Rita Hayworth and Richard Barthelmess Only Angels Have Wings

A Columbia Picture (1939)

Produced and Directed by Howard Hawks

Screenplay by Jules Furthman (uncredited contributors: William Rankin and Eleanore Griffin), from story, "Plane from Barranca,"
by Howard Hawks

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 'Dutchy' Van Reiter
Victor Kilian as Sparks

Gowns by Kalloch

Black and White, 121 mins. running time

Only Angels Have Wings began filming in mid December of 1938. It gave Rita her best opportunity to date. There are contradictory stories as to how Howard Hawks chose her for the role, but what's important is that she got the part, gave a memorable performance, and in doing so crossed the threshold into a new stage in her career. Jean Arthur was the film's female star, and Rita's predecessor as queen of Columbia Pictures. Jean was so struck by Rita's beauty that she did not even want to take studio portraits for the film with her. Not out of resentment -she simply said, "That beautiful girl and me?"

Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) arrives in the South American port city of Barranca for a stopover between ships on her way home to America. There she meets two American aviators for a cargo service, Joe Souther (Noah Beery Jr.) and Les Peters (Allyn Joslyn), who introduce her to their hardboiled boss, Geoff Carter (Cary Grant). Later Geoff opens up to Bonnie and tells her that he'd been in love before, but the girl couldn't stand worrying about him every time he went in the air so she left him. Bonnie quickly falls in love with Geoff but he's hardened to romance. Geoff takes off on a flight and when he returns, to his surprise, Bonnie is still there. She purposely missed the ship home to stay with Geoff. However Bonnie knows she's made a mistake when she realizes he won't let any woman get close to him.

The next day, a new aviator arrives in Barranca, Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess). He turns out to be Bat Kilgallen, a flyer who parachuted out of a plummeting plane once, leaving his mechanic to die. Along with MacPherson is his wife, Judy (Rita Hayworth), who turns out to be the woman that ran out on Geoff. Judy doesn't know about Bat's past, but she becomes suspicious when she sees how the other aviators treat him, and how he is given only the most treacherous flying missions. She searches for answers, but no one will say anything. Finally, when Bat also refuses to tell her, she decides their marriage is over. She tells Geoff her decision and he succeeds in talking sense into her. Realizing Bat's past is so terrible he doesn't even want her to know about it, she decides "I don't ever want to know," and returns to him.

Meanwhile, Bonnie is on a weeklong furlough in Barranca waiting for the next ship to set sail for America. She's in love with Geoff and finds she feels the same way Judy had felt, sick with worry about him during flights. Before long Geoff begins to return Bonnie's love. Later Bat salvages his reputation when he finds himself in the same dreadful situation once again, with the brother of the man he let perish, the Kid (Thomas Mitchell). Their aircraft catches fire during a dangerous flight, but this time Bat does the right thing. He brings down the plane instead of sealing the Kid's fate by bailing out. This takes place the night Bonnie is to sail for America. Geoff can't stand to see her go. He "wouldn't ask any woman to do anything," but he does ask her to stay in his own clever way.

Before this picture, Rita had starred in a string of B minus movies in the Irving Briskin unit for Columbia, that hadn't done much for her career. Only Angels Have Wings was her big chance, with a top director, starring alongside some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Released on May 15, 1939, the film was a great success and convinced Harry Cohn that Rita was a major asset to his studio.

Rita Hayworth and Cary Grant in Only Angels Have Wings
Rita and Cary Grant in a scene from Only Angels Have Wings.

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