Cary Grant as Geoff Carter, regional airline manager and pilot
South America, Spring 1939
Film: Only Angels Have Wings
Release Date: May 15, 1939
Director: Howard Hawks
Costume Designer: Robert Kalloch
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Calling Barranca, calling Barranca…
Set in the fictional “port of call for the South American banana boats”, Only Angels Have Wings begins with the arrival of Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), a Brooklyn musician who soon catches the eye of two American aviators, Joe (Noah Beery Jr.) and Les (Allyn Joslyn). While the daredevil duo gambles for the opportunity to take Bonnie to dinner, Cary Grant makes his swaggering introduction as Geoff Carter, a fellow pilot and manager of a regional mail carrier flying regular routes over the treacherous Andes Mountains.
Despite warnings about the fog, Joe is ordered into the air and—eager to make it back in time for his dinner date with Bonnie—foolishly attempts to land in the inclement conditions, clipping off a wing from his Hamilton monoplane before crashing to the horror of the gathered spectators… aside from Geoff, who remains strictly business: “Mike, get the wagon. Take along a big pair of shears in case you have to cut him out! Les, get the mail.”
Now, look, Dutchy. Joe died flying, didn’t he? Now that was his job… he just wasn’t good enough.
After witnessing the crash, Bonnie is put off by Geoff’s nonchalance but quickly learns to adapt to and embrace the flier’s mindset of fast living, rejoining the mourners for a rambunctious evening of steaks, spirits, and song.
The latter scene is a particular standout, with Bonnie tapping into her profession as an entertainer to “assist” Geoff as he tries to plod through a fellow flier’s request to hear Shelton Brooks’ Tin Pan Alley standard “Some of These Days”, which also happens to be a favorite of yours truly. Jean Arthur is at her most charming as she immediately takes command of the eighty-eight, doles out instructions among the band, and plants herself to tickle the ivories through a brief performance of “Some of These Days”, played to rowdy, toe-tapping exuberance and barely breaking to down a shot of whiskey with Geoff. She caps the concert by smirking at Geoff and flicking her eyes, not even needing to ask “how’d I do?”
Still mourning the young man she had just met, Bonnie catches herself after a few bars of the wartime dirge “Break the News to Mother”, then flips her switch back to party mode with a rousing rendition of “The Peanut Vendor”.
Once the crowd has mostly dispersed around midnight, she indulges herself in a nostalgic solo of “Liebestraum”, which joins “Some of These Days” among my top ten favorite musical compositions of all time. (If only I felt the same about “The Peanut Vendor”, the Bonnie would have been three for three… though there is something satisfying about watching Archie Leach bellow “pea-nuttt!”) Liszt’s masterpiece provides an appropriately doleful backdrop as Geoff, Dutchy, and Sparks sort through Joe’s personal effects, recovered from the crash site.
Following a shared drink and some Hawksian tête-à-tête, Geoff is summoned away for a late flight to make up for the lost Joe’s missed service (for which he sobers up by pouring ice water over his head), but Bonnie has already made up her mind to impulsively skip out on her 4 a.m. boat ticket out of Barranca and remain to pursue a life with the pilot… despite his protestations! Though Hawks was reportedly unimpressed with her performance, Arthur particularly excels as the witty, headstrong Bonnie who—in her smart checked tailored suit, serves as a prototype of the classic Hawksian heroine that would later be embodied by Lauren Bacall’s “Slim” in To Have and Have Not (1944).
This marvelously entertaining and criminally underrated Howard Hawks classic recalled one of my favorite pre-Code movies, Red Dust, starring a young, confident adventurer (Clark Gable) entangled in an enviable love triangle between an outgoing outsider (Jean Harlow) and an adulterous wife (Mary Astor) at a humid French Indochina rubber plantation. In the case of Only Angels Have Wings, we obviously have Grant as the adventurer, stationed at his own remote equatorial outpost as he balances the attentions of Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth, in one of her first major roles as the sultry young wife of his polarizing new pilot “Bat” Kilgallen, aka MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess).
(Yes, Hayworth’s character’s name is Judy, and no, Grant does not say “Judy, Judy, Judy,” in this, though some believe Only Angels Have Wings to be the origin of the famously misattributed quote that became an early example of the Mandela effect in action.)
