Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

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Flying Down To Rio

Only Angels Have Wings is the culmination of the 1930’s aviation pictures (and boy there were a lot of them), helmed by director Howard Hawks who previously directed The Dawn Patrol and Ceiling Zero and even features the casting of Richard Barthelmess, star of such flying pictures The Dawn Patrol, The Last Flight and Central Airport. With World War II on the horizon this genre would never be the same again. Like in The Dawn Patrol, the pilots in Only Angels Have Wings have methods of dealing with reality as the film really examines the psychology of early aviators and the danger they went through to get the job done; Hawks called Only Angels Have Wings the truest film he ever made. Why do flyers do what they do? As Kid (Thomas Mitchell) puts it, “I couldn’t give you an answer that’d make sense”.

The first 30 minutes of the movie takes place in real time in what is my favourite section of the film in which a whole host of emotions are presented with a short period of time; a real piece of film magic. As we are introduced to the cast and become attached to pilot Joe Souther (Noah Beery Jr.) as he and his buddy become friends with an American tourist Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) only for him to be killed in a flying accidents moments later when he’s called on short notice to deliver mail. Death is such a normal occurrence that the squadron leader Geoff (Cary Grant) has no problem eating the steak ordered by Joe prior to his death only moments ago while the pilots even sarcastically ask each other “who’s Joe?” when Bonnie questions them on their ability to carry on like nothing happened; a denial of reality in order to deal with reality. Just how healthy is that? Well as Bonnie puts it, “All my life I’ve hated funerals, the fuss and bother never brings anyone back, just spoils remembering them as they really are”. This 30-minute section of the film successfully goes from one emotion to the polar opposite from joy to tragedy and back to joy again. I still, however, can’t find myself fully engaging in the joy of Jean Arthur and Cary Grant playing the piano knowing one of their flying comrades just died a horrible death. Likewise, at the beginning of the film, we also see an interesting method of getting free drinks from a bar if you’re friendly with the owner; I must try that one out sometime.

Jean Arthur’s role of Bonnie Lee, a lone adventuress from Brooklyn is a change of pace for the actress as she leaves her usual urban dwellings. Arthur differs from other Hawksain women due to her absence of sex appeal, she’s simply not that kind of an actress but rather more inherently innocent and sweet hearted. Hawks wanted Arthur to play Bonnie subtly sexy way with Arthur stating, “I can’t do that kind of stuff”. The scene in which she invades Geoff’s room in order to take a bath was never going to be Clark Gable or Jean Harlow in Red Dust with Arthur playing the role, resulting in a scene which is playful without being flirty of sexual. Just listen to her as speaks of how “It’s so cold and rainy outside and nice and warm and cosy in here” – it couldn’t be delivered in a more innocent manner. I feel Jean Arthur represents the way young boys will innocently feel about women before hitting puberty.

I feel the rest of the film doesn’t reach the emotional heights which the first forty minutes accomplished partially due to the lack of the Jean Arthur touch with her being absent for lengthy portions of the film but it is still blessed with a great cast of players. Cary Grant plays a Clark Gable type role, a no-nonsense leader under extraneous pressure in the part of Geoff Carter while silent era star Richard Barthelmess uses his greatly expressive face which carries the baggage of his character. Plus what’s a Hollywood movie from the 30’s without a central to east European comic relief character in the form of Sig Ruman. The one cast member who doesn’t do anything for me is Rita Hayworth whom I’ve never particularly been a big fan off but there is still the bizarre amusement of Grant pouring water over her hair.

Only Angels Have Wings even opens up the potential to be The Wages of Fear of the air when Barthelmess is required to transport nitroglycerine by plane but the movie doesn’t take this far creating a missed opportunity. Regardless the aerial footage of the plans is an impressive sight with long uncut shots as the camera moves along with the aircraft. The film doesn’t identify what country the story takes place, however, I like when classic films leave details like that ambiguous; let your imagination fill in the blanks.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It Happened One Christmas

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Why yes I do cry like a baby over it’s a Wonderful Life: every time. That ending is such a huge release after such as a dark and depressing alternative reality. I’m always left shaken up by it and need a break before I can watch another movie as well as making me want to make amends with loved ones. I’m sure everyone who watched It’s a Wonderful Life thinks to themselves what the world would be like if they were never born. The struggle of George Bailey is relatable to a wide spectrum, and I know for myself it really hits home. Being stuck in a dead-end town and feeling you will bust if you don’t get away from it; having your life not going the way you intended it to while your siblings appear to be doing so much better than you. But in at the end George Bailey realises what he’s got when it’s all gone, above it all, God’s greatest gift. It’s a Wonderful Life takes placed in a world in which God exists (and can focus his time on this one person over the rest of the world, but I digress). I’ve never felt however for It’s a Wonderful Life to have a religious agenda, it’s merely just a plot device for the film’s fantasy elements.

