Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Hell's Angels started as a silent film and took so long to make, it had to be largely reshot
when talkies came in. It was easily one of the most expensive films of
its era. Aviation and tool works magnate Howard Hughes produced it as a pet project about his
favorite subjects, flying and womanizing. The story is unusually violent, racy and profane, even
for a pre-code talkie. And it introduced to the silver screen the sex sensation of the 1930s,
Presenting a sterling transfer of the UCLA Film Archive's restored version, this DVD
resurrects a reel of two-strip technicolor that includes the only color footage ever
shot of Jean Harlow ... and her hair really is platinum blonde.
Prewar Germany. After seducing a German officers' wife, the wayward Monte Rutledge (Ben Lyon)
weasels out of a duel of honor. His ethical brother Roy (James Hall) secretly takes his place. Surviving,
Roy rejoins Monte at Oxford and is unaware that Monte is making moves on his new girlfriend, the
beautiful Helen (Jean Harlow, billed originally as Harlowe). War breaks out and the brothers' German
friend Karl (John Darrow) is repatriated to fly dirigible raids over London. Both brothers join
the RAF for different reasons and are soon in France flying suicidal raids over enemy territory.
The main reason for Hell's Angels' popularity is the spectacular flying filmed and
re-filmed for years by Howard Hughes. Paramount's Wings had shown
exciting aerial combat but it pales in comparison to Hughes' two major flying sequences, which made
a minimal use of special effects and miniatures. Almost all the aerial scenes including star
closeups were shot while aloft and the realism is at times stunning. Thirty or forty biplanes
careen through the sky in one close combat sequence. Hughes' flyers
were a rough bunch of veterans eager to make big money and just as eager to prove their stuff on
camera. Many shots look as though the pilots were taking some heavy risks.
The first flying scene is a giddy combination of expert special effects and anti-Hun sadism. Pacifist
good-German Karl is the bombardier on a dirigible crewed by Kaiser fanatics. He misdirects their
bombs away from Trafalgar square and into a lake. When the RAF closes in the German commander
lightens ship by sacrificing his crew, ordering them to jump to their deaths. It's a disturbing and
macabre scene. I'm given to understand that the main dirigible model was built on a vast scale, and
when it explodes (in crimson tints) the effect is staggering. It really looks huge.
Hell's Angels also gave Hughes an excuse to rebuild a German Gotha biplane bomber for the
final battle. It's actually James Hall strapped into the open-air gun position up front, in what has
to have been the most dangerous acting assignment of the era.
Self-styled tough guy Howard Hughes had his writers concoct a story with plenty of his favorite
subject matter, loose women and battling male egos. Everywhere the student heroes go there are
willing barmaids and society wives to seduce, until the brothers finally come up against the blonde
bombshell herself. Jean Harlow is ludicrous as an English socialite but we soon ignore her
accent in favor of watching her slink around in skimpy costumes; she's pre-code glory all
the way. For Hughes, women were unreliable playthings and Harlow's Helen exists only to humiliate
one brother and reject the other. Just when we think she will be redeemed and the lovers reconciled,
she opts for big-time harlotry in a petting party with a drunken British officer. The boys have to
make do with other good-time girls.
The language is pretty raw as well. The flyers shout very atypical dialogue from plane to plane: "Jesus
Christ!" and "You son of a bitch!" Hughes apparently could ignore the censors, something he couldn't repeat
for his next filmic outing The Outlaw, which also took years to film.
The film has some interesting politics. The war is seen as a hypocritical travesty and Hughes seems
to agree with a street agitator that it is folly to fight in a war that is really about
the profits of capitalists. The soapbox orator is labeled an anarchist and beaten by the crowd. But
that line of reasoning is later adopted by the "bad" brother Monte and equated with plain cowardice.
The only true love and loyalty in the movie is represented by "good" brother Roy; he selflessly takes
Monte's sins upon himself until the very end. Compared to the romantic excesses of later stories
like The Dawn Patrol, Hell's Angels is hardboiled to the extreme. Captured by the
sinister Germans and accused as spies, the brothers' fate is not sentimentalized.
When sound came in in mid-production Hughes scrapped the entire dramatic side of his story and had it
reshot with spoken dialogue. Some silent intertitles are still there to translate the German in
the dirigible sequence. James Whale was brought in to "stage" the dialogue scenes but the experts
say that he basically directed them as well. An English evening dance party was also
re-filmed in two-strip Technicolor.
Jean Harlow was a last-minute replacement for a silent actress with a heavy foreign accent. You can't
say that she is a good actress but she's certainly the shape of things to come. A full-blown screen goddess
in the modern mode, Harlow's sexual attraction hasn't dated a bit and she set the standard for what
could be gotten away with in the pre-code era.
Universal's budget DVD of Hell's Angels is probably timed to coincide with the Martin Scorsese
film The Aviator. The encoding and audio are particularly good. The film's original mix
makes it hard to hear the shouted words over the roaring airplane engines, and this is the first
time I could understand all of the dialogue.
The restored image is unusually good with the Technicolor scene retaining the limited, muted palettte of
hues. The movie even has its original intermission card accompanied by a brief musical track - that
probably accounts for the running time being upped from 127 minutes to 131.
There are no extras. The package is excitingly illustrated but the copy text misrepresents the story
as being about three men competing for the attentions of Harlow.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hell's Angels rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 30, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson