Only Angels Have Wings (1939) is widely considered the quintessential Howard Hawks film. It epitomizes his portrayals of men being men among men, doing manly things in manly ways with manly stiff upper lips and manly nonchalance, thumbing their manly noses at unmanly Death, until compelled by love to absorb a manly woman into their lives. "Manly woman" meaning she's all brittle feminity on the outside and all manly toughness on the inside.
Fortunately, Hawks is smooth enough to present all this manliness with a light touch; this isn't the Fast & Furious franchise. In fact, another of the standard Hawks elements likewise reaches its apogee with Wings -- namely, his refusal, with a smile and a shrug, to confine his film to one or even two of the genres. Wings is a comedy, a suspense film, a drama, a melodrama, an action serial, a satire, even a Western.
The action scenes have a peculiarly perfunctory feel to them, which is exacerbated by the well-done yet obvious back-projections, matte shots, and other special effects that undercut their seriousness. Hawks seems uninterested in these formula sequences -- I've never seen less suspenseful flights through "dangerous" mountain passages in any movie, even Tarzan junk. His interest is in the direct interactions between characters in a confined setting such as a bar or an office; take them out into big action set-pieces and Hawks shifts into "bored" mode.
Oh, the story. Cary Grant, looking like a Gucci model demonstrating what the well-dressed houri-turned-aviatrix will wear while on World War Two air patrol in Bolivia, runs a airmail line on behalf of owner Sig Ruman (done up as a blond Dutchman and looking like nothing so much as Alan Hale Sr. gone to seed) in the kind of dead-end isolated South American nowheresville that exists only in the same Hollywood imaginations that invariably place the American state of Alaska inside the Canadian territory of Yukon. Jean Arthur pops up to try to distract him with her merciless charms; I found her way too perky for this role and yearned for someone like Jean Harlow or (out of time) Rosalind Russell instead. Then we get silent heartthrob Richard Barthelmess (who turns out to be a tiny guy, nothing like the larger-than-life hero he was in the Twenties) and his sultry wife, Rita Hayworth, as a couple of misfits further intruding into Thomas Mitchell's slightly discomfiting love for Grant. Add the usual South American bad weather, endless flow of whisky and smokes, ratty old airplanes, a couple of broken arms, and a pointless donkey.
There's a lot of borrowing going on in this film. The necessity of delivering the airmail twice a week as per contract in order to keep the business alive is borrowed from Harold Lloyd, among many others. In turn, I was struck by how much Wages of Fear borrowed from Only Angels Have Wings: even the requirement to deliver a load of nitro is in both films, and in the later French movie the same South American hick town has only been cleared of a few more jungle trees. These are just samples of the extensive trading of tropes that surround this film.
You wouldn't think this story could keep your interest for more than two hours, but Hawks was a hell of a filmmaker. At his best, as the French critics insisted, no one was better, even if many were as good.