Lionel Barrymore’s performance as Henry F. Potter I feel is a tie between his brother John’s roles in Twentieth Century as the best performance from the Barrymore clan. Potter is one of the biggest douche bags in movie history; the archetype evil business mogul and ripe for comparisons with real-life figures. Not only has he no charitable side, he directly steals money in order to destroy his competition. Unlike other screen villains, Potter does not get any comeuppance at the end of the film, although you could say he’s destiny as a sick, frustrated and lonely man who hates anyone that has anything he can’t have is punishment enough. Potter isn’t a total caricature though, he is more three dimensional than that. He’s a man who knows how to conduct and run a business and understands that high ideals without common sense could ruin a town. But George Bailey is no fool, he is a natural born leader, even if he doesn’t realise it. He stands up to Potter without giving it a second thought, runs a building and loan which is a real estate empire itself; even his father states to him that he was born older than his brother.

Moments like the makeshift honeymoon suite in the broken down house which they later make their own or the recurring gag with the mantle at the end of the stairway represents the kind of writing which elevates It’s a Wonderful Life above the majority of other movies. Like the greatest of films, you notice something new on every viewing. Likewise, nobody can do moments of intimacy like Frank Capra, the movie is full of scenes in which it is simply two actors talking with no background music, yet creates raw human emotions like no other. Take a scene such as George and Mary walking through a neighbourhood at night while George talks about his ambitions for the future, the rest of the world ceases to exist. Many will be quick to put down Capra’s work as so-called “Capracorn” or as Potter puts it, “sentimental hogwash”. Get off your high horse and stop thinking you’re above such emotion – cinema is about the manipulation of emotions.

It’s hard not to feel sentimental for the representation of small-town America on display. Bedford Falls itself is a town full of interesting and unique characters. It actually reminds me of The Simpsons. Potter himself is essentially the town’s own Mr. Burns in The Simpsons – the people of Springfield hate Burns but are dependent on him for their energy needs. Likewise, the people of Bedford Falls hate Potter and would be dependent on him for their housing if it wasn’t for the competition of the Bailey Building & Loan.

Due to its public domain status, the film was shown on some TV networks in 24-hour marathons. I’d happily watch one of those networks as I can’t stop watching It’s a Wonderful Life no matter what point in the movie I begin. Could you get a more perfect marriage between actor and director than James Stewart and Frank Capra? Collaborating on a perfect trilogy of films, with each one better than the last. It’s a Wonderful Life? It sure is.

Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

Fifty Shades Of Screwball

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Theodora Goes Wild was released two years into Hollywood’s production code and yet the entire premise of the movie is one huge “how did they get away with that?!”. Only The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire and The Moon Is Blue perhaps out do it in terms of most pre-code post-code films. A film with a heroine who writes risqué novels and rebels against her ultraconservative, God-fearing, Helen Lovejoy type aunts who deem it their obligation to keep the fictional town of Lynnfield, Connecticut (yet another screwball comedy set in the state) the one last pure, God-fearing town in America. Moral puritans who try to ruin everyone else’s fun and claim to speak for a larger group- every generation has them. Theodora Goes Wild proceeds with an ending in which the once silent majority Lynnfield show their true colours. – This movie hasn’t lost an ounce of relevance for today’s world.

The scene at the beginning of Theodora Goes Wild in which the local literary group read passages from the latest “scandalous” novel from author Caroline Adams really is jaw-dropping. However, the local newspaper run by Thomas Mitchell starts printing a serialization of the scandalous bestseller in an effort to show the town how people live, love and learn in the real world. Little do they know Caroline Adams is their own Theodora Lynn, a Sunday school teacher who’s been playing the church organ since she was 15. Under the rules of the Production Code, a character must receive a punishment for their so-called “immoral” actions. Not here though! Despite Theodora rebelling against her God-fearing upbringing, she receives no punishment. Whoever said old movies are stuffy and the dreaded “O” word, outdated?

Despite writing highly successful adult novels, Theodora’s conscious still objects to it and thus requires a bit of Melvyn Douglas as Michael Grant to ignite Theodora’s sexual awakening after he seduces her while wearing a vest as his only piece of torso. Despite neither of these two performers being sex symbols, it’s surprising how steamy this scene comes off. Melvyn Douglas plays a potentially creepy stalker but is charming enough and carefree to a comic degree that he gets away with it. The man has adapt comedic timing (I never tire of that whistling of his) and it’s easy to see why Douglas was one of the most reliable male co-stars of the time. However what succeeds in making him a more interesting character is the discovery that Michael is actually just as repressed as Theodora due to being enslaved in a hateful marriage on behalf of his father’s political livelihood. Once Michael liberates Theodora from her small town way of life she returns the favour and liberates him from his New York, bourgeois decorum.

Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

If anyone asks me why James Stewart is my favourite actor I just say watch the final scene of Mr Smith Goes to Washington. The final scene of this movie is simply of the greatest things I have ever witnessed in any film ever. That may sound like a hyperbole but I’ll never forget the very exact feeling of goosebumps I had when first watching it. Mr Smith Goes to Washington is one of a small handful of films I would call life-changing, one of the films which helped to mold the way I think and ultimately turn me into the person I am today. It encouraged me to be more skeptical, not to believe everything you here and stand for what you believe despite great opposition. It’s thanks to films like these why cinema is my bible. As much however as Capra is criticised for his films being overly idealist, Mr Smith Goes to Washington does not exactly paint the most glowing picture of the American political system. To quote Thomas Paine (Claude Raines), “The duty of a true patriot is to protect his country from its government”.

One of my favourite scenes in Mr Smith is that in which Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) attempt to explain to Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) the entire procedure of creating a bill and submitting it to Congress. For starters, the scene is incredibly funny with the comedic timing and Stewart’s childlike reactions. Secondly, it’s a very informative civics lesson and thirdly, this scene shows us how Jefferson Smith acts of the film’s ambassador the for the average Joe watching film who’s just as confounded by Sauder’s lecture as Smith is. The scene lays out in an entertaining manner the political hoo-ha for the politically lay; my knowledge on politics was very limited when I first watched Mr Smith Goes to Washington but that wasn’t a barrier to being engrossed in the film’s state of affairs.

This is as good an opportunity as any to raise the question, why is Jean Arthur such a forgotten actress? Despite working with several big-name directors, co-starring with famous actors and appearing in a number of beloved classics, her presence is incredibly overlooked as the definitive urbanite career woman with her wit, warmth, and innocence. Also, that voice! Her role as Saunders is the opposite of Mr Smith. She is cynical, jaded and knows the ins and outs of the system with its corruption and cronyism. It takes Smith, the Americaphille who appears to know more about American history than the people working in Washington to restore faith in her with his childlike optimism and perseverance.

Along with the attack on the American political system, Mr Smith Goes to Washington is just as harsh with its portrayal of the press as a pack of ravenous vultures. The scene in which Smith confronts the reporters in a bar is truly shocking as they flat up tell him about their lack of journalistic ethics as reality hits Smith like a ton of bricks (also among the crowd of reporters if Jack Carson, always a scene-stealer). I just have to question the morals on the part of Smith prior to this scene in which he literally goes around punching reporters in the face although it could be argued this was more of a social norm back then between men.

Another striking monologue is that in which Smith’s mentor Thomas Paine justifies corruption as a comprise in order to achieve good deeds, a process which has existed since the birth democracy as he puts it. As convincing as he might sound at first, through the course of the film you can tell he’s a man who knows he’s sold out on is ideals partially from the complete look of shame which bestows Claude Rains’ face. Even at the beginning of the film just look at the reaction of Paine’s face when Smith declares “Dad used to tell me Joe Paine was the finest man there ever was”.

The relationship between Paine and the business mogul James Taylor (Edward Arnold) is like that of The Emperor and Darth Vader. Taylor hovers above Paine only for his conscious to be put to the ultimate test by the end of the film. Taylor’s ability to control the media of Smith’s home state and preventing any of his words from the Senate reaching the state is frightening. I can just be glad that in the age of the internet and mass communication that such control of the narrative isn’t as easy as it once was.

Mr Smith Goes to Washington is very snappy and faced paced; with the culmination of some of Hollywood’s finest character, acting talent helps carry the exposition in an entertaining and at times screwball like manner. The final 30 minutes of the film in which Smith filibusters is one of the greatest things ever caught on celluloid with its immense hair-raising build up to an exhausted, out of breath James Stewart declaring that he will fight for this lost cause, even if this room gets filled with lies like these!

Like other political films to arise from classic Hollywood, no party is mentioned during the film nor do we know what state Smith is from and which he fights so hard for. Those on the modern right could see Mr Smith as a little guy standing up against big government and the Washington elites. By contrast, those on the left can view Smith as a rebel fighting against corporate, capitalist fat cats like James Taylor. Independents could see Smith as someone who stood alone without backing from any party to fight for his beliefs. Like many of Capra’s films, Mr Smith Goes to Washington is hard to place on the political spectrum. Anyone can see what they want to within the film which is part of its enduring power.  Really, if I ever met someone in elected office, I will be asking them if they have seen this film. Mr Capra and Mr Stewart, thank you for this film.