During the age where Bessie Coleman, Amelia Earhart, and Charles Lindbergh became living legends as conquerers of the skies, films centered around pilots (and the beautiful women who loved them) became de rigueur at American cinemas, a trend accelerated by inaugural Oscar winner Wings (1927) and Howard Hughes’ high-budget spectacle Hell’s Angels (1930). As with all fads in film, this also meant a rash of lower-quality fare, including the melodramatic Wings in the Dark (1935) where Grant himself had played a blind pilot opposite Myrna Loy, but leave it to flight enthusiast Hawks to deliver a stellar product like Only Angels Have Wings that balances his technical appreciation for aviation with his unique abilities for storytelling and encouraging the best from his actors and crew.
One of the top-grossing and better reviewed films of 1939, Only Angels Have Wings holds up more than 80 years later as charming, thrilling, and intriguing entertainment from some of the era’s greatest talents while also serving as a cinematic bridge between Howard Hawks’ formative films of the ’30s and the more mature period of his career to follow.
What’d He Wear?
Befitting his persona as a nonchalant nihilist, Geoff Carter affects the look of a high-flying cowboy at his remote outpost, appointing his classic leather flight jacket with a straw planter’s hat and studded gunbelt, a rakish prototype for cinematic adventurers to follow, most significantly Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Indiana Jones.
When we first meet Geoff, raining on Les and Joe’s parade as they flirt with Bonnie, he’s just in his shirt sleeves. The jacket makes its first appearance when his friend Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell) drapes it around his shoulders outside, citing the weather (“kinda cold out here…”)
At first glance, Geoff’s leather jacket could be assumed to be an A-1, the button-front jacket originally produced for U.S. Army Air Corps pilots in 1927 until it would be superseded by the A-2 jacket four years later and often overshadowed by the iconic A-2 by virtue of the garment’s wartime service and appearance in movies like The Great Escape. However, during the A-1’s heyday, a variant of that original flying jacket was commissioned for U.S. Navy pilots, and would be designated the 37J1.
Few surviving examples of the relatively rare 37J1 exist today, though the known samples suggest that the most frequent hides used for the original jackets were capeskin and goatskin, both in a dark chestnut brown (per Headwind Mfg. Co., which offers its own reproduction of the 37J1 in both leathers.)
The 37J1 retains the overall cut, structure, and styling of the A-1 blouson jacket, including the button-up front and the knitted collar, cuffs, and waistband (save for the front section where two buttons close the jacket at the waist.) The most obvious visual differentiation between the 37J1 and the A-1 are the raised pockets. The A-1 specs included two external patch pockets, the bottoms of which were placed directly above the top edge of the ribbed waistband; the 37J1’s two pockets are placed a few inches higher, with the bottoms on the same horizontal axis as the next button up from the waistband. As with the A-1, each pocket closes with a single button through a pointed flap.
Not counting those on the collar, Grant’s screen-worn jacket has six buttons—all threaded through two holes—from neck to waistband, which suggests either a civilian variation or a naval piece by a unique contractor as the typical mil-spec 37J1 had five buttons and two snaps (rather than buttons) to close at the waist.
A defining feature of the A-1 and 37J1 jackets is the knitting on the collar and cuffs, with only the knit cuffs retained for the subsequent A-2. This collar provides another point of differentiation between the A-1 and the 37J1 besides the latter’s higher pockets; while both jackets have two buttons placed on the right side, the tall A-1 collar has two loops to fasten both while the shorter ribbed collar on a 37J1 tapers toward the neck like a later MA-1 bomber jacket collar and seemed to have had a single snap to close at the neck
On the other hand, Grant’s jacket has this somewhat taller, A-1 style collar but with only one loop that would presumably be fastened to whichever button provided the desired fit for the wearer.
You can read more about the A-1’s place in the history of American flight jackets in this fabulously researched and illustrated article by Albert Muzquiz for Heddels. Produced first and in greater numbers, the A-1 is the more famous and widely available of the similar duo, even deemed the “best of the bombers” in Wei Koh’s great rundown for The Rake, while searching for 37J1 jackets yields both leather button-ups like Grant wears as well as khaki cotton zip-up deck jackets (like this from Aviator Mercantile Post) which suggests some confusion in either modern comprehension or contemporary designation as to how the Navy had named its flight jackets during its interwar salad days.
While information and replicas may be hard to come by in 2020, the 37J1 was evidently popular with the dashing pilots of Barranca Airways in 1939, as the ill-fated Joe Souther also wears one when flirting with Bonnie and flying off to disaster.
