Geoff Carter (Grant) is the boss of a rinky-dink airline, based in the fictional South American port town of Barranca, that routinely carries mail and supplies through the Andes mountain passes into the interior. The work is highly hazardous, as Geoff and his fellow pilots have to take rickety propeller planes over 14,000-foot Andes Mountains passes that are routinely plagued with fog and bad weather. When a pilot dies early in the film, he's said to be the third fatality the airline has suffered in three months. When pilots aren't dying, Geoff and his fellow fliers are worried about a government mail contract that they desperately need in order to stay in business.
Romantic entanglements ensue when a pretty blonde nightclub entertainer, Bonnie Lee (Arthur), arrives in town, takes a liking to Geoff, and decides to stay. Meanwhile, the latest pilot death forces Geoff to hire as a new pilot one Bat MacPherson, who has a bad reputation. It seems that Bat once parachuted out of a crippled plane with the only parachute and left his copilot aboard to die. Geoff is surprised to find out that Bat's wife just happens to be his ex-fiancee, Judy.
Only Angels Have Wings boasted an impressive cast. Thomas Mitchell co-stars as Kid, Geoff's friend and fellow pilot—it was Kid's brother who died in the plane that Bat jumped out of. Bat is played by Richard Barthelmess, a star going back 20 years all the way to Broken Blossoms (1919). It was one of Barthelmess's last film roles. Bat's wife Judy is played by a young Rita Hayworth, in one of her first starring roles.
Only Angels Have Tropes:
- Ace Pilot: Most of them. Bat would have gotten the plane over the pass and through the storm and fog if they hadn't hit a bird, and he still manages to get back and land safely with one engine and the nose on fire.
- And the Adventure Continues: Right after Bat lands his badly damaged plane and Kid dies, word comes over the radio that the storm has passed and the pass is clear. Geoff and another pilot leap into another plane and fly away.
- Angst? What Angst?: In-Universe. The movie opens with the death of a pilot named Joe, and immediately the pilots go around asking "Who's Joe?" and celebrate anyway though they mourn privately. Bonnie is horrified, but Geoff points out that theirs is a high-stress life and ostentatious mourning won't bring Joe back.
- The Atoner: Although he never says so, Bat is clearly haunted by his decision to parachute out of a stricken plane and leave his co-pilot to die. At the end, when their plane has a shattered windshield and is on fire, Kid tells Bat to take the chute and jump, but Bat refuses, and gets the plane back to Barranca safely.
- Bittersweet Ending: Kid dies in a tragic accident that turned out to be All for Nothing as the weather cleared out of the pass a little bit later. But the airline is going to get the mail contract and stay in business, Bat has his redemption moment, and Bonnie and Geoff have fallen in love.
- Call-Back: When Joe is killed early in the film one of the mechanics retrieves Joe's pathetically small amount of personal effects and says "That's all I could find." At the end of the film when Kid dies of his injuries, the same mechanic does the same thing and says the same line.
- Cut Himself Shaving: A steward on the boat that just pulled in claims that he "fell against a doorknob" when two pilots note his black eye. It turns out that the steward pissed Bonnie off.
- Drowning My Sorrows: A hysterical Judy gets plastered after Bat leaves on a very dangerous flight carrying nitroglycerine to a mining camp.
- Fire-Forged Friends: No one likes Bat because of that incident in the back story when he abandoned Kid's brother on the plane to die. But after he declines to use an available parachute and manages to get back through the mountains and land safely, with a burning plane and an injured Kid, the other pilots buy him drinks at the bar.
- Have a Gay Old Time: "I hate to pull a boner on you." ("I hate to burst your bubble.")
- I Need a Freaking Drink: Geoff's frustrated "Come on, let's get a drink" is all the mourning he allows himself after watchng Joe crash and die.
- Moment Killer: Bonnie and Geoff are having their first kiss when Kid barges into his room with some airline business and kills the moment.
- Only a Flesh Wound: Bonnie accidentally shoots Geoff in the shoulder. He gets it patched up and then goes off on a flight.
- Satellite Love Interest: Bonnie has little relevance to the plot other than falling in love with Geoff.
- Shower of Awkward: Geoff is rather startled to come into his room and find Bonnie using his shower. It becomes less awkward a while later when they start kissing.
- Vomit Discretion Shot: Bonnie clamps her hand to her mouth and runs off after seeing Joe's fatal crash.
- You Wouldn't Shoot Me: Bonnie pulls out Geoff's gun and points it at him, telling him she won't let him fly in the bad weather. Geoff chuckles and points out that she's hardly likely to shoot him to keep him from dying. A weeping Bonnie puts the gun on the table—and it accidentally discharges, shooting Geoff in the shoulder.