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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt Pratt@moviecitynews.com

DVD Geek: Only Angels Have Wings

So much happens in Howard Hawks’ 121-minute Only Angels Have Wings that it would be easy to overlook the outstanding production design in the opening scene: a boat arrives at a South American port to drop passengers and mail, and pick up bananas. Other than introducing a couple of characters, the segment seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the film, set at an airfield on the other side of town, as well in the air itself.  The production design is impressive there, too, integrating believable models with flying sequences, to the point where you can’t always tell what is shot practically and what was not.  ut the opening scene, as the ship negotiates the dock, teeming with workers and merchants, is a testament to how great the film is when you’ve forgotten it by the time the movie ends. Every element is impressive, and we’re only at the opening chord.

Our heroes have one more week to ‘earn a mail contract,’ and a pretty disastrous week it will be, with pilots dying and planes coming apart. But that is what great entertainment does, squeeze a lifetime’s worth of adventure into an afternoon’s interlude. Jean Arthur or Cary Grant stars, depending upon what perspective you want to take on the action and drama. Arthur’s character, fresh off the ship and not intending to stay, finds herself caught up in the camaraderie and intensity of the flyers’ world, and despite her intentions, but inevitably from the history of motion pictures, she falls for Grant’s character, the boss of the outfit. Grant’s character is intent upon getting the mail contract, not for the wealth it represents, but because he feels it is his responsibility to support the livelihood of his co-workers. He’s attracted to Arthur’s character primarily because she is more intelligent and anchored than the women he is used to being involved with, but his closest relationship is with his partner, played by Thomas Mitchell, who is, in essence, Arthur’s principal rival. And then? Rita Hayworth sashays into the film.

A classic production from the greatest year of classic American movies, 1939, the action scenes are terrific, not only because of realistic special effects, but because the editing is precise in its suspense, and the dramatic sequences are equally dazzling, with Hawks’ legendary overlapping dialog and complex yet organic character blocking. Criterion’s blu-ray release is spotless, and exchanges the softness of earlier DVDs for the texture of projected celluloid. The fog in the film’s fog sequences no longer looks phony, and you are absorbed by the movie’s images, regardless of how dark and stormy the environment becomes. The mono soundtrack is also stronger and crisper, with the film’s sound editing standing out. There are optional English subtitles, a trailer, a very good 17-minute analysis of the film’s artists and artistry by David Thomson, and a fascinating 21-minute piece about airplanes in Hawks’ movies and early aviation, along with some terrific original behind-the-scenes footage and a thorough analysis of how the flying sequences were achieved.

Peter Bogdanovich’s interviews with the famous film directors are always interesting—and valuable, now that they aren’t around any more—but the directors are often catty when discussing intentions or handling thematic queries.  But Hawks nswers every question Bogdanovich pitches his way in an excellent 20-minute audio-only interview clip, explaining how the film reflected his experiences working in planes during World War I, what it was like working with the individual actors and actresses (when Hayworth, who was just starting out, had trouble crying, he set the scene in a rainstorm so no one would notice), and more information on how they staged the flying sequences.

It is difficult to catch what has been cut in the excellent 57-minute abridgment presented as a radio play on Lux Radio Theatre in 1939, which has also been included on the BD. All of the principal cast members are on hand, and even Alan Ladd, before he became a star, has a couple of lines. Grant, as usual, is not as into it as the others, but Arthur is terrific and the program does quite a good job of conveying the story’s action while exploring its various themes about emotional bonding and responsibility. There is also, during an intermission, an excellent report about the first commercial flight across the Atlantic, which occurred shortly before the broadcast, as well as the usual plugs for Lux soap.

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