Hawks, Ford, and Wilder: Only Angels Have Wings

Another little temporary series here. Nothing too fancy – mostly an excuse for me to catch up on some films I haven’t seen or haven’t seen in a while. We’ll be looking at three classical Hollywood filmmakers over time: Howard Hawks, John Ford, and Billy Wilder, visiting each once in the annus mirabilis of classical cinema, 1939, when they were all still (relatively) young, again in the late ’40s and early ’50s at the middle of their careers (and the middle of classical Hollywood’s career), and finally when things were waning for each director and for classical Hollywood in general in the early ’60s, before the new school American New Wave would wreck up the joint. 

By director standards, Howard Hawks is a peculiar case. By auteur standards, we only mount the confusion further still (and Hawks, by matter of fact, is definitionally one of the great auteurs, as he was one of the test-case directors used for the formation of the auteur theory by the French New Wave). Then again, an auteurist approach is perhaps best for Howard Hawks, a man who would have probably bemoaned auteur theory down to the core, owing primarily to his studio workhorse demeanor as a person. He was a man who made films sharply and quickly, a director who preferred to do as he was told while also quietly tackling his personal fixations within the bounds of the studio film.

A fact that only makes the similarities in his films all the more notable. Sure, we all know what a “John Ford” film entails, for John Ford practically invited us to view every one of his films first and foremost as a John Ford film, a film that was invested in the myth of the West, the myth of John Ford films, and the intersectionalities of the two. His lush, often modernist romanticism bleeds through in all his films, staking out a corpus where-in each piece was one portion of a larger whole thoroughly smitten with the tensions inherent to viewing filmic versions of the Old West as realistic or accurate depictions of the world.

But a Hawks film? A film by a man who directed gangster pictures, hard-boiled film noirs, adventures, Westerns, romantic comedies, broad comedies, war films, and science fiction pictures? How do you find a link between the films of a man who was so willing to filter his interests through the needs of the prismatic Hollywood corporations he respected, or at least accepted, far more than his fellow auteurs from the time period? Because of this, whatever thematic and stylistic throughlines could survive through the bedlam of genre-independent filmmaking must be all the more tied to the director. After all, it is easy to connect two Westerns; that doesn’t necessarily mean the director of those two films shaped them to be similar, but simply that Westerns are often similar to one another. But notice the uncommon symmetry in the violently democratic, combatively interpersonal overlapping speech of His Girl Friday and Scarface, two films which are otherwise not remotely similar at first glance, and you’ve probably got something to your “Howard Hawks films constitute certain stylistic touches and themes regardless of genre” argument.

It is thus that 1939 bears the emergence of Hawks as a wildly personal director just as much as it bears the emergence of the likes of John Ford or Billy Wilder (albeit not in the director’s chair), although Hawks’ film certainly is the craftiest and least vocal about how strong a resemblance it bears to his future work. The structural tale bears little relation, outside of the broad strokes of “a romance featuring the dulcet snare of Cary Grant”, to Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday, except of course its ruthless cacophony of dialogue, acerbic and tragic and entirely brutal in its violent collision of human voices, used as much for their sound as their meaning, pining to interrupt and overdo one another.

In this tale, Bonnie (Jean Arthur) arrives in Colombia in wait for a boat to leave with her on it, when she comes upon a mail delivery service headed by Geoff (Cary Grant) short one flier. Trouble is, the service recklessly flies over the perilous peaks of the Andes mountains, and a hotshot pilot Bat Macpherson (Richard Barthelmess) and his wife Judy (Rita Hayworth) arrive much to Geoff’s disdain with the potential to fill that gap. Bat is an enemy to the company because he bailed out of a plane mid-crash, leaving his mechanic, whose brother Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell) flies with Geoff’s company, to die. Reluctantly, and with the knowledge that Bat will fly only on the most dangerous, deranged of flights, Geoff agrees to hire him.

A romance of sorts unfolds, but not a meaningfully comic one, and even by her own admission, Bonnie “might as well be another fellow”, trading barbs in Hawks’ quintessential “post-feminist” mode where romance bleeds into combative male camaraderie. A mode where so much human space is taken up by the mouth that there isn’t much time to meaningfully interrogate the rest of the body to know what gender the mouth belongs to anyway. Bonnie’s tough-talking ways probably aren’t as meaningful a statement on gender as the somewhat apolitical Hawks probably thought they were, but the vocal barbs add to the alert, high-flying liveliness of the film, kept endlessly moving thanks to a whip-smart script by newspaperman Jules Furtham (with input from Hawks). This is a screenplay with no time for dillying or dallying, and endless room for melding exposition and character development with adventure and action and borrowing a newspaper’s blunt factualism for its harrowing treatment of the helter-skelter expediency and danger of life as a flying expert.

Hawks is more famous, certainly, for his barbed dialogue and cantankerous interpretation of sound in his film (the use of off-screen sound is startling and abrasively suspenseful, especially when the sputter of an engine turns into a wail before immanent demise). But Hawks was also a busy visual craftsman, and with the aid of cinematographers Joseph Walker and Paul Mantz, the Andes Mountains become a huskily molasses-thick, fog-filled, unknowable region that is matched in its arcane mystery only by its tactile clarity and venomous physicality. It is a luminous movie location of the classical Hollywood tradition, entirely dangerous and mystical and wondrous such that we can see the deranged high Geoff and friends receive only through flight, but also unforgiving and hostile such that we know full well that these men really are risking their lives every day.

And for what? Pointedly, Hawks doesn’t much have an answer. He hints, surely, and so does Grant, who infuses Geoff with a cunning playboy charm amidst a businesslike candor, locating a man who knows full well he is sending his friends out to die and largely addressing this fact like every other man on the team does: hiding it from himself and drowning it in commitment to the job and pithy, friendly banter. Angels is a variation on the classical Hollywood adventure, but its sense of play is undercut by an empathetic air of malaise and bitter tragedy, a sense of hopelessness where-in the only way to emotionally survive is to construct an air of adventure to soothe your mental state. Thus, all the hectic, occupied qualities of the film – with people endlessly talking and the plot endlessly doubling-down on difficulty – becomes a salve for the characters. It is as if they have to keep busy to hide their oncoming deaths from each other. In the moments where they bother to slow down they cede themselves to the knowledge of their mortality.

Like many of Hawks’ great films (and specifically his later-coming films), it is a study in how human beings cope with danger and bottle up discontent. Not unlike how the surrounded, entombed Western gunmen of Rio Bravo reacted to their strangulation not with rage or fire but with chill, lazy-day conversations to bide their time and enjoy the ride, perhaps to hide the oncoming danger from themselves so they only had to address it at the last moment. It is a study, specifically, in how we talk to avoid rather than confront our problems, and how endless action is not necessarily a purpose, but a distraction. Orson Welles once noted that “Hawks was great prose” and Ford was “poetry”. But its prose is a critique of prose, a critique of how we use prose to obfuscate and to understand in equal measure, because sometimes, obfuscation is all we have to understand something so unforgiving it defies conventional wisdom.

Score: 10/10

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