Geoff Carter (Grant) is a pilot and the manager of Barranca Airways, a small, barely solvent company owned by "Dutchy" Van Ruyter (Sig Ruman) carrying airmail from the fictional South American port town of Barranca through a high pass in the Andes Mountains. Bonnie Lee (Arthur), a piano-playing entertainer, arrives one day. Joe Souther (Noah Beery Jr), a pilot who had been planning to have dinner with her, crashes trying to land in fog on her first day at the air base. Bonnie becomes infatuated with Carter, despite his fatalistic attitude about the dangerous mountain flying, and stays on in Barranca (not at Carter's invitation, as he insists on telling her).
The situation is complicated by the appearance of pilot Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess) and his wife, Geoff's old flame Judy (Rita Hayworth). MacPherson is revealed to be an alias; his real surname is Kilgallen. He is infamous among the pilots for having once bailed out of a plane, leaving his mechanic — the brother of "Kid" Dabb (Thomas Mitchell), Carter's best friend — to be killed in the resulting crash. When Geoff is forced to ground the Kid because of failing eyesight, he is short on pilots and agrees to hire MacPherson on the condition that he fly the most dangerous missions. MacPherson understands and accepts the setup: none of the other pilots would shed a tear if he were lost.
Dutchy will secure a lucrative government mail contract that would put the airline on a solid financial footing, if he proves he can provide reliable mail service during a six-month trial period. On the last day of Barranca Airways' probation, bad weather closes the mountain pass. Geoff plans to fly a new Ford Trimotor over the mountains at an altitude of 17,000 feet. The Kid asks to go with him, as co-pilot. When Geoff refuses him, the Kid suggests letting the toss of a coin decide the matter. Geoff tries to grab the coin in mid-air. However, it lands on the floor, and he picks it up and finds that it has two heads — which would insure the Kid’s being on board. Realizing how important it is to the Kid, Geoff agrees to take him along. Just before leaving, Bonnie tries to talk Geoff out of going. As they hug, she takes his gun out of his holster, points it at him and tells Geoff that she won't let him go. Knowing that she really can't stop him, she lowers the gun. However, when she drops the gun on the table, it accidentally fires, hitting Geoff in the shoulder.
Unable to fly, Geoff agrees to let Bat and the Kid try flying over the mountains instead of threading the pass. However, they are unable to climb above 15,600 feet before the plane stalls and falls off. The Kid radios Geoff and tells him that the plane could not get enough altitude to go over the mountains. Although Geoff tells them to turn around and return, the Kid and Bat decide to try to fly through the fogged-in pass. On the way through, they encounter a flock of condors. One crashes through the windshield, injuring the Kid; another tangles with the No. 1 engine, setting it on fire. Later the No. 2 engine also catches fire. The Kid tells Bat to bail out but Bat refuses, turns the plane around and manages to land the burning Trimotor back in Barranca. The Kid dies from a broken neck, but not before telling Geoff of Bat's valor. As a result, Bat is finally accepted by the other pilots.
Bonnie is torn between leaving and staying, and confronts Geoff in the hope he will ask her to stay. However, Geoff is quoted earlier as saying that "he would never ask a women for anything," and doesn't make the request she is hoping for. Then the weather clears and Geoff is about to rush out to secure the all-important contract. Before he goes, he offers to toss a coin to decide: heads, she stays; tails, she leaves. Bonnie is unwilling to decide her life so haphazardly, saying with tears "I'm hard to get, Geoff — all you have to do is ask me!" As he leaves, Geoff gives her the coin as a "souvenir." At first she is distraught, but then she's thrilled when she discovers that the coin has heads on both sides and realizes it was Geoff's way of asking her to stay.
As appearing in Only Angels Have Wings, (main roles and screen credits identified):
The film's original script outline was written by Anne Wigton; the working title originally was Plane No. 4. Howard Hawks re-wrote the film's scenario himself, based on a story that he wrote in 1938 entitled Plane from Barranca. While he was scouting locations several years earlier, for the filming of Viva Villa!, Hawks had been especially inspired by the stoic aviation personnel that he had met in Mexico. The film's final script was written and re-written throughout the film's production, mostly by Hawks and Jules Furthman, but also with contributions by Eleanore Griffin and William Rankin.
Hawks had previously worked with Cary Grant the year before on Bringing up Baby and this was the second of five collaborations between the director and star.
He cast Jean Arthur in the leading role of Bonnie Lee after appraising her acting in several films made by Frank Capra.
Hawks then hired silent film star Richard Barthelmess for the role of Bat MacPherson. Barthelmess's career had gradually diminished since sound films became popular in the late 1920s and was a controversial choice, mainly because he had recently had a botched plastic surgery operation on the skin under his eyes that resulted in permanent X-shaped scars under both of his eyes. Barthelmess usually wore heavy make-up to hide the scars, but Hawks wanted to use the scars for the character.