Much recent information about the 37J1 derives from the surviving garment from the collection of Rear Admiral John Jennings Ballentine, who rose from a pioneering pilot in the early days of U.S. Naval Aviation during World War I to commander of the Sixth Fleet after World War II. His hard-worn flight jacket is detailed over the left breast and on the back with the “Red Dragon” logo of the VT-2B torpedo squadron that then-Lieutenant Commander Ballentine commanded from July 1931 through December 1932.
Geoff Carter’s 37J1-style jacket is similarly marked up on the left breast and under the back yoke, painted with the left side of a Native American’s head and headdress in profile. This is suggested to have been inspired by the squadron insignia of the U.S. Army Air Service’s 103rd Aero Squadron, itself borrowed from the Lafayette Escadrille that produced many of the 103rd’s pilots after that famous French flight unit was disbanded. Five days after the armistice, Lieutenant Colonel Burt M. Atkinson reported that “pilots who served in this squadron have formed the backbone of American Pursuit Aviation on the front.” The 103rd’s insignia was later incorporated as the emblem of the 94th Fighter Squadron (which reconstituted the 103rd after the war) from 1924 through 1942, suggesting a more likely service history for Geoff Carter as Grant himself was not yet 15 years old by the time World War I ended.
Geoff exclusively wears long-sleeved shirts detailed with the appropriate military touch of shoulder straps (epaulettes) that are buttoned at the neck. Light in color, these shirts are likely khaki or at least somewhere on the beige-to-tan scale to coordinate with the tones of his trousers. These shirts have very long cuffs with spaced-out two-button closure, spread collars, and front plackets that Grant frequently wears buttoned to the neck as the actor frequently did when not wearing a tie or cravat.
Much as Geoff’s style of shirts never vary, nor do his trousers. He exclusively wears then-fashionable long-rise trousers with a full, voluminous fit aided by the single reverse-facing pleats. I believe I observed at least two pairs of these similarly styled trousers: one likely made from a khaki chino cloth and another pair in a lighter off-white shade that may have included linen in the construction; the earlier linen trousers have pleats placed about an inch back from the front belt loops while the khaki chinos have pleats flush with the first belt loops.
All of Geoff’s trousers have tall belt loops, slanted front pockets, jetted back pockets, and bottoms worn self-cuffed.
Geoff holds up his trousers with a wide dark leather belt that closes through a large squared single-prong buckle. He straps on an additional belt when arming himself however, buckling on a dark leather gun belt with a surprisingly flashy studded Mexican loop holster for his revolver. He shifts the gun belt’s dulled buckle off to the left with the holster itself worn over the filled cartridge loops that span the breadth of the belt from front to back around the right side. (Scouring the internet revealed a similar gun belt and holster available from The Last Best West, where it can be purchased in cross-draw or strong-draw configurations for either hand.)
Geoff wears dark leather boots with calf-high shafts, similar to cowboy boots but with lower, flat heels. Based on how dark they appear on screen, they may be black or a very dark brown leather.
Many military flying boots of the eras had full zip fastening up the front (i.e. RAF 1930 pattern or these Converse aviator boots), though—while they have seams up the center of each instep—Grant’s plain-toed tall boots appear to be of the pull-on variety like the later 1936 pattern of RAF flying boots, which had a buckle strap to fasten around the top of each shaft.
Far more prominently seen on screen is Geoff’s prominently brimmed straw hat, similar to the palm leaf straw planter’s hats that are familiar headgear in South America, having also been a recognizable sight across the southern United States from the mid-18th century through the Civil War era.
If you’re in the market, Sunbody Hats offers a “Sam Houston” planter’s hat with a round 5¾” telescope crown and exaggerated 5″ pencil curl brim not unlike Grant’s.
Of course, up in the air, Geoff swaps out that wide-brimmed planter’s hat for a more suitable leather flight helmet, likely constructed of dark brown leather with a dense fur lining to keep his head warmly insulated at high altitudes.
Geoff’s steel-framed flight goggles have wide, ovular lenses and soft facepads likely made of rubber with chamois leather where it meets the skin for added comfort, a detail of contemporary U.S. military-authorized goggles as manufactured by contractors like American Optical and Charles Fischer.
Serving the double duty of protecting his neck and completing the dashing image of early flight, Geoff ties on what appears to be a classic white parachute silk aviator’s scarf, kept in one of his desk drawers.
He additionally prepares for flight by strapping on a wristwatch with a slim leather band, though we unfortunately don’t get any glances at this timepiece.
During the rainy climactic night, Geoff protects himself with a dark fedora and a dark lightweight raincoat that closes up the front with five unique metal toggle latches.
