Hell’s Angels (1930) Review

Hell’s Angels (1930) Director: Howard Hughes

“Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?”

★★★☆☆

Watching these early war films has been illuminating for me. Hell’s Angels is Howard Hughes’s budget-busting film which landed 18 year-old Jean Harlow her first major role in a film. At the time, Hell’s Angels was the costliest film to hit the screen until the release of Gone With The Wind (it ikely boasted expenses of $2-$4M, though no one truly knows the total cost). Hell’s Angels was one of the more popular films of the early 1930s, however despite its popularity and high cost of production, it never made much of a profit. In hindsight, the film has been greatly overshadowed by other far superior war epics, like Wings or All Quiet on the Western Front. Interestingly enough, James Whale directed several scenes of dialogue in the film –Whale was the classic Universal horror director of such films as Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

Hell’s Angels tells the story of two English brothers, Roy (James Hall) and Monte (Ben Lyon), who depart from their hometown in order to fight in World War I. However, Monte, the lazier pleasure-seeking brother, doesn’t exactly volunteer his efforts in the war. At the outset, Monte is challenged to a duel for having an affair with a German officer’s wife, he flees the scene but his brother Roy is mistaken for Monte the next day and is shot in the arm in the duel. While in the British Royal Flying Corps, Roy falls in love with with a sensual and seemingly loose femme fatale, Helen (Jean Harlow). However, one night at a dance she persuades Monte, not Roy, to take her home and she seduces him with a famous line: “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?” Later, Monte feels remorseful for cheating behind his brother’s back.

The film has some remarkable scenes of a German zeppelin before and after it comes crashing to the ground, as we see the burning fires and the suicidal officers leaping their death. It also contains impressive aerial footage reminiscent of Wings (1925) –notably two pilots died during filming as the characters Roy and Monte themselves narrowly survive a crash-landing. Back in France, Monte is branded a coward, and thus he and Roy volunteer for a suicide mission to prove themselves. Their mission winds up being a success but they are shot down by the Red Baron, and captured in Germany. Monte agrees to talk to the Germans, but to prevent this, Roy convinces the German officer to give him a gun and he promptly shoots Monte in the back. The film ends after Roy is also executed by the Germans –a dark and tragic fate for these two brothers.

This whole project was the vision of eccentric Hollywood icon, Howard Hughes, who kept rapidly revising his directions to staff throughout production, including originally intending for the film to be a silent movie, but after the advent of The Jazz Singer, he incorporated new forms sound technology and re-shot entire scenes. Hughes, himself, was badly injured in a very dangerous aerial stunt that closed out the film. He fractured his skull in the incident. He later attempted to buy all available aircraft for war films in order to prevent or delay a competitor film, the release of The Dawn Patrol, another war film released that same year. When the idea failed, Hughes brought a lawsuit against the film in an attempt to slow down production, however this actually sped up their film and The Dawn Patrol was actually released before Hell’s Angels. 

Jean Harlow (1911-1937) “The Blond Bombshell” was one of the great Hollywood icons of the early 1930s. She was the predecessor to Marilyn Monroe (in fact, Monroe idolized Harlow). However, like so many others, Harlow was raised in a chaotic and abusive family. She dated a string of abusive middle-aged men, and she is believed to have been an alcoholic. She initially posed scandalously for postcards before she was discovered and featured in films by Howard Hughes. Apparently, Harlow was a bit of a superstitious person, and in fitting with her voluptuous personality, she never wore any underwear. She was married to Paul Bern, an MGM executive, for two months until he committed suicide in their home. She then tragically died in 1937 at the age of 26. When she was young, she had contracted scarlet fever and a series of other diseases including influenza along with the side-effects of a severe sunburn. Additionally, her hair coloring had been slowly poisoning her head such that her hair began falling out. Her kidneys ultimately failed her after years of alcohol abuse. She appeared notably fatigued while completing Saratoga, a film with fellow star Clark Gable which was released shortly after her death.