Enjoyable if familiar military bromance, bolstered by an agreeably tough-guy tone and first-rate early aviation footage. Warner Bros.' Archive Collection line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released Hell Divers, the 1931 actioner from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, starring Wallace Beery, Clark Gable, Conrad Nagel, Dorothy Jordan, Marjorie Rambeau, Marie Prevost, Cliff Edwards, and John Miljan. Thin on plot, but thick with Beery's and Gable's battling frenemies shtick--as well as copious amounts of Curtiss F8C-5 Helldivers air porn--Hell Divers should satisfy completist fans of the stars and aviation/war movie buffs. An original trailer is included in this good fullscreen black and white transfer.
Veteran blustering hardhead United States Navy Chief Petty Officer "Windy" Riker (Wallace Beery) used to be Fighting Squadron One's best aerial machine gunner...until younger, handsome, cocky Steve Nelson (Clark Gable) came aboard the USS Saratoga and unapologetically took the title away from the outraged C.P.O.. Windy, known to use his fists to keep order, is no stranger to trouble, having just wrecked a Turkish bath on liberty--an offense that his sympathetic skipper, Captain Jack Griffin (John Miljan), has "fixed," since Windy is needed for an upcoming critical dive bombing maneuver. However, Nelson KOs Windy in that practice run, too, when Steve bravely hangs outside the plane, holding on to a stuck bomb that could have blown up the whole airfield. Adding insult to injury, Steve then contradicts Windy when explanations for the failed ornament are asked for by the C.O.. Of course this means war, so Windy exacts his revenge on Steve when he asks good-time gal Lulu (Marie Prevost) to pretend she's Steve's jilted lover...in front of Steve's real-life fiance, Ann Mitchell (Dorothy Jordan)--a practical joke that breaks up the young couple. When Captain Griffin loses his arm in a training exercise, second-in-command Duke Johnson (Conrad Nagel) takes over the squadron, giving Windy plenty of leeway as a personal favor to departing Griffin. However, not even his patience, or the calming influence of Mame Kelsey (Marjorie Rambeau), who runs a bar and hotel in Panama (the Saratoga's next port-of-call ) can keep the fractious Windy from getting busted down a grade, with Steve taking over as Chief. Good thing, though, that Windy's up in the clouds when Steve's and pilot Johnson's plane cracks up in mid-air.
Written and re-written and worked on by a slew of writers, Metro-style (U.S.N. Lieutenant Commander Frank Wead's story was adapted by Charles MacArthur and Edward Dean Sullivan, with James K. McGuinness and Ralph Graves contributing additional dialogue to credited Harvey Gates' and Malcolm Stuart Boylan's script), Hell Divers was already thoroughly warmed-over hash back in '31, with Raoul Walsh's smash 1926 hit What Price Glory? seeming to be the main dramatic template. So, Hell Divers' familiar story of two hard-fisted lugs fighting and brawling before falling into each others' arms (figuratively speaking, of course) certainly shouldn't surprise anyone today after decades and decades of similarly re-fashioned military melodramas. Completely enjoyable (and not at all thematically challenging) in that instantly recognizable early 30s "scrappy-but-loveable American tough guys" comic book aesthetic that Hollywood effortlessly promoted, Hell Divers' resolve in sticking to its fast-moving story while ignoring any potential character subtleties, is admirable in its relentless melodramatic simplicity. Audiences in '31 already knew where this was going to go...so why clutter it up with a lot of fussy nonsense about shaded characters or any potentially uncomfortable realities of life in the peacetime Navy? Just get with the dramatic boilerplate (with the action-crammed airplane sequences to add some diversion and distinction), and tell the story your audience already anticipates.
As an added bonus from historical hindsight, Hell Divers can now be read as an amusingly prescient account of Beery's and Gable's soon-to-play-out career trajectories. Like his character Windy and his position as the top machine gunner in Fighting Squadron One, Wallace Beery was top (male) dog at Metro in '31, when starrers like Min and Bill, The Big House, and his Oscar-winning role in '31's The Champ pushed the unlikely character actor into the top box office ranks. And like his cocky, confident upstart character Steve Nelson, Clark Gable had in a remarkably short period of time worked his way up from bit Metro player to supporting actor to breakout star, with the public success of Hell Divers being a key movie in that progression. Beery would continue to best Gable in the first two (1932 and 33) highly-publicized Quigley yearly polls of the Top Ten box office stars, before Gable bettered the veteran in 1934 and 1935--the last year Berry made the list except for a brief return in 1940...while Gable stayed on it without a break for an additional nine years. According to most accounts, Gable resented not only being billed below Beery in Hell Divers, but also being in any kind of proximity at all with the famously difficult Beery. And that tension shows up in the movie.
You can tell the actors really don't like each other, which gives their scenes together a bit of unexpected grit--particularly Gable, whose contemptuous sneering at the soon-to-be-passed Beery seems real. Beery does his usual "bashful, awkward, loveable little boy transformed into a lumbering, violent ox and back again" routine, and it's amusing...if one-note and synthetic, and thus quickly played out (does anyone even remember Beery today, except for hard-core movie fans?), while Gable instantly pops off the screen, more than holding his own with the studio's biggest male star at the time. There's an arrogant confidence to his poking and prodding and derision at Beery's character (and no doubt Beery himself) that speaks volumes for why Gable was such an instant success with audiences: he's a man, not a buffoonish character like Beery; a tough guy with a steely glint and a no-bullsh*t demeanor who doesn't have to rely on something like Beery's deliberately fumbling "little boy/out of control ape" shtick to get across a version of hardscrabble American Depression maleness that men wanted to be, and women wanted to be with. While the screenwriters are constantly coming up with plot points that let us know boorish Beery is really an okay Joe at heart, no such amelioration is needed for Gable's competent, unapologetic hardass.
Nor is there any attempt by director George W. Hill, thankfully, to make excuses for the multitude of aerial "combat" shots (practice runs and maneuvers necessarily here, since '31 was peacetime for the U.S.) that permeate Hell Divers. Photographed in scintillatingly graphic style by renowned aerial cinematographer Charles A. Marshall, the flying sequences in Hell Drivers still manage to impress today, with a wild, manic, free-for-all feel to the footage of the actual Curtiss F8C-5 Helldivers in action. The opening shots of the planes dogfighting with camera-mounted machines guns looks pretty hairy at times, while several remarkable plane-mounted shots show the aircraft taking off and coming in to land--all in single takes--on the seemingly incredibly small flight deck of the Saratoga (there's also a pretty amazing shot of Gable taxiing in on the wing of a plane, while holding onto a suspended bomb--still a dangerous stunt). Even the special effects and miniatures aren't too bad considering the time frame (sure you can see the blimps hanging from piano wire, but the mock-up process shot of Miljan trying to escape his free-falling wrecked plane is pretty cool). By the time Hell Divers winds down with its surprisingly gloomy (and rather grand) tragic ending, one feels like one has enjoyed a plain and unassuming--but substantial and satisfying--meal.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.