Screen Angels

While Kevin Smith's Dogma does perhaps offer moviegoers the first slacker angels, higher beings are nothing new in the movies. Silent master D.W. Griffith actually staged the Fall of the Angels, quite spectacularly, in his 1926 epic The Sorrows of Satan. But movie angels since then have usually been folksier, less grandiose figures, even if they were equipped with the traditional wings. Most often, movies about the heavenly host have hinged on the idea that angels envy mortals, envy our capacity for sensory and temporal experience. In contemporary comedy-fantasy, the angel has become a sentimental aspirant to human commonality -- the ultimate slummer.

Here are a very few of the many, many movies, many of them available on home video, that feature angels as characters. In light of the inevitable controversy, it should be noted that most of the films mentioned below are no more in accordance with conventional theology than Dogma -- some not as much. They just act a little more superficially wholesome:

The Green Pastures (1936) -- Oscar Polk played Gabriel in this all-black musical fantasia of Bible stories, based on Marc Connelly's Broadway hit. Rex Ingram played De Lawd and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson is also in the cast.

I Married an Angel (1942) -- In their last film together, Nelson Eddy is the "I" and Jeanette MacDonald is the angel. It's an adaptation of a Rodgers and Hart schmaltzer.

The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945) -- Jack Benny played Gabriel in this comedy, assigned to wipe the world out of existence with a blast of his trumpet. For years, the title of this failed movie was used as a running gag -- a sore spot in the star's career -- in Benny's act.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) -- Technically, Clarence (Henry Travers) isn't an angel until the very end of the much-loved holiday film; he "earns his wings" in the final scene by redeeming James Stewart's George Bailey from despair. This is probably the film that spawned the oft-repeated device of the lovable comic angel who intercedes in some bummed-out schmuck's earthly affairs.

The Bishop's Wife (1947) -- Cary Grant's the angel this time, sent to earth to help struggling clergyman David Niven, but he gets sidetracked from his Heavenly Mission when he falls for Loretta Young, in the title role. It was remade, even more cloyingly, in 1996, as The Preacher's Wife, with Denzel Washington miscast in the Grant role.

Angels in the Outfield (1951) -- The title is literal: There apparently not being enough troubles elsewhere in the world to see to, the host intercede on behalf of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Paul Douglas plays the manager, and there are cameos by the likes of Ty Cobb and Joe DiMaggio. This well-liked comedy was remade, pretty abysmally, in 1994.

For Heaven's Sake (1950) -- Clifton Webb and Edmund Gwenn play sweet-old-duffer angels sent to facilitate the conception of earthly couple Robert Cumming and Joan Bennett's first child (eeeewwww!). The director was George Seaton, for whom Gwenn had already played Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street.

The Angel Who Pawned Her Harp (1954) -- The beautiful Australian-born Diane Cilento was showcased in the title role as yet another angel hanging out among us mortals in this British film.

Barbarella (1968) -- John Phillip Law brought onscreen wings back to the angels, wearing them as the blind angel who supplies Jane Fonda's love interest in this popular space fantasy.

The Angel Levine (1970) -- Harry Belafonte is a down-on-his-luck angel interceding for Zero Mostel. This one is from a Bernard Malamud yarn.

Date With an Angel (1987) -- French actress Emmanuelle Beart, of Manon of the Spring, plays an angel with a broken wing, and Michael E. Knight is the mortal who falls for her in this feeble attempt at a romantic comedy.

Wings of Desire (1988) -- Wim Wenders and Peter Handke brought the angel genre to the art houses with this beautifully shot and occasionally witty but exhaustingly overlong fantasy. Bruno Ganz plays a likable angel who "takes the plunge" and becomes human so that he can experience earthly love. There was a bizarre sequel, Faraway, So Close!, in 1993, and a maudlin (but better-paced) American remake, City of Angels, with Nicolas Cage in the Ganz role, in 1998.

Michael (1996) -- John Travolta plays the title role in this comedy, in which the archangel has completely gone native on Earth, giving himself over to earthly pleasures, and to earthly slovenliness. It takes the genre to its logical conclusion.


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