Movie Review: Hell’s Angels (1930)
“The first multi-million dollars talking picture — tremendous in size — shocking in its relentless realism.”
Hell’s Angels (1930)
Director: Howard Hughes
Cast: Ben Lyon, James Hall, Jean Harlow
Synopsis: Two brothers become entangled with a femme fatale while flying with the Royal Flying Corps during WWI.
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Hell’s Angels is a movie typical of the excessive obsessions of its mercurial co-director (with Edmund Goulding and James Whale, both of whom were uncredited) and producer, Howard Hughes. Filmed as a silent movie in 1928 with Norwegian actress Greta Nissen in the role later taken by Jean Harlow (Riffraff, Saratoga), Hughes re-filmed the movie as a talkie, and it would be two years after filming wrapped before the film would see the light of day. Three pilots lost their lives during the making of the film, and Hughes was hospitalised after crashing the plane he was piloting for one of the film’s combat scenes. Finally released in the States on 24th May 1930, Hell’s Angels made $8 million, approximately double its production costs.
The story revolves around two brothers played by forgotten leading men James Hall and Ben Lyon. Ironically, Hall, who plays Roy, the more conscientious of the two brothers, was something of a hell-raiser whose career was over within two years of the release of Hell’s Angels, and who would die of cirrhosis of the liver in 1940; although Ben Lyons’ career would endure into the ‘40s, his name today is known only to the most knowledgeable of film buffs. The brothers’ divergent personalities are swiftly established in the film’s opening scenes in which ladies’ man Monte (Lyon) flees pre-WWI Germany and a duel with an army general whose wife he has been seeing, leaving the noble Roy to take his place. The brothers were in Germany visiting fellow Oxford University student, Karl (John Darrow), whose influence on the brothers’ story proves to be tangential after initially looking as if he’s shaping up to be a major character. Back in Blighty, Monte’s lack of moral fibre is emphasised even further when he sleeps with his brother’s flighty girlfriend, Helen (Harlow). At least, while Helen’s purring happily by his side, Monte has conscience enough to feel wretchedly guilty about what he’s done.
The outbreak of hostilities spells the end of the brothers’ friendship with Karl, who is called home to serve his country, and is also the signal for the 18-year-old Harlow, who exudes a loose-limbed sexuality she’d be forced to subdue when the Production Code came into full force, to take something of a back seat while the men set about the manly business of war. Roy and Monte both join the Royal Flying Corps, and director Howard Hughes is so keen to get them in the skies above the battlefields of France that their training is dealt with in just one scene. It’s in the air that Hell’s Angels is at its strongest, and the technical expertise evident in the scenes of aerial combat is in stark contrast to the rather clumsy melodramatics taking place on terra firma. The visceral energy in these sequences is electrifying, but it’s not just in the combat scenes that the movie excels; a technicolor shot of a distressed zeppelin falling to earth in flames after most of its crew has sacrificed their lives in a failed attempt to lighten its load enough to lift it above the range of British planes has a terrifying beauty about it that is truly mesmerising; similarly, a bombardment of a strategically significant target by the brothers filmed from the cockpit of their plane is immeasurably more powerful than anything even the most expensive CGI can achieve. Ironically, the giddy heights of that sequence lead directly to an improbable reunion with that cuckolded German general, whose greeting of “Ah so, we meet again” is typical of the film’s second-rate dialogue.
Given the care and money that was lavished upon it, Hell’s Angels really should have been a classic. The fact that it is today regarded as, at best, a minor classic is largely down to the poor screenplay, the quality of acting from some performers who were clearly struggling with the transition to sound, and a melodramatic finale featuring a protracted death scene that borders on the comical. It’s an enjoyable watch, though, and worth seeing for the technical brilliance of those aerial sequences alone.
(Reviewed 19th November 2016)