WEIRDLAND: Only Angels Have Wings' emotional core and redemption: Jean Arthur

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Only Angels Have Wings' emotional core and redemption: Jean Arthur

Frank Capra's 'Lost Horizon' (1937) headed for an 80th Anniversary Blu-ray Edition this Fall. Celebrate the 80th anniversary of the lavishly produced Frank Capra classic, LOST HORIZON, based on the best-selling novel by James Hilton. Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt star in this unique journey to the enchanted paradise of Shangri-La, where time stands still. Sony is working on 'Lost Horizon: 80th Anniversary Edition' for Blu-ray on October 3. Fully restored in 4K and presented in high definition, the Blu-ray is housed within a lavish, limited edition 24-page Digibook, complete with an all-new essay from film historian Jeremy Arnold and rare archival photos from the film. In addition, as part of the restoration, more than a minute of rarely-seen original footage from the film was found and included, making this the most complete cut of the film in existence. In 2016, the film was selected for inclusion in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." 

According to Frank Capra, the word around Columbia was that Jean Arthur was a bit "cuckoo." But he liked her style-and her voice-and signed her for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) over the objection of Harry Cohn. "Great voice?" Cohn bellowed. "See her face? Half of it's angel, and the other half horse." But Capra fixed the problem, as he did for Claudette Colbert, by making sure his cameraman Joe Walker always shot the actress with her best face forward. It was a move to which Arthur later attributed much of her movie success. When the American Film Institute honored Frank Capra with its Life Achievement Award in 1982, practically all the major living stars Capra had directed, including Bette Davis, Claudette Colbert, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, showed up to pay tribute. But not Jean Arthur. "She's just a hermit," Capra told Tom Shales of the Washington Post. "She doesn't do very well in crowds, and she doesn't do very well with people, and she doesn't do very well with life but she does very well as an actress. She certainly had two sides: the actress, this wonderful actress, and this person, this shy personality that she was in reality."

When movie buffs sought out Capra's films, inevitably they stumbled upon the director's "favorite actress," Jean Arthur. America's "forgotten actress," as one journalist called her on the occasion of her birthday in 1985, could readily be seen in such classics as The Plainsman, Only Angels Have Wings, The Devil and Miss Jones, The More the Merrier and Shane. And her list of leading men: Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Charles Boyer, William Powell, Ronald Colman, John Wayne, Ray Milland, William Holden, Joel McCrea and Alan Ladd.


Becoming Cary Grant (2017) documentary by Mark Kidel draws on an unpublished memoir by Cary Grant, and also dwells on his experiments with LSD in the 1950s. Grant’s LSD experiences were part of a rigorously supervised experiment in cutting-edge Southern California psychotherapy. He would take a tab, once a week, in his therapist’s office, lie down on the couch with a cover over him, and hallucinate his way back into his subconscious self. He found the experience to be frightening, liberating, and healing—“I passed through seas of horrifying and happy sights, through a montage of intense love and hate, a mosaic of past impressions,” Grant wrote. “At last,” he said, “I'm close to happiness.” “Becoming Cary Grant” leaves too many questions unanswered. Grant, who was married five times and was so handsome that Pauline Kael described him as the most pursued male of the 20th century, was a person haunted by the fragility of his romantic temperament. The film includes commentary from his daughter Jennifer Grant, his last wife, Barbara (Harris) Jaynes, longtime friend Judy Balaban and authors David Thomson and Mark Glancy.

“If you haven't seen Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, and Rita Hayworth in Howard Hawks's romantic and exciting 1939 South American flying drama, Only Angels Have Wings, you have not experienced one of the most vibrant, resonant, and deeply entertaining movies ever made.”—Peter Bogdanovich 

In Only Angels Have Wings (1939) Howard Hawks transformed Geoff Carter's “stoicism” into a metaphor for the very type of reserved, nonswaggering macho heroism that young American servicemen would need after America's coming entry into World War II, so much so that the film's signature line of dialogue, “Where's Joe,” would serve as a catchphrase for the wives and mothers of a generation of wartime G.I. Joes. As Peter Bogdanovich rightly points out, this picture transformed Cary Grant from light comedy into the front ranks of Hollywood leading he-men, the first successful action film in which he got the girl—or rather, the girl got him. It was the intricate dynamics of sexual combustion between men and women that preoccupied the poetic engineer Howard Hawks. The screenplay of Only Angels Have Wings has always been viewed as the essence of Jules Furthman in its world-weary romanticism, cynical attitude toward sex, hard-shelled and stoic leading man, and footloose leading lady with a past. One could carp that certain scenes represent a warped, toxic notion of masculinity (not an uncommon criticism of Hawks), but that would require ignoring Geoff’s willingness to give Bonnie what she needs from him even as he makes it appear that he’s withholding it (in order to protect himself from a potentially disastrous surge of vulnerability).

