirely too many people communicate entirely via ten-second Snapchat clips, 140-character Tweets, or illiterate Facebook posts executed with absolutely no fact-checking whatsoever, co-called “snail mail” barely exists for actual letters itself. Save, of course, for bills, termination notices, and W2s from former employers who had previously issued you a termination notice along with a bill for those mandatory no-slip shoes you decided to keep (you rebel, you). With online options available for everything now, from banking to escort services, the only things still being delivered are actual deliveries themselves. And even then, our biggest fear is that every ethereal lifeform handling your packages while they’re en route has enough common sense to not damage or abuse your precious material possessions.
In this all too sleek contemporary world, where everyone who is not on your list of followers pretty much does not exist to you, do you ever stop to think men and women may actually be putting their lives on the line just to deliver your mail? Of course you don’t. In fact, there was a time when it was even rougher on the devoted, determined souls who had taken that (unofficial) “Neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night…” malarky ‒ as one can see in Howard Hawks’ 1939 masterpiece, Only Angels Have Wings (or, ‒only Angels have wings, if you prefer to address the film by its actual onscreen title card).
With his salad days long gone past him, the iconic Hollywood auteur settled in to write/produce/direct a tale like no other ‒ despite the fact similar stories had been filmed and released several times over by other filmmakers. The difference being Hawks had more than enough experience in the field. Or should that be “experience in the air”? Indeed, Hawks’ had not only served in the Air Force, but spent a good deal of time with a series of brave and seemingly insane individuals who thought nothing of darting off into the not-always-friendly skies above. Some did so as part of a service to their fellow human beings. Others found themselves flying as a thrill; an easy escape from the madness increasing on the ground below.
And considering Only Angels Have Wings was shot and released just a few short months before World War II officially broke out in Europe, its characters’ plight for flight seems not only understandably sane, but mesmerizingly enlightening. But it is certainly never easy. Not by a long shot. The film opens with a ship docking at the small harbor of the tiny fictional South American town of Barranca. Off steps a gorgeous young woman (Jean Arthur) named Bonnie Lee. Though a mere piano-playing entertainer on her way to an uncertain future, Bonnie soon finds herself ensnared by a couple of hotshot American pilots (one of whom is Noah Berry, Jr., best known as James Garner’s father Rocky in The Rockford Files), who work at a small local airline company delivering mail across the Andes.
Bonnie’s fascination into the way of life for these fatalistic outcasts from society reaches its zenith and pops once she sets her sights on the company’s gorgeously handsome leader, Geoff Carter (Cary Grant, who walks right in as though he he just walked right out of Rudolph Valentino’s closet). But before the night is over, Miss Bonnie Lee finds out this particular sort of life is more than just hard drinking and playing hard: it’s also about dying hard (forgive me, Bruce Willis), as she soon discovers once a routine flight through the treacherous, stormy, rocky mountain pass ‒ a voyage Geoff himself was originally going to take before she poked her pretty nose into the matter ‒ ends in total tragedy. A plane crashes. A pilot dies.
The lesson learned, Carter and Co. resort to another night of reckless overindulgence at the bar (the term “Irish wake” had apparently not yet been coined yet), much to Bonnie’s shock and horror. And that’s just the first (perfect) act of a motion picture that has not lost its ability to engulf viewers over the years. For even though everything has changed so much since then, nothing quite sets the stage like good old fashioned storytelling delivered by a team of highly capable actors. Thomas Mitchell (in a role he must have been born to play) is Grant’s faithful mechanic, who has a blood feud against replacement pilot Richard Barthelmess (one of many actors to not make a successful transition from silent film to “the talkies”), who arrives to fill the shoes of the recently deceased, with Grant’s ex-lover Rita Hayworth as his bride!
Ultimately, Only Angels Have Wings is the stuff true cinematic drama is made of. Sporting a fine ensemble of supporting performers, ranging from Marx Bros. foil Sig Ruman (in one of his “fullest” roles ever) to even a small (but nevertheless slightly noticeable) part by regular Three Stooges nemesis Vernon Dent (it was a Columbia Pictures production, after all). The Criterion Collection adds this masterpiece to their catalogue with a 1080p AVC-encoded transfer that is positively stellar beyond words. The immaculately illuminated photoplay’s contrast betwixt black and white is represented in full form here, via a beautiful presentation that, just like the feature itself, never disappoints. An LPCM 1.0 English audio track is, likewise, just as perfect, and is accompanied by optional English (SDH) subtitles.
In terms of bonus materials, Criterion’s release of Only Angels Have Wings includes a fine gathering of goodies for fans (new and old alike) to soar into the air above with. First off is the original theatrical trailer, which looks like it has been to hell and back, but is presented in High-Definition just the same. Next up are two new featurettes ‒ the first with critic David Thomson, the second with Craig Barron and Ben Burtt ‒ the latter of which appears to have been ported over from the 2014 TCM Vault Collection Blu-ray release of the film. An original Lux Radio Theatre presentation of Howard Hawks’ tale is included as an archival audio extra. Hosted by filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, the hour-long radio adaptation features original stars Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Richard Barthelmess, Rita Hayworth, Thomas Mitchell, Victor Kilian, Don “Red” Barry, and Noah Beery Jr.
Finally, Criterion’s must-have release sports an archival audio interview with the late Howard Hawks (who received his own wings in 1977), as conducted by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich. A booklet included with the packaging hosts a foldout essay on the film by Michael Sragow, and is entitled, appropriately, “Hawks’ Genius Takes Flight.” Of course, you can read all about it after you’ve seen this perfect picture for yourself. Once that poor person you so begrudgingly disacknowledge the very existence of (since you’re too damn busy taking selfies of yourself prancing about in your underwear) delivers it to you, that is.