How Cecil B. DeMille Delivered Air Mail for Hawks’s Angels

Without being aware of it at first, I continued my engagement with the movies of 1939—Hollywood’s greatest year—last night, as I followed up a previously mentioned screening of Drums Along the Mohawk by projecting Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings onto my small big screen. Well, I must agree with cinema critic Ted Sennett, who held that the two leads were unfortunate miscasts. The suave Cary Grant (as flying ace Geoff Carter) does indeed cut a “faintly ludicrous figure, and Jean Arthur [as Bonnie Lee] is nobody’s idea of a showgirl.” Such sensory obstacles and prejudices are immaterial, of course, when listening to a radio adaptation. So, today I improved upon my viewing experience by listening to the mercifully shorter Lux Radio Theatre production of Angels, which aired 29 May 1939. Clipped and satisfyingly swift, the air treatment added a touch of self-reflexivity to Bonnie’s exclamation “Say, things happen awful fast around here.”

Timing itself, by which I mean the date of the broadcast, is significant for two reasons. Unlike most Lux presentations, the airwaved “Angels” took flight shortly after the 15 May 1939 release of the motion picture upon which it was based. Coinciding with—and thus capable of promoting—Hawks’s aviation melodrama, it boasted no fewer than eight members of the original cast, including Grant, Arthur, Thomas Mitchell, silent screen star Richard Barthelmess, and newcomer Rita Hayworth. Even for the lavishly produced Lux program, such screen presence was unusually extravagant. Yet Lux‘s promotional services for Columbia Studios went even further.

As Cecil B. DeMille, host and ostensible producer of the program pointed out during the show’s second intermission, there was a “real-life parallel” between Hawks’s drama of airmail daredevilry in South America and a recent “history-making flight.” Two days prior to the broadcast, Pan Am inaugurated a regular airmail service to Europe. Its pilot, Captain Arthur E. LaPorte was called before the CBS microphone to tell of the “tremendous strides” in aviation: “We have at last conquered the Atlantic.” After all, the clipper crossed the ocean in a mere twenty-five hours.

Picked up by about twenty-five million listeners each week, Lux was capable of delivering its fan letters to the movies with considerably greater speed and efficiency. Its timeliness dramatically underscored and confirmed, Hawks’s film could hardly have received a more prominent stamp of approval. It’s high time I got my hands on one.

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