Hawks encountered heavy resistance to his methods from Jean Arthur. Questionable in the role of a vagabond showgirl knocking around Latin America, Frank Capra’s greatest leading lady was simply too wholesome and irrepressibly upbeat to fit comfortably into Hawks’s world. Arthur was not adept at improvising with the quicksilver Grant, and when Hawks would try to direct her to act in the sexy, subtly simmering way that he'd later find in Lauren Bacall, she simply refused, saying, “I can’t do that kind of stuff.” Hawks didn’t hide his disappointment and attributed Arthur's inability to follow his direction to “a quirk.” The film greatly benefited from the romantic optimism Hawks was feeling at the time, as he was just in the initial throes of falling in love with Slim, the most important woman of his life. Howard Hawks eventually had to admit that Jean Arthur was "really good," marveled  at "one of the best love scenes that I've ever seen in a picture. That was beautifully done."

There had been rumors that Arthur was unfriendly to Hayworth during filming, beginning when Arthur refused to stand next to the striking newcomer for publicity stills. Hayworth recalled that Arthur would do a scene, run off to her dressing room and lock herself in. Then Hayworth would do her scene, run back to her own dressing room, and lock herself in. Finally they bumped into each other on the last day of shooting. "You're shy," observed Arthur to the young newcomer. "You are too," Hayworth replied. Rita Hayworth eventually displaced Jean Arthur as queen of the Columbia lot, but she also inherited the title of Harry Cohn's chief whipping girl. Like Jean Arthur before her and Kim Novak after her, Rita Hayworth refused to bend to Cohn's will or to submit to his possessive, bullying tactics. All three actresses had introverted natures that did not respond well to the mogul's gruff manner, but it was Rita Hayworth who suffered the special indignity of constantly having to ward off her boss's blatant sexual advances.

At the start, Carter’s feeling is that women are dangerous, and there is considerable evidence that Bonnie’s mixture of ingenuousness and impulsiveness, however attractive, makes her more dangerous than any girl he may have had in mind in the first place. Carter and Bonnie first become intimate in an argument about the compatibility of male professionalism and female domesticity, and their growing love affair erodes Carter’s code a good deal. Carter gradually subsides in a growing and largely unstated emotional commitment to a girl who is herself rather rootless (she is an unemployed showgirl, daughter of a circus tightrope walker who died from a fall). Each fills a real emotional need in the other. Only Angels Have Wings would inspire adventure TV series Tales of the Gold Monkey (1982) which was set in 1938 in the South Pacific, about an ex-Flying Tigers pilot named Jake Cutter, his best friend Corky, a good-hearted alcoholic, and his love interest Sarah who sings in the Monkey Bar as a cover for her espionage activities.

The most fascinating character in Only Angels Have Wings is Bonnie, played brilliantly by the always-underrated Jean Arthur. She's the film’s emotional core. She holds Geoff’s redemption. Modern Oscar historians regard Arthur's repeated slightings as among the more egregious of the Academy's many errors of omission. In 1990, Emanuel Levy observed that Arthur "occupies a special position among the Academy's underestimated actresses," noting that at least three of her performances should have been nominated but were not. Danny Peary ventured that Arthur deserved several nominations (for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Easy Living), and at least one Best Actress award (for The More the Merrier). Several factors conspired to cause Arthur's work to be overlooked so frequently by the Academy. Comediennes have fared especially poorly in Oscar competition. She had abandoned the role of Billie Dawn in "Born Yesterday" for which Judy Holliday won a Best Actress Oscar in 1950. But the biggest factor Arthur had going against her in the annual Oscar sweepstakes was simple politics. Hedda Hopper had labeled Jean the "Least Popular Woman in Hollywood" in 1942. The Academy voters, among whom Arthur had few friends, were aware of her reputation for being difficult, and it was considered bad form for a star to feud so openly and repeatedly with her employers. So, when Arthur finally did garner her first and only Oscar nomination, it was in spite of, rather than because of, Harry Cohn. —Sources: "Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew" (2004) by John Oller and "Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood"  (2007) by Todd McCarthy

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