The reclusive billionaire, Howard Hughes, both directed and produced this 1930 World War I story about fighting air aces starring Jean Harlow.
Hell's Angels (1930)
Directors: Howard Hughes
Producers: Howard Hughes
Writers: Howard Estabrook And Harry Behn
Features: Full Screen(1.33: 1), Black & White With Color Sequences, English Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, With French And Spanish Subtitles.
No, this is not a biker flick. There is no Peter Fonda or Jack Nicholson in this movie. In fact, neither actor was even born when this black and white movie came out in 1930 directed and produced by the enigmatic billionaire, Howard Hughes. "Hell's Angles" refers to World War I airplane pilots. This movie also introduced Jean Harlow, one of the screen's first platinum blonde sex symbols, to the moviegoing public. Though in black and white this movie has a very primitive color sequence and a few tinted sequences. Howard Hughes, in many ways was ahead of his time and spent lavishly on this film. This was the only film he directed, choosing to remain a producer for most of his Hollywood career. "Hell's Angels" was the most expensive movie ever made until "Gone With The Wind" came along to beat it by a million dollars. Though Hughes' movie did well at the box office it's budget caused him to take a loss.
This movie starts out before the first World War of 1917 with three Oxford buddies partying in Germany. Two men are brothers though widely distant in their outlook on life. Roy(James Hall) is the more mature brother with a social consciousness while his sibling, Monte(Ben Lyon), is a womanizer and morally bankrupt. The third man is Carl(John Darrow) who attends Oxford as a foreign exchange student from Germany. When the three men get back to England, Roy immediately heads over to see his fiancee, Helen, played by Jean Harlow. Helen is a tramp, but Roy cannot see this side of her and it amuses her to play him along. Soon France is invaded by Germany and shortly England responds by declaring war on Germany. Carl is called home for military duty while Roy does the right thing and enlists in the British Royal Flying Corps. Monte is tricked into joining and winds up serving with his brother or otherwise he would have no compunction about not helping his country. Even Helen gets involved by joining a sort of British version of the USO called a Canteen. Soon the odd mxture of friends and war bring about some dreadful results.
At first this movie appears to be a light drama with comic relief like many of those black and white war buddy movies. Appearances can be deceptive. This movie is surprisingly anti-war. Twice in the movie there is a Joe Everyman venting against the war as a capitalistic ploy. This is a little strange since a captain of capitalism was directing and producing this film. On the other hand, who better to know the real truth.
Then the two British brothers are separated from their German friend and wind up fighting against him later. Great sacrifices of life on the German side and the British side are depicted. The British are seen as more human than the Germans, of course, but even the Germans are shown to have a stoic dedication to their country. When this movie ends there is no 'Hollywood' ending.
"Hell's Angels" was made pre-Code. That meant there was no one to oversee the morality in movies at the time. Later in 1934 a code was adopted by the film industry as a reaction to public indignation of what was allowed to go on in movies. With no Code in place yet, Jean Harlow was relatively free to vamp with her character of Helen. Helen flits from one man to another eventually bedding Roy's brother, Monte. These two are kindred souls. When they are together at her apartment, Helen remarks how she wants to be free and live, while Monte echoes those sentiments. In the meantime, Helen has slipped out of a very revealing evening gown and into a just as revealing bathrobe. Things like this did not happen very often after the 1934 Code took effect.
Howard Hughes was a very competent director. As a producer, his "Hell's Angels" film had a lot of problems. The film had actually started to be made in 1927, but took until 1930 to complete. Hughes had run through an assortment of directors before finally settling on himself. James Whales, who would later direct the 1931 "Frankenstein" movie, was on board as a dialog coach. Some speculate Whales helped Hughes with more than just diction. Regardless, the film builds an anticipation of meeting Helen early on when Roy takes out a picture from his wallet which shows an obscured view of Helen from the side. Roy points out that Helen didn't like to be photographed and he had to sneak a shot of her. Right then and there is a clue all is not as it should be. Later when Roy gets back to England and goes to Helen's home she is out. He and the audience are kept waiting for her to finally arrive.
Hughes had a ten minute color take of a ballroom seqence in "Hell's Angels." The colors are very pale. Still for this time period this is phenomenal. Also, during outside night sequences the screen is tinted a rich, beautiful blue. In one fiery crash scene there are tints of orange and red. Hughes was going all out for this film.
Though I'm sure these tints were costly, most of the huge budget supposedly went to the aerial battle sequences. Hughes, a pilot himself, had 87 veteran pilots take part in the plane fights. Three of these pilots did not survive to pick up their paychecks.
I thought that the scenes with the German zeppelin were equal to the dogfights in the air. Hughes shows the inner workings of the zeppelin in great detail. It is not often that you get to see a zeppelin so close up on the inside much less in any film, period.
Because "Hell Angels" was started in 1927, just as sound came out, it is a kind of hybrid movie. Obviously some scenes were shot silent and sound later added. There are silent film captions to be seen intermittently in the film. These would not be put in like this had this movie been made in a future year. Some habits were hard to break. Originally a foreign actress with a heavy accent was slated to play Helen, but when the film became a talkie that was it for her. Jean Harlow was the actress's replacement.
The DVD of "Hell's Angels" does not come with any frills. The DVD is full frame as most movies were in 1930. The soundtrack is dolby digital mono. The picture quality and sound quality are very good. This print was restored by the UCLA Film And Television Archive. There is a slight background hiss.
"Hell's Angels" is a great movie that was ahead of it's time in many ways. Check out the unhappy ending. I would give this movie four stars out of five. Occasionally some scenes play hokey, but that was the time period.