Howard Hawks had known a real-life flier who once parachuted from a burning plane. His copilot died in the ensuing crash and his fellow pilots shunned him for the rest of his life.
Richard Barthelmess had deep scars that resulted from an infection due to plastic surgery. The only way to cover them up was with heavy make-up, but Howard Hawks convinced him to leave them the way they were because "those scars tell the story and are important to your character." Hawks also removed planks to make Barthelmess appear smaller, to reflect his character's inferiority among his fellow pilots.
"Calling Baranca" later became a recurring line in Looney Toons/Merrie Melodies cartoons.
Dutchy's statements about flying, "Include me out," is a quote from Samuel Goldwyn. It is one of many malapropisms attributed to him.
Howard Hawks and Jean Arthur did not get along during filming. Arthur was not used to Hawks' highly improvisational style, and when Hawks wanted Arthur to play Bonnie much in a subtly sexy way (not unlike his other "Hawksian women"), Arthur flatly said, "I can't do that kind of stuff." Hawks told Arthur at the end of the shoot, "You are one of the few people I've worked with that I don't think I've helped at all. Someday you can go see what I wanted to do because I'm gonna do this character all over again." Years later Hawks returned home to find Arthur waiting for him in his driveway. She had just seen his To Have and Have Not (1944) and confessed, "I wish I'd done what you'd asked me to do. If you ever make another picture with me, I'll promise to do any goddamn thing you want to do. If a kid [Lauren Bacall] can come in and do that kind of stuff, I certainly could do it." Hawks and Arthur never collaborated again.
For the role of Judy MacPherson, Howard Hawks screen-tested Dorothy Comingore, Rochelle Hudson and Rita Hayworth. He selected Hayworth because she had a face "that the camera likes."
This film was supposed to be among the 12 American titles selected for the first ever Cannes Film Festival, set for September 1, 1939. Sadly, the war would delay the inauguration of the festival by seven years.
The film was inspired by a true story of a real-life couple Howard Hawks met while scouting Mexican locations for Viva Villa! (1934) (which was eventually directed by Jack Conway).
The Kid mentions that there are no bananas, parodying the novelty song, "Yes! We Have No Bananas" written by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn.
The "Flit gun" mentioned by Bonnie in relation to the pests in her room is a hand-pumped insecticide sprayer. The devices were developed to spray Flit, a brand-name insecticide. Like many innovations, the name became attached to similar devices made by competitors and "Flit gun" became a generic name for this type of sprayer.
When Rita Hayworth couldn't play her drunk scene well enough, Hawks told Cary Grant to throw a bucket of water on her head, dry her hair, and to only say his lines.
Howard Hawks remembered that when the movie was released, "a certain critic said 'It's the only picture Hawks ever made that didn't have any truth in it.' I wrote him a letter and said, 'Every blooming thing in that movie was true.' I knew the men that were in it and everything about it. But it was just where truth was stranger than fiction."
Cary Grant is often incorrectly quoted as saying "Judy, Judy, Judy" to Rita Hayworth in this movie. The misquote is attributed to impressionist Larry Storch who, when in the middle of one of his nightclub acts, saw Judy Garland walk in as he was impersonating Grant. Apparently this is how he addressed her.
The Kid says he has been flying for 22 years. The year of this picture is 1939. That would mean he started flying in 1917, probably with the Army Air Corps. Geoff's leather jacket has an Indian head insignia on the front and on the back. It appears to be from the 103rd Aero Squadron.
In this film, Richard Barthelmess plays a pilot who is shunned because he jumped out of a plane and left his mechanic to die. In The Last Flight (1931), he played a pilot who goes down with his plane to NOT leave his friend behind.
"Lux Radio Theater" broadcast a 60 minute radio adaptation of the movie on May 29, 1939 with Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Thomas Mitchell and Rita Hayworth reprising their film roles.
In the film's opening, the title is shown with double quotes and beginning with some sort of dash, all words lower-case except "angels": "-only Angels have wings" This is inconsistent with the 1939 era advertising that took place for the film, such as the trailer video, in which the film's title did not include any punctuation.
Included among the American Film Institute's 1998 list of the 400 movies nominated for the Top 100 Greatest American Movies.
Included among the "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die", edited by Steven Schneider.