Set in South America, Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) is a showgirl traveling by boat to Panama to audition for a show. En-route the ship docks overnight in the small port town of Barranca to take on supplies and Bonnie disembarks to explore the town. Whilst ashore she meets a close knit group of American pilots who fly for Barranca Airways, a struggling freight business owned by ‘Dutchy’ Van Reiter (Sig Ruman) and managed by Geoff Carter (Carey Grant). Despite his brusque manner Carter is respected by everyone and it soon becomes clear that he tries to hide his emotional damage behind his macho attitude.
When a fatal accident kills one of the pilots Bonnie is horrified at the way the other pilots deal with their grief, choosing to drink and pretending that the pilot never existed in the first place. Howard Hawk’s Barranca is populated by ‘real’ men who drink hard liquor, chain smoke, and hide their emotions, unless that emotion is anger. Intrigued by Geoff’s ambivalence towards her and the emotional wall he’s constructed around himself Bonnie chooses to stay on in Barranca eventually falling in love with Geoff. Over the course of the film Geoff’s actions belie his hardened exterior and by performing small benevolent actions he redeems himself in the viewers eyes allowing them to understand the bond formed by the brotherhood of pilots and their fierce loyalty towards their charismatic leader.
Angels is the first film Grant did for Columbia after being released from his contract with Paramount and is widely regarded as one of director Howard Hawks best films – particularly for the flying sequences. In 1983 Donald P. Bellisario created the TV show ‘Tales of the Gold Monkey’ which was inspired by Only Angels Have Wings and in turn went on to inspire the Disney cartoon ‘Talespin’.