“Fliers! I was wondering why you were carrying those guns,” Bonnie exclaims after meeting Les and Joe, who responds: “Do you think we’re a couple of banana cowboys?”
Like his pilots, Geoff keeps a revolver carried in his studded gun belt. Based on the distinctive “diamond” grips when seen in his holster as well as the flat cylinder release and the lug securing its ejector rod, Geoff’s revolver appears to be a blued Smith & Wesson service revolver like the Smith & Wesson Military & Police, a .38 Special service revolver introduced to the market around the turn of the 20th century and later standardized as the “Model 10” when the venerated Massachusetts-based gunmaker began numbering its models in the 1950s.
After being strapped to Geoff’s side for most of the movie, Chekhov’s six-shooter makes its dramatic screen appearance when Bonnie pulls it from Geoff’s holster to prevent him from embarking on a nighttime flight in the middle of a dangerous storm.
To protest being compared to “all the rest”, Bonnie realizes what she’s done and tosses the heavy revolver onto the table next to her… causing it to fire and launch a .38-caliber round into Geoff’s left shoulder!
A different revolver appears to have been substituted in for this shot, as the weapon now has all the signatures of an early 20th century Colt revolver, such as the distinctive branded medallion on the wooden grips and the non-lugged ejector rod. This revolver is likely a Colt Official Police, introduced in 1927 as a full-framed service revolver in .38 Special designed to challenge Smith & Wesson’s supremacy on the law enforcement market.
What to Imbibe
There’s always plenty of whiskey flowing through the headquarters of Barranca Airways, fueling late night parties and even later moments of solitude and introspection, inebriating the hard-living Geoff Carter just enough to maintain the base level of cynicism he needs to distract from the perils of his profession.
During Bonnie’s first night in Barranca, Geoff pulls out another bottle for the two to split and begins pouring: “Say when.” “When are you gonna get some sleep?” she counters. The two continue trading barbs as he tops off her whiskey with just a touch of water, keeping a solid 80 proof shot for himself.
Just because it’s past midnight and Geoff has been drinking heavily doesn’t mean he’s going to turn down an opportunity to return to the air and make up for Joe Souther’s missed flight! Once the fog lifts, Geoff quickly sobers up by pouring a pitcher of cold water over his head. (While this makes for an entertaining scene, BAMF Style cannot legally endorse this “get sober fast” method and instead recommends actually drinking plenty of water and getting a full night’s sleep before even thinking about piloting your tin goose.)
A few nights later, Judy is already three sheets to the wind when she’s looking to crack a bottle with Geoff during one of her husband’s dangerous flights. He takes the bottle from her hands and attempts the same cold water trick to sober her up, though lore has it that this was actually devised by Howard Hawks as a diversion when he believed Rita Hayworth wasn’t performing her drunk scenes convincingly enough.
Even more plentiful than the booze are Geoff’s countless cigarettes, always pulled from his own pack of Lucky Strikes (with the distinctive pre-war green wrappers) but never with his own matches to light them.
Geoff: Got a match?
Bonnie: Say, don’t you ever have any?
Geoff: No… don’t believe in laying in a supply of anything.
Bonnie: Matches, marbles, money, or women, huh?
Geoff: That’s right.
Bonnie: No looking ahead, no tomorrows, just today.
Geoff: That’s right.
The significance of cigarette matches are a Hawksian signature, dating back to Paul Muni’s match and Osgood Perkins’ lighter competing for Karen Morley’s cigarette in Scarface (1932) and Bogie and Bacall’s incendiary match exchanges in To Have and Have Not (1944).
How to Get the Look
As the chief “banana cowboy” flying out of his remote outpost in South America, Geoff Carter cultivates a unique look that is part-pistolero, part-pilot, but all-adventure.
- Dark brown capeskin leather 37J1-style naval flight jacket with ribbed knit collar (with button-loop closure), cuffs, and waistband, six-button front, and two mid-torso patch pockets with single-button flaps
- Khaki cotton long-sleeved shirt with spread collar, shoulder straps/epaulettes, front placket, and long two-button cuffs
- Khaki single reverse-pleated high-rise trousers with tall belt loops, slanted front pockets, jetted back pockets, and self-cuffed bottoms
- Wide dark leather belt with large squared single-prong buckle
- Dark leather gun belt with cartridge loops and studded Mexican loop strong-draw holster
- Dark leather calf-high flying boots
- Palm leaf straw wide-brimmed planter’s hat
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie, one of my favorites from the classic Hollywood era.
Look, Dutchy… what’s the use of feeling bad about something that couldn’t be helped?