Hawks had originally cast Dorothy Comingore in the role of Judy MacPherson, but studio head Harry Cohn had been grooming a young starlet that would be advanced for the role. With backing from Cohn, her agent then insisted that Hawks give Rita Hayworth a screen test, which eventually resulted in Hayworth being cast in the role.
Shooting of Only Angels Have Wings began on December 19, 1938 at the Columbia Studio Ranch and Hawks shot the film in chronological sequence whenever possible. Hawks and Arthur initially found working together difficult and Arthur would often argue with Hawks on set. Hawks was attempting to coach Arthur to play a variation of the classical "Hawksian Woman Archetype", but Arthur often felt uncomfortable with his direction. Eventually, she unhappily agreed to play the role as he directed her. Years later after Arthur saw Lauren Bacall's performance in To Have and Have Not, Arthur apologized to Hawks and told him that she finally understood what he had wanted from her (epitomized in Bacall's repetition and emphasis on the paradoxical line "I'm hard to get ... all you have to do is ask.") Hawks later said that he considered Arthur to have been good in the film.
Initial shooting was completed on March 24, 1939, 31 days over its shooting schedule. This was followed with several weeks of second unit shooting of aircraft flying in various locations in the western United States. A few re-takes were shot in April with Cary Grant and Victor Kilian. Two days of re-shoots with Rita Hayworth were also shot, but were directed by Charles Vidor.
The "cast" also starred a 1929 Hamilton Metalplane, Ford Trimotor and Pilgrim Model 100-B single engine monoplane. All of these types accurately represented the types of aircraft flying in the period depicted by the film. The Metalplane was the airplane Joe Souther crashed while trying to land in heavy fog, and was only used for ground shots. In 2008, one of the movie prop Hamiltons used in the simulated flying scenes for this aircraft was discovered to still exist. The Pilgrim was used in the exciting mine rescue flying scene, while the Ford Trimotor is featured in another dramatic landing that ends in a fiery crash. Midway through the film, Paul Mantz flying a Boeing Model 100 biplane, flies a spirited aerobatic performance, reprising his earlier scene in Flight From Glory. Only Angels Have Wings has become very popular among enthusiasts of the aircraft of the golden age of aviation.
Twelve days after the film's final re-shoots were completed, Only Angels Have Wings premiered in Los Angeles at the Pantages Theater on May 10, 1939. Its official world premiere occurred the next day at Radio City Music Hall. It was heavily promoted by Columbia Studios and ended up making $143,000 on its initial two-week run at radio City Music Hall, and earned over one million dollars overall. It was the third-highest-grossing film of 1939. The film was also Rita Hayworth's breakout role and helped make her a major Hollywood star, with Hayworth appearing on the cover of Look magazine after the film's success.
Only Angels Have Wings received good reviews on its release, with Abel Green of Variety comparing it favorably to Flight From Glory and praised Barthelmess's performance. Frank S. Nugent in his review for The New York Times focused on the excitement found in the aerial scenes, also recognizing the talents of the star-studded cast, "Mr. Hawks has staged his flying sequences brilliantly ... He has made proper use of the amiable performing talents of Mr. Grant, Miss Arthur, Thomas Mitchell, Mr. Barthelmess, Sig Rumann and the rest."
Only Angels have Wings was later selected as one of 12 films representing the U.S. at the first Cannes Film Festival. However, the festival was canceled due to events leading up to World War II.
Only Angels Have Wings was adapted as a radio play on the May 29, 1939 broadcast of Lux Radio Theater, with Cary Grant, Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth reprising their film roles.
Only Angels Have Wings was nominated for two Academy Awards: Joseph Walker for Best Cinematography, Black-and-white, Roy Davidson and Edwin C. Hahn for the first-time Best Effects, Special Effects.
Only Angels Have Wings has become thought of as one of Hawks's best films, with Dave Kehr calling it the "equilibrium point" of Hawks's career, bridging themes developed in his early films of the 1930s to some of his darker films of the 1940s and 1950s. Film critics at Cahiers du Cinema also praised the film in the 1950s as a quintessential support of the auteur theory.
In a 1972 interview, Arthur remarked of her reaction to her co-star on Only Angels Have Wings, "I loved sinking my head into Cary Grant's chest".
Originally, an attempt to remake of the Hawks film came from producer "Stuart Cohen", who was going to set it up for John Carpenter to direct with Bill Phillips writing the script, as well as Kurt Russell starring as Cary Grant's character. However, a Columbia executive said to them "You guys want to make a career out of f***ing up Howard Hawks movies?", which ultimately put the project in a demise.