Hell's Angels

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Hell's Angels (1930)

Oct 1, 2000
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:stunts, special effects, cinematography, action

Cons:stereotyped and exaggerated characters

Today, the phrase "Hell's Angels" brings up images of a belligerent motorcycle gang. But back in 1930, it was well known as the title of a war film produced and directed by Howard Hughes.

Hughes was just twenty-two years old when production began in 1927. Hughes had been orphaned at seventeen, and he used his wealthy father's business holdings to found Caddo Studios. The Big Parade (1925) and Wings (1927) had been recently been enormous critical and commercial hits. Hughes wanted to follow their formula of combining romance with World War I combat drama.

By the time that the film was finally released, three years later, it had become the most expensive movie made to date. The production costs were $3.8 million, and despite a strong box office, Hughes lost millions.

Part of the film's troubles was the advent of the sound era. Norwegian actress Greta Nissen had played the love interest, but her thick accent forced Hughes to scrap her footage. He replaced her with little-known Jean Harlow, making a star of her in the process. Harlow was perfectly cast for her flirtatious and promiscuous role. She was given scandalous lines and low-cut dresses that would have been impossible to get past censors had the film been made during the Production Code era that began in 1934.

Hughes was such a meddlesome producer that he went through several directors, and ending up directing the film himself. James Whale of Frankenstein (1931) fame is credited as a dialogue coach, and is said to have also contributed to the script and direction.

But the real source of the film's enormous budget was the staged aerial combat scenes. Hughes had hired dozens of WWI veterans as stunt pilots, and vintage planes from that era enacted dramatic dogfights. The stunts included several crashes, including one in midair. Three pilots would die during the filming.

Hughes was nearly killed as well. A pilot himself, he couldn't resist taking one of the antiquated planes for a spin. However, the plane promptly flipped and crashed. Hughes broke several bones and required plastic surgery.

Perhaps the most impressive scenes in the film involve a German Zeppelin, which has flown over London to bomb Trafalgar Square. Once chased by British warplanes, the Zeppelin has to gain altitude quickly to escape the planes. The commander orders several crewman to jump to their deaths, through an eerie succession of surreal, billowy clouds. In a premonition of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, the hydrogen-filled Zeppelin ends up going down in flames.

As is the case with Wings and The Big Parade, Hell's Angels remains exciting today despite its melodramatic subplots. The three lead characters are exaggerated almost to the point of parody. Roy (James Hall) is earnest and heroic. His brother Monte (Ben Lyon) is a philandering coward. Roy worships his girlfriend Helen (Jean Harlow), unaware that she is not only unfaithful, but cynically seduces others even while in his presence.

Also predictably stereotyped are the German generals. They are portrayed as stiff, sadistic fops; following a Hollywood tradition that preceded the American involvement in World War I.

The film's condescending attitudes toward women also dates the film. All the female characters are childlike, clinging and amoral. Monte gives several speeches about how "all women are alike" in their amorality, and there's nothing in the film to indicate otherwise. But it has to be said that the lurid depiction of romantic relationships does add to the film's entertainment value.

Hell's Angels is also unusual for its early use of color. A ten-minute ball sequence is filmed in two-tone color, which lacks the convincing contrasts that technicolor cameras would achieve by 1937.

Hell's Angels had the misfortune of being upstaged by one of the greatest war films ever made, All Quiet on the Western Front. That film was also released in 1930, and won several Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director) that no doubt Hughes had coveted himself. Hell's Angels did receive a nomination for Best Cinematography. Given the producer's age and inexperience, it is a much better film that could have been expected. (67/100)



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