“Joe? Who’s Joe?”

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Only Angels Have Wings: In an ironic way, the title summarises its film fittingly. Howard Hawks supposedly took the title from a Victor Fleming film about aviators, in which a popular love song is sung with the line ‘If I had the wings of an angel’. Hawks’ aviators are certainly no angels, but flawed human beings, hoping for the best in their glue-patched airplanes, battling bad weather conditions. Jean Arthur is excited when she sees an airplane early on, searching for an apt comparison, only to be interrupted by Cary Grant; “A great, big, beautiful bird? (…) A bird would have too much sense to fly in that kinda muck!” No, Arthur meant a flying human being. It reminds one of Icarus, who in the Greek myth reached the sky with his constructed wings, only to fall down because he flew too close to the sun. It is Icarian daredevilry, as it turns out a few minutes later, when this ‘flying human being’ makes a fatal crash. Only angels have wings…

Of course, this accident won’t stop Grant and his aviators from trying. They run a postal airline in a South American port, near mountains where weather conditions are their worst enemies. Less than optimal circumstances are part of the job, but in this tough men’s world, that won’t stop anyone from provoking fate as Icarus did. Those people deal with fate as if it is something that can be tricked and outwitted. Odds and evens decide who is to fly that night in the opening sequence, and who is to have dinner with the new kid on the block, Jean Arthur. Aviator Joe makes skilful use of the knowledge that his colleague always chooses odds, only to be overruled by Grant. In a twist of fate he decides that although Joe may have dinner with Jean, he should fly beforehand. This results in reckless flying, that costs him his life. There is also this coin with heads on both sides, that turns out to have cost Grant a lot of drinks in the past, but is now used to decide over weighty matters. The final scene almost satirises this fate tempting attitude, as Grant uses it to express his feelings for Jean.

Those methods to manipulate fate show that those aviators do not lack awareness of their fate. Death is lurking, and they all have lost colleagues in the past. This feeling is most boldly expressed by Grant, who tells Arthur that his girlfriend once hoped that he would crash, so the inevitable would have been done with. Or more eloquently expressed by the doctor’s Shakespearian paraphrase: “A man can die but once, we owe God a death; you could pay it today, we don’t owe it tomorrow”.

The future is therefore something that is rather not thought much about. Grant explains his lack of matches by declaring he never lays a supply of anything. The same goes for his perished colleagues, who leave behind no more than a handful of belongings. It shows they don’t have much of a past either. Grant isn’t able to show Jean pictures of his past, and can’t remember where he met the Puerto Rican women who enthusiastically greet him. It is suggested he has had a lot of girlfriends (‘When it rains, every third drop falls on one of them.’), but a relationship implies a future, and he is simply unable to think and live in these terms.

Nowadays we may find Grant’s motto ‘No looking ahead; no tomorrows, just today’, refreshingly Buddhist. In a way it is: usually films focus on events that characters have to face in the future, and have a cause in the past. Grant challenges such a focus, but Arthur is a bit put off by his attitude. She wants to know about Grant’s past, and tries to convince him of a future together.

Only Angels Have Wings

In romantic drama, it is usually the man that has to change in order to make for a romantic fit, so it is Grant that has to let go of his rejection to look further ahead in life. Although it remains ambiguous if he really will be able to make this turn, he seems to over think his way of life on certain moments. The look on Grants face when the dead aviator’s belongings are left on the bar, tells us that he is aware it is not much of a heritage that is left behind. His cruel reaction to the death of Joe seems somewhat forced, as if he is trying to drown out his doubts.

This scene, early on in the film, makes for a somewhat bewildering experience nowadays. The scriptwriters have put a lot of effort in the Joe-character, only to have him die within twenty minutes. In this short amount of time, he already became a familiar character to us. So it is almost as shocking for us, as it is to Jean Arthur, to hear the way his colleagues react to his death. Grant is almost angry, about Joe ignoring his orders, resulting in the crash, and calls him ‘mr Wise Guy’. ‘You got just in time for the fireworks’, he growls at Arthur, after which a sarcastic song is sung to ‘honor’ Joe. ‘Joe? Who is Joe?’.

Poor Joe is almost blamed for being dead. It is hard to imagine a similar response these days. It seems death was a very common part of this way of life. Maybe comparable with the lives of troops during war and that of early days grand prix drivers. Howard Hawks used to be an aviator before he became a director, and lost many of his colleagues. The laconic response of Grant and co. must have been influenced by these experiences. The harsh reactions seem like a denial of their mortality, just as the trickery of fate throughout the film seems so. We are simply not familiar anymore with such ways of living, in which one is frequently reminded of one’s mortality. In which tomorrows are highly uncertain and there is ‘just today’. Seeing Only Angels Have Wings nowadays is to experience how the way men deal with mortality has changed throughout the ages.

This Essay article was published in May 2018