Only Angels Have Wings (1939): Howard Hawks Enjoyable Adventure, Starring Cary Grant and Jean Arthur

One of Hawks’ finest and most enjoyable films, Only Angels Have Wings is romantic adventure, starring Cary Grant and Jean Arthur, based on story written by Hawks.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

Only Angels Have Wings
Only Angels Have Wings (1939 poster).jpg

Theatrical release poster

Narrative Structure:

Grant plays Geoff Carter, the head pilot and manager of Barranca Airways, a small company owned by “Dutchy” Van Ruyter (Sig Ruman) carrying airmail from the fictional South American port town of Barranca through a high pass in the Andes Mountains.

Jean Arthur is Bonnie Lee, a piano-playing entertainer who arrives on a banana boat. Bonnie becomes infatuated with Geoff, despite his fatalistic attitude about the dangerous flying, and stays on in Barranca.

The situation is further complicated by the arrival of pilot Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess) and his wife (and Geoff’s old flame) Judy (Rita Hayworth).

McPherson cannot find work in the U.S. because he had bailed out of an airplane, leaving his mechanic — the brother of “Kid” Dabb (Thomas Mitchell), Carter’s best friend — to die in the crash. Forced to ground the Kid because of failing eyesight, Geoff he hires MacPherson for the most dangerous assignments.

In the end, torn between leaving and staying, Bonnie confronts Geoff, hoping he will ask her to stay. However, Geoff does not. Then, with mere hours to spare on the trial period, the weather clears and Geoff rushes off to secure an important contract. Before he goes, he offers to toss a coin, heads, she stays, tails, she leaves.

As he leaves, Geoff gives her the coin as a “souvenir,” and she discovers the coin has heads on both sides.

Only Angels Have Wings was based on real incidents witnessed by Hawks, and although Air Mail (1932), Night Flight (1933), Ceiling Zero (1936, also directed by Hawks) and Flight from Glory (1937) have similar stories, they are not related.

It marked the first major film for Rita Hayworth, who would become a major star in the 1940s.

The film is notable for its portrayal of the pilots’ professionalism, its atmosphere, and flying sequences.

Critical Status:

In 2017, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”


Cary Grant as Geoff Carter
Jean Arthur as Bonnie Lee
Richard Barthelmess as Bat MacPherson
Rita Hayworth as Judy MacPherson
Thomas Mitchell as “Kid” Dabb
Allyn Joslyn as Les Peters
Sig Ruman as John “Dutchy” Van Ruyter
Victor Kilian as “Sparks” Reynolds
John Carroll as “Gent” Shelton
Don Barry as “Tex” Gordon
Noah Beery Jr. as Joe Souther


Directed by Howard Hawks
Screenplay by Jules Furthman
Music by Dimitri Tiomkin
Cinematography Joseph Walker
Edited by Viola Lawrence
Production and distribution: Columbia Pictures

Release date: May 15, 1939

Running time: 121 minutes