Hell's Angels (1930)


Howard Hughes is a subject of legend.  A multimillionaire, accomplished aviator, strange recluse and the instigator of numerous grandiose failures, he was the inspiration for both the villain in Diamonds Are Forever and had his own Martin Scorsese biography film (The Aviator), in which he was played by Leonardo De Caprio.  So much of Hughes's own story and personality looms over this film that, even today, it is more talked about than actually seen.

The truth is, it is neither the bloated mess you would expect a rich playboy's pet project to be, nor is it the grandiose statement he intended to make.  However, it is, in many ways, as innovative a piece of filmmaking as Citizen Kane or The Battleship Potemkin, just in terms of special effects and what could be done with a camera.  Filmed between 1927 and 1929, then largely refilmed before its release, there is still so much here that would influence action films in the future even if the underlying story itself was a bit trite and cliched even this early in film history.

Brothers Roy (James Hall) and Monte Rutledge (Ben Lyon) are on vacation in Germany in the mid teens.  They are attending Oxford along with their German friend Karl Armstedt (John Darrow).  Roy is looking forward to marrying his love Helen (Jean Harlow), but when they get back to Oxford a little thing called World War I soon throws their plans awry.  Karl is called into service, Roy goes willingly and Monte, who would really rather stay out of the fighting, signs up largely by accident.

Both Roy and Monte join the fledgling Royal Flying Corps, and it is while on leave to attend a banquet held by Lady Randolph (Evelyn Hall).  It is there that Monte finally meets Helen, and the two immediately become infatuated with each other.  It turns out that, despite Roy's deep love for Helen, she is rather happy playing the field - and that field includes Monte, a fact of which he is immediately guilty about afterward.  He tries to warn his brother away from her, but Roy won't listen.

More important things are afoot, though, as a German zeppelin does a night-time raid on London.  Karl is put into an observer car and forced to spot Trafalgar Square for the bombing.  Having come to love England during his time at Oxford, he does his duty - at least to the point where bombs are dropped - but is cut loose as ballast when the RFC sends up fighters to bring the airship down.  The fighters, of course, include Roy and Monte, and they succeed, never knowing their friend was on board or the sacrifice he made.

After an intermission we find ourselves later in the war, on the front lines of France.  Roy and Monte are part of a group of pilots routinely going up against the German planes, while Helen is working a canteen for the troops as part of a charity gesture on behalf of Lady Randolph.  Roy becomes increasingly upset as Capt. Redfield (Douglas Gilmore) starts gaining her attention, but still believes she loves only him.  Monte, shamed because of his fear of dying on the night patrol, rashly volunteers to fly a captured German bomber in a raid against a munitions depot, and Roy decides to go with him.  Thinking to visit Helen, Roy finds she is not at the canteen, but instead finds her with Redfield when he goes to another bar.  Distraught and angry, the brothers briefly consider deserting, but Roy decides to do his duty and drag Monte along with him - even though Monte at this point confesses that he spent time with Helen behind his brother's back.

The raid is successful, but immediately gets the attention of a German squadron led by Baron Von Richthofen himself.  Shot down over enemy territory, and in danger of being executed as spies, the brothers must make a final decision on how they will be remembered when the war comes to an end.

Despite Howard Hughes receiving the sole director credit, and good portion of the footage originally shot for the silent version was directed by Edmund Goulding, while the sound sequences were short (uncredited) by James Whale.  Hughes still directed the most memorable part of the film, which was the dogfight at the end.  While it was his money at stake, as well as his reputation, the movie was largely written by Marhsall Neil and Joseph Moncure March.  It was the most expensive action film at the time, even though there is some debate on how much the costs actually were.  Still, despite its popularity, it failed to make its money back at the time.

Still, it is a success in early independent filmmaking.  It was made before the Hayes Code, so no one had to have a contrived comeuppance, some more "soldierly" dialogue was allowed in places and there was quite a bit of Jean Harlow on display, particularly during the charity balls sequence, which was filmed in early color.  Other parts of the movie were hand-tinted - largely the night scenes, with sort of a blue tint typically used in silent films to indicate night time. 

This film gets lambasted often for the acting, but both Ben Lyon and James Hall do the best they can with what is, honestly, a very rudimentary script.  Not surprising, as the film was originally conceived without a talking script at all, which was the whole reason Jean Harlow ended up being in it - the original actress playing Helen, Greta Nissen, was let go due to her Norwegian accent.  Still, Harlow is the shining star of the film, with her portrayal of the wayward Helen feeling quite natural in contrast to the stiff, theatrical readings from a good portion of the cast. 

But, of course, the aerial battles are what you come for, and they are some of the best on screen.  It is hard to believe the zeppelin raid was miniatures and a set; until I read up on it, I thought someone was actually crazy enough to give Hughes a real zeppelin to wreck.  In reality, not even his money could buy that at the time, but it could buy a convincing sequence surrounding a doomed airship.  Karl dying early was also quite a surprise, as I was sure Hughes and Whale would have milked a bit more out of the friends meeting on the battlefield trope, but instead they went for a more realistic approach.

The ending dogfight is still a sight to behold, and watching it I'm surprised they only lost three people - especially since it appeared they were dumping live ordinance on the munitions set, and some of the ground cameras were dangerously close to the explosions.  In the air, we have stuntmen performing every maneuver possible, including a mid-air collision and a strafing run that Hughes ended up doing himself because the pilots he hired told him it was too dangerous to do - and which wound him up in the hospital with a fractured skull once he found out the hard way that they were right.  I'm sure he ultimately thought it was worth it, as it is one of the most striking scenes in the movie.

Hell's Angels does get a bit melodramatic at times, and sure the human drama is about as routine as many effects-based films today, but it is still a fun film to watch.  I found myself throughout amazed at how, with 1920s camera technology, Hughes got some of the shots he did.  I am glad he did, since his innovations in making an action film paved the way for decades to come.

Hell's Angels (1930)
Time: 127 minutes
Starring: Ben Lyon, James Hall, Jean Harlow
Directors: Howard Hughes, Edmund Goulding, James Whale

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