Blog Archive

19 February 2015

The Look: Richard Barthelmess in Only Angels Have Wings

After having been away from the screen for three years, Richard Barthelmess' first film on his return was Only Angels Have Wings, an action packed but also deeply emotional drama of a group of transport pilots operating in a remote spot in the Andes, directed by his old friend and supporter -- and fellow pilot -- Howard Hawks. This is generally agreed to be one of Hawks finest film, if not the finest. Indeed, every scene is so rich with meaning that it bears a great deal of re-watching; every time you see it you notice something new.

The performances are all superb, from Cary Grant, as the hard as nails (or is he?) supervisor of the private air freight business, to a brief but noticeable turn by Noah Beery Jr. as the first pilot we see lose his battle with the exceptionally difficult terrain. The movie is largely concerned with the romance between Geoff, Cary Grant's hard-bitten boss and Jean Arthur's stranded showgirl, Bonnie, and the struggle of the pilots to keep their business going. Barthelmess is Bat McPherson, a replacement pilot who arrives at Barranca with his young wife Judy (played by Rita Hayworth in one of her first significant acting roles) in tow.

Allyn Joclyn, Richard Barthelmess, and Cary Grant
 As soon as they get off the boat it becomes clear that both of them have issues with others in the station. McPherson once bailed out in an emergency leaving his mechanic to die in a plane crash. Ever since, he's been wandering from place to place, picking up odd jobs,  shunned by the community of pilots. The mechanic was the brother of Jeff's best friend, called the Kid (Thomas Mitchell). And Judy, as it turns out, was the woman who broke Geoff's heart. Neither one knows this about the other,

Bat doggedly seeks out the most dangerous assignments, despite being cold-shouldered by the other pilots. It becomes clear that he is the best pilot they have, but his past transgression still makes him a pariah. Judy tries to get Geoff, an old flame, to tell her what it's about, but he won't. (The man's man's code may include shunning a wrongdoer, but it certainly does not include tattling to his wife!) The role demands that Bat be an object of pity -- for what could be worse, in Hawksworld, than to be excluded from the comradeship of other men? -- but the gravity of his sin means that he must never ask for sympathy. Barthelmess plays him as a man walking a razor's edge, bitterly aware of his failure, and determined to show that he can take whatever they dish out without comment or complaint.

At the same time, known only to Geoff and Dutchy (Sig Rumann), the owner of the airline, they desperately need to make a certain number of flights in order to fulfill a contract, or the whole operation will go bust. Finally they are down to the last mission, which must be completed by the next day. Not only is the weather dangerously unstable, but at the last minute Bonnie accidentally shoots Geoff (!). Bat volunteers immediately, and the Kid goes along to navigate -- he hates Bat, but he loves Geoff more. But the flight proves to be impossible to complete, and on the way back the plane is struck by a giant condor, seriously injuring the Kid. Two of the plane's three engines catch fire, but Bat refuses to bail out crash lands the burning plane on the field at Barranca. 

Thomas Mitchell as the Kid, and Richard Barthelmess as Bat
Bat himself suffers burns -- but the Kid's neck is broken. He is dying. There follows a  wrenching scene, movingly played by Grant and the great Thomas Mitchell. It is wrenching because it's unsentimental -- the Kid simply asks to be left alone to die, which they all know will not take long. He also makes a point of praising Bat's actions. They say their goodbyes, and leave him alone. Geoff silently leaves the room and lingers for a moment outside, smoking in the rain, knowing he'll never see his friend again. Grant brilliantly shows both the depth of his pain, and the impossibility of his ever sharing it with anyone. He's not that kind of man.

The next scene is in the bar, where the denizens of the station are sadly gathered, to the accompaniment of a wistful Spanish song. Bat, his hands bandaged, comes in with Judy. The Kid had asked Geoff to buy him a drink. One by one, to Bat's carefully concealed surprise, the other pilots gather to help him light a cigarette and assist him with his glass.

This scene is why Hawks wanted Barthelmess for this role, and why he took it. The dialog is commonplace; the pilots' reconciliation with their outcast comrade is unspoken. But it's perfectly plain. And his half-disbelieving joy is also wordless -- everything is summed up in a look. It's a look so rich in meaning, so deep, so intense, that only a great actor could produce it. 

Cary Grant, Allyn Joslyn, John Carroll, Richard Barthelmess, Jean Arthur, and Rita Hayworth*

As with most Hawks film, the men's love story is almost more important than the male/female love story. So the end of this movie has three satisfying conclusions -- Bat and his comrades, Geoff and Bonnie, and Bat and Judy.

Most of the reviews for this film were extremely positive upon its release (and it has only grown in stature since then). It turned into a smash hit. Barthelmess also received excellent personal notices, with some reviewers reporting that his first entrance won a round of applause in packed theaters. This must have been extremely encouraging. His next picture would be a classic courtroom/crime drama, and a new departure for hin -- a bad guy. (See: The Man Who Talked Too Much)

* ADDENDUM TO ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS: One more observation about the depth of this film. In the photo above, showing the outcast Bat being taken back into the fold -- look at the other actors in the background, John Carroll and Allyn Joslyn.  These are the other pilots, and they know how great the boon they're granting Bat is. They know how happy he is, at last. And they know he'll never mention it or show it again. This is what I mean by depth; you could easily miss this on first viewing.

No comments:

Post a Comment

(Feel free to add your comments!)