Jean wasn’t the drop dead gorgeous leading lady I usually fell in love with as a kid. She was the funny, best friend type who found romance and love almost as an aside to the antics that took center-stage in her movie vehicles. She was tough and didn’t take any guff and only after seven reels (that’s old time movie talk for when movies where eight 10 minutes reels) did she melt into her leading man’s arms and surrender to his charms. This was the formula that worked and worked well with Jean. And no film brought out her tough-girl turned all gooey-eyed for love than “Only Angels Have Wings” opposite the formidable Cary Grant with an assist from Will Rogers and a very young (almost unrecognizable) Rita Hayworth.
The film was directed by Howard Hawks, a man’s director, who spun the story of a far outpost where the mail is flown by tiny airplanes over gargantuan mountains and cavernous chasms. The fly-by-night (literally) outfit is run by Cary in one of his serious Joker/hard customer roles that he was perfect for early in his career. In walks Jean, sparks fly initially, but then she sees the brutality of how these men live and die and decides to take a walk. But then she comes back, deciding Cary is a good man underneath. The storyline is contrived, but so well constructed and true to character that eccentricities don’t matter. Ya see, Cary had his heart broken and ever since lived by a code of honor and logic. Jean doesn’t get it until Rita walks in, then realizes what she needs to do to win over Cary. But ya see, to win over Cary you have to act like he acts, be tough and unsentimental. That’s what this script was all about from one uncompromising frame to the next – until the very end where Jean wants Cary to tell her to stay and wait for him. But Cary’s character would never do that. Instead he lets a double-headed coin do all the talking for him, and you see him take off in a plane on another dangerous mission while Jean melts on the ground.
I thoroughly enjoyed “Only Angels Have Wings” and fell head over heels for Jean in the process. She made a ton of movies in the 30’s – mostly lightweight comedies with Jimmy Stewart (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington) and Gary Cooper (Meet John Doe) but it’s with Cary that she really lets her hair down and does some of her best mugging for the camera.
Jean was beautiful, funny and accessible. She was one of the boys. The sexy, smart and ball’s out kind of dame that makes guys like me wish we lived back in those days when smart, sassy and moxie where everyday words. I’ll have to settle for watching Jean on screen and dreaming of her smile and infectious laugh that colored everything she said in a high-lilting voice. Jean’s dialogue sparkled along with her eyes, with a personal style that today’s stars would die – or pay exorbitant amounts of money – for. Reese Witherspoon is today’s Jean Arthur, only Jean had better material and equally better Leading Man material. But I’m splitting blonde hairs now. The most important thing is that funny was sexy then as much as it is now. Only smarter. And funnier. And sexier.