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HELL’S ANGELS(directors: Howard Hughes/James Whale; screenwriters: Harry Behn/Howard Estabrook/Joseph Moncure March/from a story by March and Marshall Neilan; cinematographers: Tony Gaudio/Elmer Dyer/Harry Perry/E. Burton Steene/Dewey Wrigley/Harry Zech; editors: Douglass Biggs/Frank Lawrence/Perry Hollingsworth; music: Hugo Riesenfeld; cast: Ben Lyon (Monte Rutledge), James Hall (Roy Rutledge), Jean Harlow (Helen), John Darrow (Karl Armstedt), Lucien Prival (Baron von Kranz/General), Frank Clarke (Lt. Von Bruen), Roy Wilson (Baldy Maloney); Runtime: 127; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Howard Hughes; United Artists; 1930)
“Though the film was better than could be expected, it was still done in by its uninteresting love triangle story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Texas tycoon Howard Hughes’ entrance to Hollywood as a filmmaker results in an action-packed airplane film that started out as a silent and then was altered to be a talkie to keep up with the new technology. It took three years to film and a number of directors were signed on at various stages of filming to aid the green Hughes, they included Luther Reed, Edmund Goulding, Marshall Neilan, Howard Hawks and James Whale (hired on as dialogue coach for Jean Harlow, but actually directed a good part of the film). Hughes poured a fortune into the production (projected to be $4,000,000), hoping to make the best flying movie ever (better than Oscar winner for best picture Wings-1927). Though the film was better than could be expected, it was still done in by its uninteresting love triangle story, risible dialogue and its lavish but cheesy circus-like production values. Its action scenes are what give the film a lift. They include a Zeppelin raid on London and a spectacular WW I dogfight with as many as thirty planes. There’s also the launching of the career of the young American actress Jean Harlow (who replaced the heavy accented Norwegian actress Greta Nissen when the film became a talkie). Harlow stars as the floozie who is miscast as a Brit and though disappointing the directors with her limited ability, has one of the most memorable lines in film when she asks co-star Ben Lyon if he would be shocked if she slipped into “something more comfortable.”

It opens in Munich, just before the First World War, with idealistic Oxford student Roy Rutledge (James Hall) visiting his German classmate Karl Arnstedt (John Darrow), along with his hedonist brother Monte Rutledge (Ben Lyon). The two Brit brothers are played by Americans, who never convince they are Brits. Monte is caught having an affair with the wife of the Baron von Kranz (Lucien Prival) and is challenged to a duel, but the cowardly Monte flees the country and his place is taken by his stand-up brother. Roy is wounded in the duel.

With the outbreak of war, Karl is called into the German army and flies a German Zeppelin that targets Trafalgar Square. The English brothers quit Oxford to sign up for the British Royal Air Force. The sexy but untrustworthy teenager Helen (Jean Harlow) meets her soulmate Monte while soused in a bar, and they hit it off. Roy also pines for her.

In France, the brothers fly a captured German plane on a risky mission to bomb a munitions dump and have success. Later their plane is shot down, and they are captured and questioned. A German general, the same one Monty cuckolded in a civilian life, offers to spare their lives if they tell of the British plans. Monty is willing to do so, but Roy has to shoot his brother in order to stop him from blabbing. The Germans then execute Roy by a firing squad. His noble deed allows the Brits to attack the Germans.

The indulgent, slow-moving, lethargic war story becomes reduced to a study of the brothers and their different character traits. Its melodramatics are cornball, but those aerial scenes are first-rate. The film was very popular, but still couldn’t bring in a profit due to its high costs.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”